Duterte’s war against the Church
“KILL your bishops, they are useless fools. All they do is criticize.” This is what President Duterte told his audience in a speech in Malacañang on Dec. 5, 2018. He also said that 90 percent of priests are gay, and the Church should therefore not moralize. Earlier on, he falsely accused Bishop Pablo David of stealing from the Church’s offerings and suspected him of being an addict. He threatened that if he catches him involved in drugs, he will behead the bishop. In another speech, Duterte told Catholics to stop going to church and to instead, build their own chapels at home. Statements like these are unprecedented which no previous president in the Philippines or elsewhere in the world have ever done. These are statements that one does not expect from any sane government leader, not even in non-Christian countries, how much more in a great Catholic nation. No amount of spinning can justify this statement as just a joke. After inspiring the police and death squads to commit extrajudicial killings, Duterte is inciting people to murder bishops. This deserves condemnation and should be added to the complaint against him in the International Criminal Court.
It appears that Duterte has stepped up his war on the Catholic Church in the Philippines which he regards as the enemy. He already started doing this before being elected when he called Pope Francis “son of a whore” for the traffic caused during the papal visit in 2015. As president, he continued his tirade against the Church, calling her the most hypocritical institution that is “full of shit.” He vowed to destroy the Church by exposing the abuses of the clergy. At one time, he falsely accused Bishop Teodoro Bacani of having two wives. He declared that the Church will be irrelevant within thirty years. In several speeches, he declared that he doesn’t believe in the God of the Catholics—whom he called a “stupid God” due to the Bible’s creation story which he considers ridiculous. He has been distributing copies of the book “Altar of Secrets.” His attack on the Church appeared to take a violent turn when three priests were killed one after another, while one was wounded. Another priest was able to evade an assassination attempt. The president’s latest statement against Bishop David and other bishops indicate that the leaders of the Church, especially those critical against him are fair targets for assassination. Being a priest or bishop will not keep one safe from the death squads.
What has become obvious is that Duterte is waging a war against the Church. The question is why is he doing this? Many people believe that his controversial statements are simply a way of diverting the people’s attention from the real issues raised against him: the failed war on drugs—in spite of the extrajudicial killings that has reached more than 27,000 victims, the unchecked entry of tons of drugs into the country and the suspicion of the involvement of his own family, worsening poverty, rising prices, rampant corruption, the sell-out to China, the collapse of the peace process with the NDF, etc. His failure to address these problems has revealed his gross incompetence, greed, and brutality. Others would see his behavior and statements as signs of physical and mental illness worsened by drug abuse. He has admitted to using fentanyl—an opioid more addictive and powerful than heroin—and marijuana. Others would say he is just joking. Others believe that his hatred for the Church stems from adverse childhood experiences: of allegedly being molested by a priest and of being physically abused by his mother (who was very pious and close to priests and nuns).
Duterte’s war on the Church may also be traced to a mixture of fear and anger vis-a-vis the Church which he believes has the capacity to resist him and bring him down. This is based on his awareness that the Catholic Church played a vital role in bringing down the Marcos dictatorship and also the Estrada presidency. Since becoming president, the Church – through the CBCP and various religious groups—has criticized the culture of death, documented EJKs, provided assistance to families of victims, given sanctuary to witnesses, and assisted in the filing of complaints at the International Criminal Court. The CBCP came out with several statements critical of the extrajudicial killings and upholding the value of life. The latest CBCP statement of concern in support of Bishop David could have led him to urge Catholics to kill their bishops. Instead of just venting his ire on Bishop David he has widened his target. The threat of violence is meant to intimidate the leaders of the Church, to instill fear in their hearts so that they will remain silent and will not be a threat to his authoritarian rule.
How should the Church leaders and the vast majority of the faithful respond to these attacks against the Church?
There is no need to be afraid. The Lord has promised that no power on earth can destroy the Church. For the last two thousand years the Church has survived crises and persecutions, outliving kings and emperors who tried to destroy her.
In no way should this be seen as a struggle between the Church and State. The Church should not be seen as an institution defending its interest or asserting its power. It is not a question of which one is more powerful. The Church must be prepared to become a powerless, persecuted Church. It is time for Catholics to make a choice: to remain members of the Church or to obey the president (stop going to church, build your own chapel, kill your bishops) – in other words, join the Iglesia ni Duterte. The time for appeasing Duterte is over. Dialogue with someone who intends to destroy the Church is futile.
When it comes to cases of clerical abuse, the Church should not be defensive or engage in cover up. Those who are guilty of sexual abuse, financial anomalies, and corruption should be held accountable. The prosecution of these cases will not weaken the Church but rather purify and strengthen her. The Church should continue her mission as prophet and humble servant – speaking truth to power, promoting the Gospel values of the sacredness of life, of justice and peace and of compassion. The clergy should inspire the lay faithful to be actively involved in the defense of life and human rights, in the peaceful struggle against corruption and injustice, in the work for the common good and the transformation of society. The leaders of the Church, especially the bishops and priests, should be prepared to act as compassionate and courageous good shepherds, ready to offer their lives as they prevent the slaughter of the flock, especially the poor. They must be ready to embrace martyrdom if necessary.
Meanwhile, instead of engaging in a word war, the Church should just continue praying for Rodrigo Duterte—that he will repent and undergo conversion after finally listening to his conscience, that he will experience inner healing, that he will reconcile with the Church into which he was baptized, that he will become compassionate, that he will fulfill his promises, that he will make amends for whatever wrongs he has committed, that he will be ready to face judgment from either the International Criminal Court or the Divine Judge whom he called stupid. And when the time comes, let him rest in peace. Amen.