The communication gap between Duterte and the Church

The communication gap between Duterte and the Church

President Rodrigo Duterte. FILE PHOTO

MANILA – The Duterte administration and the Catholic Church in the country want the same things, they just can’t seem to speak the same language and capitalize on common ground.

This is how some serious Catholics perceive the ongoing royal rumble between the Philippine government and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, which finds its battle grounds on daily broadsheets and in the evening news.

“I think both the Church and Duterte are fighting for the same things, but the government believes in achieving that in a different way,” said former Filipinos for Life president Anthony James Perez.

Crafting its message

Since taking office, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has been at odds with the Catholic Church hierarchy, specifically on crucial issues that have been at the crux of headlines since his assumption to office in June 2016: extra-judicial killings, death penalty, lowering the age of criminal liability to 9-years old, among others.

“President Duterte is just…he’s the voice of the common people who are longing for justice for security. And the Church is not against that, but the Church is just reminding the people that the way towards prosperity and justice is through recognizing the sacredness of life first and foremost,” explained the former Salesian seminarian.

While the president is seen as a master communicator not least because of a directness and raw honesty that seems to channel the common man, the Church hierarchy, despite having one of the most outspoken presidents of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in recent years, Lingayen – Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, needs to fill out a communication gap that some think is more like a gnawing PR problem.

“The Church needs a carefully calculated and thought out messaging system,” said Perez.

For the seasoned pro-lifer, the problem is never about the content of the message but more about discerning “the most effective way of saying what needs to be said, and when is the most opportune time to do so.”

‘Testy’ relations

If Malacañang’s reaction to the CBCP’s succession of pastoral statements on the extra-judicial killings and the death penalty would be any barometer to gauge Church-state relations, it would read “chilly” at best, if not downright antagonistic.

Calling the Church “full of shit” just last month, Duterte seems to be emboldening top government officials to level sundry insults at the Church. Most recently, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, called the CBCP “out of touch” after the release of the CBCP statement on extra-judicial killings entitled “For I find no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies – oracle of the Lord God (Ezekiel 18:32)” on Feb. 5

More than 7,600 people have been killed since Duterte’s all out war on drugs seven months ago.

The relationship between the two, said CBCP Permanent Committee on Public Affairs (PCPA)executive secretary Fr. Jerome Secillano, MPA, is “testy”, to say the least.

“They couldn’t agree on what policy directions to take in addressing some of the most critical problems besetting our country. It is further aggravated by the President’s personal attacks against the Church’s hierarchy. The animosity is actually borne out of misguided impressions that have not been properly discussed and corrected,” said the priest.

According to Secillano, the Duterte administration thinks that the Church is against Duterte, oblivious to the fact that the CBCP was not any less vocal against abuses during the Aquino administration, notwithstanding the Aquino family’s close ties with CBCP president Villegas.

“…(S)ome in the Church think that this administration harbors anti-clerical or anti-church sentiments. It is not true that the Church is against Duterte. I guess, it is safe to say that the Church is merely critical of issues where human rights, justice, respect for life are of paramount concern,” added Secillano.

Below the belt

It would probably go without saying that the Church would speak out against any administration as long as issues affecting the people’s welfare is concerned, something which the Church in the Philippines has been known for, the bloodless EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986 being a case in point.

On the other hand, he said, it is a fact that “this administration is hitting the Church, even below the belt, for its perceived meddling in government’s affairs.”

Duterte even went so far as plugging the 2013 book Altar of Secrets by late journalist Aries Rufo on several scandals involving Filipino churchmen, ranging from fiscal dishonesty to the breaking of the celibacy vow.

While Secillano admits internal issues like sexual misconduct, corruption, “lousy homilists or administrators” usually push people to form negative opinions against the Church, the Church is still widely trusted and revered.

“I think, majority still trust the Church. The noise made by critics only gives us the impression that they are plenty, when in truth there are just a handful of them,” he said. (Nirva’ana Ella Delacruz/CBCPNews)