Catholic Church in Philippines faces intimidation and irrelevance under Duterte regime

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is losing its once substantial civic role as it faces growing secularism and an aggressively anti-Catholic president, writes Adam Willis in Commonweal magazine (February 22). While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s stringent war on drugs has brought the church into confrontation with the government over its abuses, it has not won the public’s respect for such activism. The institutional church has “been on the wane for years,” and Duterte has seized on its weakened state to demonize church leaders who have challenged his regime. Duterte has attacked Manila Bishop Pablo “Ambo” David for denouncing police tactics in the drug war, wielded the “clergy’s history of sexual impropriety and abuse as leverage,” alleged corruption in the church hierarchy and attacked Catholic teachings, with many Filipinos supporting him. After recently threatening Ambo, Duterte stoked violence against like-minded clerics, even calling on laypeople to kill them.

The animosity has been enough to move the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines into more active resistance against Duterte, recently staging a silent protest against the president’s hostilities to the church. Since December of 2017, three priests have been killed under mysterious circumstances, and 226 clerics have petitioned the government to carry firearms to protect themselves. Willis writes that Duterte is trying to dismantle the church’s moral influence and replace it with a new religiosity based on himself as a messianic savior of the country, dubbing himself “Saint Rodrigo.” Political scientist David Buckley adds that Duterte has no interest in coopting religious leaders as much as challenging their leadership. With tens of thousands killed and the justice system severely compromised, Willis writes that “the erosion of their traditional moral code has given rise to a new understanding of the value of human life” for Filipino Catholics, and there is a new drive to educate the consciences of the majority of Filipinos about a basic sense of good and bad.