President Rodrigo Duterte speaks in front of housewives and mothers, involved in the anti-illegal drugs campaign at Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga on December 22, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
President Rodrigo Duterte speaks in front of housewives and mothers, involved in the anti-illegal drugs campaign at Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga on December 22, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

At a recent meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the organization’s president Archbishop Socrates Villegas took to the podium. “Although death is a twin sister born with us on the same day we were born,” he said, “death by terror and violence, death in the hands of our fellowmen, is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.”

Villegas’ comments came just as President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial drug war was reaching fever pitch. At that time, in mid-September, it was estimated 2,500 people had been killed since Duterte’s inauguration on June 30. Many of the low-level drug users or dealers were murdered in extrajudicial fashion, either by vigilante groups or the police. The death toll in the widely criticized campaign is now believed to be as high as 6,000.

The Philippines is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, with an estimated 86% of the population belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. But Duterte has arguably given the church hierarchy pause for thought, witnessed in its so far tepid opposition to his state-sponsored killing spree prosecuted in the name of law and order.

Catholic clergy have claimed they are fearful for their lives if they oppose the strongman president too forcefully, as they told Reuters in an extensive report published in October. Other church leaders say their reticence is in line with the will of their flocks.

“The church is moderating its criticism over the war on drugs because it knows that Duterte is still very popular. How can you go against an 86% approval rating?” said Aries Arugay, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, citing recent poll figures.

Special Action Force members monitor the annual Black Nazarene Catholic religious procession in Manila, Philippines, January 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

But does the Catholic church have the authority or strength to go toe-to-toe with the president? Manuel Victor Sapitula, a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, told Asia Times that the church’s response to Duterte’s drug war lacks the “forcefulness that characterized the involvement of the Catholic church in social issues in the past.”

Catholicism has had a far-reaching influence on Philippine politics and society since Spanish colonizers introduced the religion in the 16th century.

The Catholic church and, in particular, the figure of Jaime Sin – best remembered by his ironical title, Cardinal Sin – was at the foreground of the fight against dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In 1986, it was indispensable to the “People Power” uprising that led to Marcos’ fall and the return of democracy. The church was also a prominent voice in the political protests that led to the peaceful overthrow of president Joseph Estrada in 2001, after he was accused of widespread corruption and embezzlement.

At the same time, the church lost some big battles in the 20th century. For instance, it failed in its opposition to the so-called Rizal Law, introduced in 1965, which mandated that all educational institutions teach courses on the celebrated Filipino writer and national independence hero José Rizal, whose writings often mocked the Catholic hierarchy.

But the clergy’s past influence as a source of moral authority over the country’s rough and tumble politics has waned over the last decade. The most visible example has been the debate over reproductive health and the Catholic church’s stubborn opposition to birth control despite a still high fertility rate.

Calls for a law to guarantee universal access to contraceptives, fertility control and sex education have been around for decades, but were stepped up in the early 2000s when a number of international aid organizations began to phase out their free contraceptives and fertility treatment programs across the country.

It is Duterte and his government that clearly is the loudest voice of secularism or progressive social policy in the country so far

Despite popular demands for the government to introduce legislation, Catholic pressure on former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who served in the role from 2001 until 2010, helped to keep prospective bills out of the House of Representatives. In January 2011, however, congressman Edcel Lagman tabled a bill, informally known as the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, which was eventually enacted in December 2012.

Steven Shirley, author of Guided By God: The Legacy of the Catholic Church in Philippine Politics, told media in 2013 that the law’s enactment was “a sign that the Philippines is becoming globalized, that the younger generation is opening up to other ideas beyond the church.” He said the law’s supporters had “been able to shoot down centuries of Catholic doctrine with just one bill.”

Archbishop Ramón Cabrera Arguelles, then president of the CBCP, even described the government’s promotion of the legislation as an “open war” on the Catholic church. If there is an “open war” between the Catholic hierarchy and forces of modernity, then Duterte has sided forcefully with the latter. “It is Duterte and his government that clearly is the loudest voice of secularism or progressive social policy in the country so far,” said Arugay.

President Rodrigo Duterte speaks upon his arrival at Davao International Airport. Photo: Reuters/Lean Daval Jr

Duterte’s relationship with the Catholic church was fraught well before he assumed the presidency. He has claimed to have been sexually abused by a priest as a child, an alleged crime he says has shaped his view of the church. On the campaign trail, he called bishops “sons of whores” and threatened to expose clergy allegedly guilty of corruption, womanizing and sexual abuse. He has referred to himself in media reports as a “realist Christian.”

Since taking power Duterte has sustained previous president Benigno Aquino’s campaign for reproductive rights. This month, for example, he ordered government agencies to distribute free contraceptives to six million women, describing the provision as “pro-life, pro-women, pro-children, and pro-economic development.”

It remains unclear, however, whether the program can be legally implemented in light of a Supreme Court decision in 2015 that put a temporary restraining order on the Department of Health, prohibiting it from “procuring, selling, distributing, dispensing and administering, advertising, and promoting” contraceptives.

Despite their differences, Duterte and the Catholic church are fighting for the loyalty of the same masses, said Arugay. “Given their conflicting values and principles, it seems that Duterte has the advantage” for now, he said. “The question is: can a strong, larger than life, single person match the power of an entire social institution [which] has occupied an eminent place in the country’s political landscape?”

While the suggestion that political Catholicism is dead, or dying, in the Philippines may be premature, the clergy is certainly on a back foot. If Duterte eventually becomes unpopular, as academic Arugay suggests, then the church would likely step up its moral opposition against his alleged abuses. “Institutions outlast personalities and the church is one of the most enduring institutions in the country,” said Arugay. “It might be dormant or in retreat, but its not completely out of the political arena.”

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