Catholic nuns in a healing protest in Manila on November 5, 2017. Catholic bishops led thousands of Philippine worshippers in calling for an end to killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war as they urged police and troops to stop the violence. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Last year, when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs reached a violent crescendo, several influential Catholic clergy members raised questions about the lethal campaign’s morality.

The holy criticism represented a potential turning of the tide against his administration considering the church’s prominent position in the Catholic-majority nation and past role in bringing down leaders who abused their elected power.

But a recent shift at the top of the clergy’s hierarchy seems to signal improved church-state relations in the years ahead.

On December 1, Archbishop Romulo Valles of the Archdiocese of Davao, Duterte’s hometown, assumed the leadership of the influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

Duterte and Valles are known to be personal friends, though the populist leader who served as Davao City’s mayor for over two decades is not known to have had any direct influence on his selection.

Valles succeeded Archbishop Socrates Villegas of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan north of Manila. Villegas, a protégé of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, the moral authority icon of the 1986 ‘People’s Power’ street movement that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos, had been a major thorn in Duterte’s side.

Relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings show portraits of their loved ones during a Catholic mass at the EDSA Shrine in Pasig, metro Manila, November 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

Villegas was the target of several of Duterte’s expletive-laced broadsides against the church, mostly in retort to criticism of his anti-narcotics campaign. The bishop noted poignantly that the victims hailed mostly from the nation’s poor slum communities.

Duterte has also lambasted other Catholic bishops and priests who criticized him for cursing, womanizing and allegedly tolerating extra-judicial killings of drug suspects, including children.

Duterte famously countered by accusing the clergy of corruption and sexual abuse of minors, claiming in one instance that he himself was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child during a confession. He said in media interviews that the experience had shaped his character, politics and worldview.

That criticism, however, has been muted since Valles, the archbishop of Davao City since 2012, was installed last month as CBCP president. Many believe the two sides could quickly come to a new accommodation under Valles, who led the ecumenical prayers at Duterte’s presidential inauguration on June 30, 2016.

“That as (Duterte) does his duties in fear of you, you will keep harm away from him, that you will use him for your holy and loving purpose alone, that he will have great understanding of your commands,” the prelate prayed on the occasion referring to God.

At least 80% of the Philippine population is Catholic.

President Rodrigo Duterte weeps as he comforts family members of fire victims in Davao city in Philippines, December 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Presidential Palace

To be sure, Valles rose to the CBCP’s presidency with the trust of the council in a state where separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution. By tradition, the CBCP elects its vice president, which Valles’ served as for two consecutive terms, as the next president of the 72-year-old collegial body of bishops.

Malacanang, the presidential palace, stated at the start of his two-year stint last month that it signaled “a new day of peace for a multi-cultural Philippines.”

The presidential statement also expressed hope Valles’ appointment would herald “a more open dialogue and cooperation with the government, especially in working for the poor and the marginalized.”

Reciprocally, the CBCP under Valles has taken a notably softer tone towards the government. His four statements, including on Catholic church scandals, two deadly typhoons and a national new year prayer for hope, have all spared Duterte of any criticism.

That represents a significant turn. On November 5, when the previous CBCP leadership organized a “Heal our Land Sunday” at the historic EDSA area of the capital to condemn drug-related killings nationwide, Valles described the deaths as “terrible.”

Police officers investigating the death of an alleged drug dealer, his face covered with packing tape in Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis 

But instead of merely condemning the extra-judicial killings, Valles urged the public to “inspire the police to adhere to the rule of law,” noting the country did not realize the enormity of the drug problem until Duterte became president.

Valles had already helped to smooth over the tough-talking president’s rough edges. On the campaign trail, Duterte alienated many when he referred to Pope Francis as a “son of a whore” for causing heavy traffic during his visit to Manila in January 2015.

Duterte later approached Valles and asked him to send a letter of apology to the Pope, who eventually forgave the Filipino leader known for his habitual swearing. The president has also tried (but failed) to heed Valles’ advise to temper his cursing, promising to donate 1,000 pesos to charity for every expletive he hurls.

Valles also officiated the baptism of Duterte’s grandson in Davao City in March 2017, an event attended by the First Family and their closest friends. Valles is also connected to Malacanang through Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, a former priest and mayor of Valles’ hometown of Maribojoc in Bohol province who ran Duterte’s successful presidential campaign.

If CBCP tradition is followed, Valles could serve for four years, or until November 30, 2021, since incumbent officials are usually reelected for a second and last two-year term.

Residents and protesters hold lighted candles at the wake of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student among the people shot dead in the war on drugs. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Duterte will remain in elected office, barring any major political convulsions or street actions, for one six-year term until mid-2022. It seems increasingly unlikely under Valles that past church-supported street rallies against Duterte will be given CBCP support.

Indeed, with Duterte and Valles’ open cordiality, CBCP leaders such as Father Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of the CBCP public affairs committee, are optimistic for better communication and relations between church and state.

However, Secillano is quick to add that the CBCP, which makes decisions collectively through a Permanent Council, will remain critical of the government on other issues including birth control, human rights and restoration of the death penalty. (Upon reimposing the death penalty, Duterte questioned the existence of God.)

Catholic Church criticism will likely extend to same-sex marriage, which Duterte expressed his support for in mid-December in an about-face that could become a point of heated contention if he follows through with enacting legislation.

“I said I am for (same) sex marriage if that is the trend of the modern times,” Duterte said at a meeting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Davao. “If that will add to your happiness, I am for it.”

Duterte had previously said he was opposed to gay unions because he felt marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

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