The Filipino bishops are standing up against Duterte. We should applaud them

Rodrigo Duterte (CNS)

The War on Drugs, presently being fought in the Philippines by President Duterte and his death squads, has now entered a new phase, as the New York Times reports. The Church has offered to give sanctuary and protection to those police officers who wish to act as whistle-blowers, and who have evidence of illegal actions by their colleagues.

As the chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, explains in a pastoral letter: “Law enforcers have come forward confidentially to us, their spiritual leaders, to seek sanctuary, succour and protection. They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participation in extrajudicial killings and summary executions. Their consciences are troubling them.”

Quite a lot is at stake in this matter. Here are a few observations.

First of all, the government, in embarking on a clearly illegal course of action, has issued a challenge to the credibility of the Church. If the Church were to say nothing about this, then it really could not claim to be an evangelical witness on this or indeed any other matter. The Church has to speak out, or be seen to fail. One cannot watch a spate of extrajudicial killings and summary executions (including that of several children) and say nothing. So, the current pastoral letter and the intervention it represents is not just the correct thing for the Church to do, it is the only thing or the Church to do.

As the New York Times reports, the Church is a powerful body in the Philippines, and has a history of taking on dysfunctional governments and winning. Again, this is an important role for the Church, and one it must fulfil in all countries were governments are chronically inefficient and corrupt and where civil society is weak. This too is part of the mission of the Church and its proclamation that a better society is possible.

The fact that the police are beginning to see the folly of Duterte’s war on drugs is highly significant. They are the ones who have to put the strategy, if it can be called that, into action. They must be aware of the potential for blowback. Not only do they risk being the targets of the drug gangs, they also risk, if indeed have not already lost, the confidence of the public. Their credibility as upholders of legality is already severely compromised. Hence the desire by some of them to reverse the current policy. It is hard to see how the President can continue in his war if he does not have the backing of the police. And if his much-vaunted war on drugs fails, what then?

Finally, all Catholics need to reflect. We are against drug taking, but is Duterte’s way the best way to minimise the harm done by drugs? Faced with the damage caused by drugs, should we turn to the moral evil of extrajudicial killings in order to overcome it? Or should we try something new? There must be a better way of dealing with this scourge. We could perhaps learn from the way we have dealt with tobacco and alcohol, where the attempt to minimise the harms done by both has been remarkably successful, without resorting to outlawing consumption or adopting illegal means to fight them.

Meanwhile, the Filipino bishops are to be commended for standing up for the rule of law, and for trying their best to support those who wish to bring the current anarchy in the Philippines to an end.