News Analysis

Why Duterte both insults and defends priests

Duterte: 'Lay off priests!' (CNS)

Rodrigo Duterte is arguably the most anti-clerical head of state in the world today. Since he was sworn in as president in June 2016, he has relentlessly assailed the clergy. He has claimed that second collections pay for priests’ illegitimate children, called bishops “sons of bitches” and even referred to the Pope as a “son of a whore”. (He later apologised.)

It’s not difficult to locate the source of his loathing. Duterte claims that he was molested by an American Jesuit priest as a student at the prestigious Ateneo de Davao University. When Pope Francis summoned bishops to Rome to address clerical abuse last month, the 73-year-old leader of the PDP–Laban party was quick to say: “I told you so.” He proposed various remedies for the crisis, including allowing priests to marry women – and each other. “That’s the solution to the problem,” he insisted.

Duterte’s aides tend to dismiss his comments about the Church as jokes. But they are not entirely convincing. The bishops are the most prominent critics of Duterte’s signature policy: his war on drugs, which has claimed an estimated 20,000 lives. Last December his anger seemed to boil over when he called the bishops “useless fools” who should be “killed”.

Yet late last month the man nicknamed the Punisher suddenly changed his tune. “Do not touch the priests, they have nothing to do with politics,” he said. “Lay off! Stop threatening them or you’ll have to deal with me.” The reason for this about-turn, according to ucanews.com, is that Duterte had learned that associates of his family had threatened outspoken priests and bishops.

His comments might have offered clergy some relief. But the very next day, Duterte launched another tirade, predicting that the Church would “disappear” within 25 years and taking yet another swipe at the clergy. “When they are aroused, they abuse nuns,” he said. “If they’re gay, they go to children. Who needs a religion like that?”