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Duterte is exploiting the bishops’ relative weakness

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (Getty Images)

His rhetoric against the Church is increasingly violent, but the bishops have remained largely quiet

Last weekend the Philippines was engulfed by rumours that the country’s mercurial president, Rodrigo Duterte, had died. The 73-year-old had cancelled a public appearance in Palo, Leyte, last Friday citing illness. Then, for reasons that are as yet unclear, news of his death spread. On Sunday, Duterte addressed the rumours in typically unconventional fashion: via a live video on Facebook. “For those,” he said, “who believe in the news that I passed away, then I request of you, please pray for the eternal repose of my soul.”

One could forgive Filipino Church leaders for not seeing the funny side. Ever since his election in 2016, Duterte has relentlessly goaded them while waging a “war on drugs” that has cost an estimated 20,000 lives. He has described the Catholic Church as “the most hypocritical institution” on earth, called God “stupid” and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity “silly”, and urged people to stop going to church.

Last July, Duterte agreed to a one-on-one meeting with Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, a family friend. But while the president apparently agreed to stop issuing inflammatory statements about the Church, he broke his promise almost immediately.

Then, in December, he made his most incendiary comments yet. Needled by Church criticism of his crackdown, he addressed the 81 per cent of the 105 million population who are Catholic. “These bishops that you guys have, kill them,” he said. “They are useless fools. All they do is criticise.”

The president’s spokesman swiftly denied that Duterte was literally calling for the murder of bishops. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines remained silent, as it had done since Duterte’s election. Yet last week, following the bombing of a cathedral in Jolo, in the province of Sulu, which left at least 18 people dead, the bishops snapped. Without naming Duterte, they said: “Freedom of expression does not include a licence to insult other people’s faith, especially our core beliefs … No amount of intimidation or even threat to our lives will make us give up our prophetic role, especially that of giving voice to the voiceless.”

But the president’s spokesman brushed aside the bishops’ concerns. Asked if Duterte’s rhetoric encouraged violence against the Church, he said: “Oh, definitely not.” The president’s barbs were aimed solely at corrupt clergy: “It helps in cleansing the institution,” the spokesman insisted. Besides, he added, the Jolo atrocity was clearly carried out by terrorists who regard Duterte as their deadliest enemy.

The president’s diatribes are no doubt partly inspired by righteous anger. He claims that an American Jesuit priest molested him when he was a teenager studying at the prestigious Ateneo de Davao University. That experience would account for his very dark view of the Catholic Church.

But his rage is not just about the past. It is also about the present. The bishops are the most prominent critics of the policy that secured his election: his no-holds-barred assault on the illegal drugs trade. The Church has noted – albeit rather timidly – that there are many innocent people among the thousands killed since 2016. Such criticism infuriates Duterte, who has frequently spoken of how he believes he is on a divine mission to punish drug dealers.

The problem for the bishops (and the reason for their timidity) is that Filipinos broadly support both Duterte and his war on drugs. Duterte’s popularity is illustrated by another bizarre incident that took place last Sunday: a Duterte impersonator (accompanied by a Kim Jong-un lookalike) was mobbed by well-wishers when he attended Mass at a church in Hong Kong popular with Filipinos. In other words, even Mass-goers are attracted to Duterte’s charismatic, shoot-from-hip persona. Therefore when the bishops speak out, they are expressing a minority view, and it is not difficult for Duterte to portray them as weak and out of touch. While the Philippines is undoubtedly one of the most Catholic nations on earth, Duterte has exposed the bishops’ relative weakness.

All that the Church can really do is await the end of Duterte’s rule (his term is expected to end in 2022). He is the oldest person to assume the presidency of the Philippines – it was perhaps for this reason that the rumours of his death spread so quickly. So the bishops need to start preparing for the post-Duterte era now, rebuilding their moral authority through unrelenting service of the poor.