It took seven months and over 7,000 Filipinos dead for the Catholic clergy as a collective to find its voice, finally, and denounce the “reign of terror” that has occurred under President Duterte’s war on drugs. The pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines read in all Saturday and Sunday Masses last weekend represents the first formal Church condemnation of the campaign that the administration and its supporters claim has made the streets safer, but which has also enormously eroded fundamental human rights norms.
The bishops do not mention Mr. Duterte by name, and makes a general call for “elected politicians to serve the common good of the people and not their own interests.” As for the drug problem and the administration’s announced solution for it, “[t]his traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome,” they said. “But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers. … To push drugs is a grave sin, as is killing except in self-defense. We cannot correct a wrong by doing another wrong. A good purpose is not a justification for using evil means.”
That’s about as strongly worded as the statement can get. It has none of the thundering judgment-from-heaven tones that the CBCP, then led by Jaime Cardinal Sin, employed in the wake of the 1986 snap election, when Ferdinand Marcos brazenly stole the vote from Corazon Aquino. The bishops denounced that election as “unparalleled in the fraudulence of [its] conduct,” and declared that Marcos had forfeited any legitimate right to rule. Some two weeks later, the dictatorship was gone, ousted through a people’s revolution that Sin helped spark with his call for ordinary citizens to mass by the millions on Edsa to protect soldiers defecting from Marcos.
That was the Church then—at the zenith of its power and influence in the country, looked upon as a bulwark of succor and protection against a brutal regime. But the death of the popular Sin, and the controversies in which the Church found itself in the years that followed, would steadily erode that standing. By the time of the infamous “Pajero bishops” episode during the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—who made a pointed effort to cotton up to certain bishops to get them as reliable defenders of her actions—the Church had become a joke to many, its frailties rendering it a compromised voice against iniquity in high places.
And so it appeared in the first months of Mr. Duterte’s incumbency, when the Church seemed timid and tongue-tied in the face of the alarming rise in extrajudicial killings targeting drug suspects. Mr. Duterte broke new ground by often railing against the Church, calling it corrupt and hypocritical and threatening to spill secrets about it that he claimed to know. That unprecedented bullying appears to have worked—for a time.
Now that the bishops appear to have found their voice, the same ad hominem argument is being trotted out. The churchmen are “hypocrites,” spluttered House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. “They’re out of touch,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella added.
Maybe they are—except that none of these and similar reactions to the CBCP statement address the urgent issue at hand. The bishops may be what government officials are saying they are, but that does not change one whit the stark reality against which they, and many other Filipinos, are protesting—the thousands of mostly impoverished citizens dead without due process and their kin crying for elementary justice, the “corrupt to the core” (Mr. Duterte’s own words) police force riddled with kidnappers and murderers, the environment of bloody impunity that seems to have been encouraged and abetted by this administration.
This state of affairs is wrong; the bishops are right to call it for what it is.