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‘Deliver us from evil’

/ 05:07 AM January 15, 2019

The country’s Catholic bishops must issue a strongly worded pastoral letter in vigorous defense of the Christian faith; this is something many Filipinos are waiting for and need to hear. President Duterte has doubled down on his attacks on the Church: Aside from his decontextualized criticism of the Church’s history of sexual abuse and his speculative accusations against courageous clergy, he has also taken to inciting violence against bishops and undermining Catholic doctrine.

The bishops, speaking loudly and in one voice, should defend the faith — and by extension the believers the President is preying on.

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What should the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines say, at the conclusion of their semi-annual assembly later this month? The Philippine conference may no longer have a Bishop Francisco Claver, who wrote some of its most powerful pastoral letters, but it still has many brilliant, gifted writers, with a sure grasp of theology and the pastoral experience that, to use Pope Francis’ rank phrase, truly smells of the sheep. They would know exactly what to say, if only they had the courage, the clarity of purpose, of shepherds resolved to fight off the wolves.

I do not see the bishops issuing a full-throated defense of their own persons, but they can usefully remind both President and public that the Christ who taught his followers to turn the other cheek is the same God who angrily chased the moneychangers from the temple.

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Like many others, I am particularly concerned about the President’s attacks on doctrine, on the substance of the Christian faith. Yes, the bishops must, yet again, acknowledge the scope of the sexual abuse that has consumed the Church and destroyed many lives; yes, the bishops must, all over again, profess the Church’s continuing commitment to fight the scourge of illegal drugs and to rehabilitate the addicted; yes, the bishops must, yet another time, preach the good news about human rights, civil liberties, and the inherent dignity of all men and women.

But they must also respond directly to the President. In his attacks on the faith, he has alternated between heresy, “the obstinate post-baptism denial” or “obstinate doubt” about “some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith,” and apostasy, “the total repudiation of the Christian faith” (from the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

One example. The President has heaped scorn on a central tenet of the faith, the death of Christ through crucifixion. He has often mocked the crucifix in his devout mother’s house; last month, he raised his mocking of the crucifixion to a new level. What kind of God dies on a cross, he asked. “Nakakawalang bilib (It’s unworthy of belief),” he said.

I hope the bishops can address this heresy squarely, not only because it is deeply offensive to one group of believers (imagine the President mocking central tenets of Islam, or mocking the beliefs of the Iglesia ni Cristo), but also because it goes to the core of Dutertismo: Mr. Duterte does not believe in redemption, in second chances.

The President said if he were in Christ’s place he would have hurled lightning bolts at his enemies — a comic-book understanding of power. But, as Paul wrote the people of Corinth, to those who do not believe, the true power of the cross is a stumbling block, a foolishness.

In one of his sermons, Augustine insightfully described the Christian cross as “muscipula diaboli” — a trap for the devil. “The Devil exulted when Christ died, and by this same death of Christ the Devil was conquered: as if he took the bait in a trap. He was rejoicing at the death, as if he were the commander of death. That at which he rejoiced was there stretched for him. A trap for the Devil — the cross of the Lord: the bait with which he was to be caught, the death of the Lord. And behold, our Lord Jesus Christ rose again. Where is the death that hung on the wood?”

This passage from the Catechism is equally moving: “It is precisely in the Passion, when the mercy of Christ is about to vanquish it, that sin most clearly manifests its violence and its many forms: unbelief, murderous hatred, shunning and mockery by the leaders and the people, Pilate’s cowardice and the cruelty of the soldiers, Judas’ betrayal (so bitter to Jesus), Peter’s denial and the disciples’ flight. However, at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world, the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly.”

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But beyond the powerful evocation of the Christian truths, the bishops’ pastoral letter must also still the anxiety of their sheep; it must remind them that, yes, their “stupid” God does show “the strength of his arm,” does “scatter the proud in their conceit.”

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: [email protected]

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