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Why Duterte is good for the Church

I confess to raising an eyebrow at the disproportionate outrage of some fellow Catholics over the President’s attacks on our Church. More deserving of outrage than what he says about the Roman Catholic Church is what his administration is doing to the country: tens of thousands killed by police and unknown assailants; the dismantling of democratic institutions; the vilification and persecution of dissenters, human rights advocates and other activists.   Catholic outrage about these far more iniquitous developments has been limited to a few bishops and marginal groups of clergy, religious and laity.

I also confess to a perverse satisfaction each time the President ridicules the Church. Not because of his wit, which is far short of brilliant. Not because I agree with what he says; I admit some accusations are true, but as a Jesuit-educated and duly certified parish manang, I am firmly on the side of my flawed Church and its maligned clergy in this war on Catholicism.

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Some satisfaction comes from a sense of vindication: I would love to cast on Catholics who voted for him a look that says “I told you so.” But it also comes from the sense that my Church needed to be shaken. Too comfortable in its nominal majority, too preoccupied with its internal life and issues of sexual and reproductive morality, too removed from the poor, the Church is now forced to confront its sins, its failures in evangelization, and the pluralism of Philippine society.

Yet the Church can turn the President’s attacks into an opportunity for grace by reflecting on and correcting practices inconsistent with its ethics. The pastoral documents issued by the bishops in July 2018, after the President’s “stupid God” remark, are born of such reflection. In their pastoral exhortation “Rejoice and be glad,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines admits: “We are a Church of sinners called to conversion and holiness at the same time. We bow in shame when we hear of abuse being committed by some of our fellow Church leaders… We hold ourselves accountable for their actions, and accept our duty to correct them.” In his message “God is love,” Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan owns that the Church has “faults,” “mistakes and even crimes.”

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Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s letter to his clergy reminds them that the Second Vatican Council obliges Catholics to respect “those who do not believe in God”; that challenges to Catholic belief must be met by dialogue with challengers “sincerely searching for the truth”; and that more important than to defend the Church from criticism is to minister to the poor.

Still, I do not think the President’s attacks are fueled by a sincere search for truth. Besides his alleged bad experiences with priests, he also knows the Church can be a crucible for dissent and a powerful moral voice against government excesses. So he means to bully the Church into silence.

This strategy he gets from the Marcos playbook. The Marcos dictatorship deported missionaries and threatened to tax Catholic institutions and legalize divorce. Worse, it arrested, abducted and killed priests, religious and lay leaders.

But instead of subduing the Church, the Marcos strategy alienated many Catholics, driving them to the side of the persecuted. And so the Church joined the uprising against the dictatorship.

That history points to another opportunity for the Church to find grace in Mr. Duterte’s war on Catholicism. The attacks on the Church are awakening Catholics to the administration’s defects. The Church can refocus their attention on the administration’s graver sins, and rechannel the energy generated by their anger into more transformative action: the denunciation of its human rights violations and antidemocratic moves, the rejection of candidates who support these moves, the need to work in solidarity with those threatened and bereaved by its deathly policies.

Then Mr. Duterte would have strengthened the Church in its true mission: “to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

Eleanor R. Dionisio is a consultant of the Archdiocesan Institute for Research and Development, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila, and a proud member of the Public Affairs Ministry of Our Lady of Pentecost Parish, Diocese of Cubao.

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