Duterte’s unwarranted bile toward the Church
President Duterte’s tirades against the Catholic Church and its clergy have increased in frequency over the past eight weeks. From blurting out a line or two once or twice a month in his earlier years, Mr. Duterte has commented on priests publicly on at least nine occasions from Feb. 8 to March 17. But while such comments have come out more often, they evince no greater clarity, depth or eloquence.
The President, who claims to have been abused by a Jesuit priest as a teenager in Ateneo de Davao University, made suggestions to “allow priests to marry… [and] if the priest is gay, then he should be allowed to engage in same-sex marriage”; threatened to take bishops hostage and that, if they fought back, they should be killed; and then made backflips and somersaults, as he and his office took back the threats and tried to downplay the President’s words as yet more hyperbole and expressions of frustration.
Most recently, our runaway train of a Chief Executive verbally attacked Bishop Pablo Virgilio David’s deceased mother at a proclamation rally for a mayoral candidate in Pampanga. Bishop David issued a statement deploring the President’s words and standing up for the integrity of his mother, Bienvenida Siongco David, though he didn’t need to. Any Filipino would know that no responsible public official in his or her right mind would go so low as to insult his enemy’s mother this way. But this is the kind of President the Philippines has at present, and this is the new normal under him.
For someone who claims to have grown up in the province — here in Mindanao, in the same towns and cities I roam — Mr. Duterte’s unlimited bile toward the Church seems unwarranted.
Historically, Mindanao has received little from the State, and the task of upholding order and holding communities together has largely been relegated to the Church.
During the Spanish colonization, as evidenced by the Manila Synod of 1582, the Catholic Church in the Philippines took to reforms in order to be more responsive to the needs of the colony — aligned, of course, with the intentions of imperial Spain. And throughout the American occupation, the functions that the government could not deliver were essentially fulfilled by the Catholic Church.
Even now, it’s the mayors and local political dynasties who meddle with, rather than spearhead, meaningful affairs here in the province. The Church takes the lead in many cases — a situation also true for other areas where the Church’s social network is much more accessible and responsive to the community’s needs.
So what’s eating our President? It appears that Mr. Duterte’s tirades against the Church have a more insidious aim. He wants to leash independent institutions capable of standing up to him, and consolidate power to himself. And in that mission, he knows that to intimidate and gag the Church would mark an important victory for him. His play is to counter his critics while feigning self-defense — hence his rationale that he attacks the Church only because it supposedly started the fight by criticizing his drug war and governance methods.
Here in the province where the government is hardly felt, those in the priestly vocation enjoy a certain autonomy, a moral ascendancy, in the community. When used properly, that sense of authority allows them to do great things for their flock. In the absence of genuine leaders in society and politics, priests are embraced by the communities they serve as their natural leaders and champions.
Sure, there are many violators and abusers among them, and these people should be lawfully prosecuted. But the war Mr. Duterte is waging indiscriminately against the Church and its workers is corrupt and disproportionate. There is so much more the government can gain from working closely with an institution that is far more deeply embedded in the Filipino consciousness.
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DLS Pineda teaches at Father Saturnino Urios University, Butuan City. After finishing his undergraduate and master’s degrees in UP Diliman, he decided to reside in his father’s hometown in Agusan del Norte. Tweet @dlspineda.
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