The political relationship between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the Roman Catholic Church is well known. Duterte does not like the Church’s unethical and nationally harmful political meddling nor did he like being the victim of abuse from clergymen as a child.
While every individual, including clergy has the right to express a political opinion in The Philippines, when an institution as wealthy and powerful as the Roman Catholic Church sees fit to play an obstructionist role in national politics, the institution ceases to be one concerned with the spiritual life of individuals and becomes one that is concerned with the political fate of the state – something which is not and cannot allowed to be its role. The Church’s meddling in politics is not only immoral but it is deeply regressive and anti-democratic.
Now after a string of priests were found dead in The Philippines, some are pointing the finger of blame at President Duterte himself. To put this in context, Duterte’s opponents whether in the Liberal Party opposition, the anti-Duterte media or the Catholic Church tend to blame Duterte not only for all their personal misfortunes but for anything sinister they come across through the course of their daily lives. The ousted former Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for example, continues to blame Duterte for the fact that she lost her prestigious job, even though in reality it was the other judges on the Supreme Court who voted to remove her. Likewise, when the controversial media outlet Rappler came under investigation due to a long standing Philippine Constitutional law prohibiting foreign individuals and entities from owning a controlling stake in a Philippine media company, its owners and witers blamed Duterte even though the authorities were merely enforcing a decades old law. These are the same people who want war with China but no war against crime – not exactly a sensible set of priorities among these unhinged Duterte bashers.
Against this background, Duterte has warned against mafioso style corruption within the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines. The President stated,
“You know, a priest is no better than me. There are priests who have two wives. The problem (with) these crazed (priests), they see themselves as all saints. On the other hand, the government, the police (and the military) are all evil, If you are a priest, and you have an affair with the wife of a soldier or a mayor, you will really die”.
Duterte went on to explain that when priests engage in adulterous relationships with married women and participate in other nefarious activities, one shouldn’t be surprised when vengeance is taken in the typical way. In this sense, Duterte was indicating that corrupt priests have no special protection against the kinds of behaviour taken by individuals who have been wronged.
Duterte stated that while he is not calling for the persecution of priests, nevertheless he and the Roman Catholic Church are “eternally at odds”. Duterte then revealed that he is in possession of classified documentation regarding the recent slaying of a priest, Father Mark Anthony Ventura. Duterte said that the information if made public would paint the Church in an extremely negative light. Duterte went on to state,
“We have (a dossier showing the reason why one of the priests was killed). I have a copy of it. But I suppressed that because that’s not good for the Catholic Church. It’s because it involves women. If the Catholic wants, I will release the matrix why the priest was killed. I’m only restraining myself. But I gave a copy to the chairman of CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines). But if that’s what Soc Villegas (the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) wants, I will release it”.
Here, Duterte is clearly demonstrating that he is willing to let a murky matter remain out of the public eye for the sake of not offending anyone’s sensibilities, but if these same people so ready to feign offence when challenged on their ethical record continue to level false accusations against Duterte, he will officially set the record straight, no matter who in the Church it embarrasses.
While many in the Catholic clergy continue to make increasingly outlandish accusations against Duterte, the Philippine President’s real war against the Catholic Church is not a war fought by violent means but one fought by the means of enacting policies which assert the authority of the secular government over the last major vestige of Spanish imperialism – the Catholic Church in The Philippines.
Duterte has never been shy about criticising the Roman Catholic Church. During his election campaign, Duterte stated,
“I will lecture until June 29 the sins of the Catholic Church and whether or not you are still relevant…..Let this election be a referendum between me and the Catholic church”.
In 2017, he said that Church leaders were “full of shit”. Duterte who himself was a victim of Church abuse has accused clergy of hypocrisy saying,
“You criticise the police, you criticise me. For what? You have the money. You are all crazy … when we were making confessions to you, we were being molested. They are touching us. What is your moral ascendancy, religion? What is the meaning of it!”.
While Duterte has personally expressed ambivalence about the Congressional vote to repeal the prohibition on divorce, in related matters, he has shown support for issues that are typical red lines of Rome. In 2017 Duterte spoke in favour of legalising same-sex marriages in The Philippines, saying:
“I want same-sex marriage. The problem is we’ll have to change the law. But we can change the law…
…But if you would ask me what makes you happy, do it. You can only do it once. Never return back. This is one straight deal. So whatever makes you happy, you go out of this universe happy and fulfilled. If it makes the gays happy, let them be. I do not condemn anybody there. What makes you happy, good. Just don’t violate the law”.
Ultimately what matters most for The Philippines beyond any personal feelings about divorce or same-sex marriage is helping to break the political cartel that is the Church’s meddling in the political affairs of a sovereign secular republic.
Even more recently Duterte effectively trolled the Church by jokingly kissing a woman (something considered harmless in truly secular societies) and saying that the kiss was in exchange of payment for a copy of a book called Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church by Aries Rufo.
Duterte’s offering of the Rufo’s book shows a further commitment to break the dangerous, retrogressive and neo-colonial stranglehold of the Roman Catholic Church on Philippine politics. But it was the way in which Duterte gave away a copy of Rufo’s book that was the ultimate trolling of both the Roman Catholic Church and his Liberal Party opponents. Like clockwork, both the Liberals and religious figures latched onto the playful gesture and began a further collective barrage of verbal abuse against Duterte even though the real reason for their anger wasn’t the style of Duterte’s kiss but the content of the book he gave the woman who said she felt the entire episode was good fun and totally innocent.
Duterte implicitly understands that while many Filipinos remain religious, as an institution, the Catholic Church in The Philippines is more interested in robbing national wealth, distorting political realities, meddling in the sovereign affairs of a secular government and engaging in entirely un-Christian practices ranging from child molestation to financial fraud, to aiding the narcotics market, to adulterous relationships left and right – than it is in actually promoting peace and spiritual well being among the people.
Duterte’s war is in many respects, a holy war. It is a battle between the honest and the dishonest, between the righteous and the self-righteous, between those who heal and those who harm. As it has been for decades, the Catholic Church in The Philippines is on the wrong side of justice while Duterte remains on the side of the people.