MANILA, Philippines – Maintaining "critical collaboration" with the government, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) formed a group of bishops to remain open for dialogue with the Duterte administration.
CBCP president Archbishop Socrates Villegas said Catholic bishops made this move in one of their twice-yearly plenary assemblies.
Sources told Rappler that one of the bishops who has contacts in government is Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.
"I am not at liberty to divulge names, but in the plenary assembly, we also designated a good number of bishops to keep the communication lines open with the government. And they are doing that pretty well," Villegas said Monday, February 13, at a forum organized by Inquirer Multimedia.
The archbishop reiterated the need for "critical collaboration," the stance adopted by his mentor, the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, toward the government of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Villegas said: "It is still critical collaboration. There is certain degree of openness to the needs of the people, especially the voiceless, especially those who are living in terror, especially those who are living in sin. But at the same time, there is a level of openness also with the government because the government is still composed of Filipinos, and most of them Catholics – as has been said, 3 of them ex-seminarians – and they are also in need of our pastoral care."
Ex-seminarians in Cabinet
Villegas was referring to the former seminarians in President Rodrigo Duterte's Cabinet.
One of Duterte's most trusted advisers, Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr, was in fact a priest detained during the Marcos dictatorship.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia finished philosophy, magna cum laude, at the San Carlos Major Seminary in Cebu City.
Pernia also graduated with a theology degree, cum laude, from the University of Santo Tomas Central Seminary.
Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno was a seminarian, too.
He "was on his 9th year in the seminary when he met his wife," the Philippine Star quoted him as saying.
The names of Evasco, Pernia, and Sueno were mentioned by Inquirer.net editor in chief John Nery during their forum with Villegas.
Nery quoted Pernia as saying that the 3 ex-seminarians "had actually talked among themselves, and said they can actually serve as a bridge if the rest of the Cabinet and the CBCP would be interested in a meeting or a dialogue."
This was when Villegas talked about the CBCP assigning bishops "to keep the communication lines open with the government."
"I have heard that one of those 3 Cabinet secretaries has established contacts with one of the bishops that we have designated," the CBCP president said.
‘No intention to hit Duterte’
Villegas said dialogue, in the first place, was what the CBCP wanted when it issued on February 5 its strongest statement against the recent drug-related killings in the Philippines.
Responding to a question about the pastoral letter, Villegas said: "I hope you take a second reading of the pastoral letter, and you will notice that we did not make any reference to Malacañang. We did not make any reference to the President, because we wanted to treat the issue of killings as a moral issue."
"Second, I was half expecting that Malacañang and the other sectors of society – businessmen, teachers, investors, and media people – would look at it as our contribution to a perceived social problem in the Philippines," he added.
Unfortunately, he said, the pastoral letter "was taken negatively." (READ: Palace to CBCP: There's a reign of peace, not terror)
"But it was certainly not our intention to bring down the President or bring down Malacañang. It was our contribution. We were saying, we your bishops see the situation as like this, and if you share our conviction, these are the things that we must do together," the CBCP president explained.
He said he was hoping for dialogue "because in this day and age, there is nothing that we cannot do if we dialogue together."
'Wait and see' at first
Villegas was also asked on Monday why it took the CBCP around 7 months to release its strongest statement against drug-related killings.
He explained that all of the Philippines' bishops meet as a group only twice a year – in January and in July.
He said that the issue of killings had been tackled during the bishops' plenary assembly in July 2016, a few days after Duterte took office.
"When we met in July, it was already brought up, but the bishops also expressed their pastoral opinion that maybe we should listen to the sentiments of the people, because 16 million of our countrymen, most of them Catholic faithful, have expressed support. So let us wait and see and establish communication lines and see what we can do to help and support," Villegas said.
"It was still the cricial collaboration, the vigilant collaboration, that we have been espousing all these years. But between the July meeting and the January meeting, the rise in the killings had been so alarming and that is why it was actually first in our agenda in the January meeting," the CBCP president said.
Duterte's war on drugs has killed at least 7,080 people since July 2016. Up to 4,000 of them died in extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings mostly in poor communities.
The CBCP on February 5 denounced "the reign of terror in many places of the poor," as the bishops said they "are deeply concerned due to the many deaths and killings in the campaign against prohibited drugs." – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.