MANILA, Philippines – The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) slammed the crackdown on loiterers, the drug war killings, and other abuses under President Rodrigo Duterte as bishops called for prayer and fasting from July 17 to 19.
It was one of the CBCP's strongest and most comprehensive critiques of the Duterte regime.
It was also the most stinging under Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles as CBCP president. Replacing Archbishop Socrates Villegas as CBCP head, Valles is known as Duterte's friend. (READ: New CBCP head views self as Duterte's 'friend-sinner')
Without naming Duterte, the CBCP condemned the President's blasphemy – but didn't dwell on it and instead zoomed out to a host of social ills. (READ: FULL TEXT: CBCP statement on blasphemy, killings, social ills)
Their statement's theme was aligned with the call of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, who urged Manila's priests not to be "be distracted" from "other pressing concerns" in the face of Duterte's tirades against God.
By calling for prayer and penance, the CBCP said it was seeking to invoke "God's mercy and justice on those who have blasphemed God's Holy Name, those who slander and bear false witness, and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality in our country."
The CBCP said: "Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, do we not all aspire for the grace to be called 'sons and daughters of God'? If we do so, then we must constantly strive to be peacemakers in these troubled times in our country."
"And that means to always strive to bring love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, faith where there is doubt, hope where there's despair, light where there is darkness, and joy where there is sadness," the CBCP added, lifting from the prayer for peace attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi.
Davao archbishop speaking out
The bishops issued its pastoral exhortation titled "Rejoice and Be Glad!" at the end of the CBCP's 117th plenary assembly from July 7 to 9, at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in UN Avenue, Manila.
The plenary assembly was attended by 78 of the Philippines' around 80 active bishops, said Father Marvin Mejia, secretary general of the CBCP. Joining them were 3 administrators and 6 retired bishops.
It was Valles' second plenary assembly as CBCP president.
Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler
After the plenary assembly, Valles led a press conference at the Pope Pius Center to introduce the CBCP statement. It was his first time to formally face journalists in Manila since he became CBCP president on December 1, 2017.
The CBCP statement was later read by Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David. Leading a diocese that he describes as "killing fields," he is one of the most thundering voices against the spate of killings in the Philippines. (READ: Caloocan Bishop Pablo David: Shepherd of his slaughtered sheep)
Christians 'seduced' by Satan
In its statement, the first issue the CBCP addressed was the killings of priests.
"What is new about priests being murdered for witnessing to Christ? What is new about modern prophets being silenced by the treacherous bullets of assassins?" the bishops said.
The prelates then cited the early Christian author Tertullian, who said, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians."
The CBCP also mentioned "divisions among ourselves."
"How are we to deal with fellow 'Christians' who see nothing wrong about the killings, who just laugh when our God is blasphemed, and who take part in passing on fake news?" the bishops said.
They pointed out, "There will always be those among us who profess the faith in Christ but are so easily seduced by the empty promises of Satan."
On 'tambays,' drug addicts
The CBCP went on to recount the sufferings of the poor in the Philippines. Still without naming Duterte, the CBCP cited specific examples from the Duterte administration's policies.
"Do we not hear the cry of poor slum-dwellers being jailed for 'loitering'? Have they forgotten that for the homeless urban poor, the little alleys between their flimsy homes also serve as kitchens, bathrooms, recreation spaces, and playgrounds for their children?" the CBCP said.
The CBCP added, "Do we not feel the sufferings of drug addicts who are labeled as 'non-humans,' and are stigmatized as criminals when their names end up in the dreaded 'drug watch lists'?"
"Yes, we are aware of the sufferings of those who have been victimized by substance abusers, but can we not see them also as sick people who are struggling with a disease?"
Duterte is known for questioning if drug addicts can be considered human beings. He is also keen on using "matrices" or "narco lists" to pin down drug lords and drug addicts.
The CBCP then admonished people "who arrogantly regard themselves as wise" and "who blaspheme our God as stupid."
This is in apparent reference to Duterte, who once said, "Your God is not my God because your God is stupid. Mine has a lot of common sense."
The CBCP said: "To those in this world who boast of their own wisdom, those who arrogantly regard themselves as wise in their own estimation and the Christian faith as nonsense, those who blaspheme our God as stupid, Saint Paul's words are to the point: 'For the stupidity of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.'" (1 Corinthians 1:25)
"And to those who ridicule our faith," the bishops added, "we say with Saint Paul, 'God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.'" (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
The CBCP, however, also issued a reminder to "those who have been angered by the insulting statements of people in authority." Quoting Jesus in the Bible, the bishops said, "To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well." (Luke 6:27-29)
"Vengeance is never the way of Christ," the CBCP said.
'Church of sinners'
At the same time, the CBCP denied accusations that the Catholic Church is "getting involved in political moves to destabilize the government."
The bishops said the Catholic Church's concern "is never the establishment of any earthly kingdoms," as they "work only for God's kingdom which is beyond this world."
"The Church respects the political authority, especially of democratically-elected government officials, as long as they do not contradict the basic spiritual and moral principles we hold dear, such as respect for the sacredness of life, the integrity of creation, and the inherent dignity of the human person," the CBCP said.
Towards the end of the statement, the CBCP also admitted the weaknesses of the Catholic Church. This admission comes as Duterte repeatedly slams the Catholic Church for the sexual and financial abuses of bishops and priests.
"We are a Church of sinners called to conversion and holiness at the same time," the CBCP said.
It added, "We bow in shame when we hear of abuses being committed by some of our fellow Church leaders – especially those ordained to 'act in the person of Christ.' We hold ourselves accountable for their actions, and accept our duty to correct them – as duly mandated by our own higher authorities in the universal Church."
3 days of prayer, fasting
The CBCP ended its statement with a call for a day of prayer and penance on July 16, feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, to atone for the sins of blasphemy, slander, and murder in the Philippines.
This will be followed by 3 days of prayer and fasting, from July 17 to 19.
"On July 16, 2018, on the feast of the Blessed Mother of Mount Carmel, the mountain associated with the bold challenge of the prophet Elijah, let us spend a day of prayer and penance, invoking God's mercy and justice on those who have blasphemed God's Holy Name, those who slander and bear false witness, and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality in our country," the CBCP said.
"We invite you to join us, your bishops, in 3 days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving from July 17 to 19, 2018," the bishops added.
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.