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Duterte vs the Church: Do the times call for a Catholic vote?

MANILA, Philippines – "I believe…therefore I reject!"

This powerful line opens the video of a leading Filipino bishop, Socrates Villegas, hitting President Rodrigo Duterte months before the midterm elections. The video alternated Duterte's curses with Bible passages read by Villegas, showing that Duterte contradicts the Word of the Lord. 

Even without speaking Duterte's name, Villegas sent a clear message to Catholics – those who vote for candidates like the God-cursing, foul-mouthed Duterte could end up denying their faith. "My dear brothers and sisters, are you going to betray God, are you going to deny your faith, by your vote?"

On top of its viral reach, the video bore the clout of Villegas – former president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and a protégé of Jaime Cardinal Sin, the late Manila archbishop who helped oust a dictator in 1986.

Villegas' video fueled hopes that more Catholic bishops will openly – though indirectly – campaign against Duterte's candidates. Many Catholics feel, after all, that Duterte has declared war on the Catholic faith and the values they look for in candidates – love for God, respect for life, purity in speech, and decency toward women.

Do the times call for a Catholic vote?

But what is a Catholic vote?

Failed campaigns

Previous elections showed there is no such thing as a Catholic vote – if it means voting as a bloc as the politically influential Iglesia ni Cristo does. 

The Catholic Church, for example, is remembered to have unofficially campaigned against Joseph Estrada in the 1998 presidential race. Estrada, known for womanizing, gambling, and drinking, won by a landslide in predominantly Catholic Philippines. 

The same thing happened in 2010, when then-Lipa archbishop Ramon Arguelles and 5 other bishops endorsed the presidential bid of Ang Kapatiran's JC delos Reyes. He lost to Benigno Aquino III. 

In 2013, then-Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra and 5 others campaigned against "Team Patay" (Team Death) candidates who supported the Reproductive Health Law. Of 7 "Team Patay" candidates, 4 made it to the Senate. 

Before the 2016 elections, at least 3 bishops, including Villegas, released statements against murder, vulgarity, lack of decency among candidates – in apparent reference to Duterte. 

The bishops' warnings fell on deaf ears.

Clout of the Church

Make no mistake about it – religious groups still wield enormous clout in the Philippines, where 8 out of 10 people belong to the Catholic Church. 

"The Church," regardless of religion, is the institution most trusted by Filipinos, according to the Philippine Trust Index of the EON Group in 2017. Tied with the Church, at 93%, is the academe. 

(In contrast, government got a trust rating of 80%; media, 78%; business, 75%; and nongovernmental organizations, 59%, the lowest rating in the EON survey.)

In November 2018, a separate survey by Kantar TNS, which Rappler obtained from a political party, showed that the "church or religious group to which you belong" has considerable endorsement power in elections.

The Kantar TNS survey showed 39% of respondents will likely vote for a candidate if endorsed by their church or religious group.

The personality with the highest endorsement power is Duterte, at 54%. Still with the "kiss of death" is former president and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, with the lowest endorsement power at -40%.

Churches or religious groups have higher endorsement power than governors (34%) and all 4 living former presidents – Fidel Ramos (-23%), Joseph Estrada (5%), Aquino (-23%), and Arroyo (-40%). 

The endorsement power of churches or religious groups comes close to those of the congressman/congresswoman of one's district (40%) and the barangay captain of one's barangay (44%).

Morality and partisan politics

Catholics, however, do not vote as one. And their leaders – except for politically active bishops like Arguelles and Navarra – do not dictate on their flock exactly whom to vote for.

There is no bloc voting in the Catholic Church because it believes members should vote based on conscience, not the decisions of its leaders. The Catholic Church also asserts that while bishops and priests have the moral duty to speak, they should leave partisan politics to the laity.

The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II), a landmark gathering of Filipino bishops in 1991, offered a good rule of thumb: "that pastors have competence in the moral principles governing politics, and that laity have competence in active and direct partisan politics."

PCP II explained that partisan politics "would tend to weaken" the teaching authority of priests, and "destroy the unity they represent and protect."

"Still, the rule is not an absolute one," according to PCP II.

"The distinction between moral principles governing politics on the one hand and partisan politics on the other is not always clear-cut in real life and they sometimes become inextricably linked – as when the bare enunciating of moral principles becomes, because of circumstances, in actuality an act of partisan politics," the council said. 

The Church's rule of thumb about partisan politics, then, "must be seen as secondary to a prior, more basic principle."

"And the principle is simply that politics, like all human activities, must be exercised always in the light of the faith of the Gospel; and the requirements of the Gospel in regard to human dignity, justice, charity, the common good, cannot be sacrificed on the flimsy pretext that 'the Church does not engage in politics,'" said PCP II. 

This year, these lines of PCP II come to life.

It's a a time when foreign missionaries, such as Australian nun Sister Patricia Fox, get deported for criticizing government, and when Catholic priests, including Villegas and Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, receive death threats for hitting the government's anti-drug campaign.

Many Catholics, then, frame the 2019 elections as a choice: Will they uphold Catholic values or support "evil" Duterte?

'Decision between God and the Catholic'

Villegas is appealing to the "Catholic vote."

"There is a Catholic vote coming from the Catholic conscience of the voter, but no Catholic vote dictated by the Catholic hierarchy. There is a Catholic vote from a mind formed by Catholic social teachings, but no Catholic vote decided by a Catholic bloc," Villegas told Rappler.

He said the starting point of the Catholic vote is the Catholic conscience, which "is sacred and inviolable." He added that "money or favors from candidates, or the personal choice of the hierarchy, cannot take the place of the voters' conscience."

"Every vote is a decision between God and the Catholic person. It is sacred. God will also hold us accountable for choices we make," Villegas said. 

Father Flavie Villanueva, a priest critical of Duterte's drug war, also said he is against bishops and priests endorsing specific candidates, because "I don't think that's fair." Still, he stressed the need for voters "to look and discern more critically" in choosing candidates. "Napaso na tayo eh." (We've been burned before.)

Father Robert Reyes, an activist priest, said that "there is no such thing as a Catholic vote," but "there is a Catholic trend."

"The bishops, religious communities, priests, if we start talking to our parishioners, we can trend. We can influence votes in the direction we perceive is more Christian, more pro-poor, more pro-Filipino than otherwise," Reyes said.

In his personal capacity, the priest said he "can go as far as telling people whom not to vote for." And whom should people not vote for? "All of Duterte's candidates," Reyes said. "Zero Duterte."

"They will all be 'yes' men and women of Duterte. That is for sure. They will control the Senate, and that will effectively seal Duterte as a dictator," Reyes said. He pointed out that the last  bastion of democracy is the Senate, as Duterte now controls the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court. 

Sister Teresita Alo, an 80-year-old Franciscan nun, said she hopes there will be a "Catholic vote" that means "the united force of members of the Catholic Church" in the elections. But Alo is not pushing for bloc voting.

"As a Church, we do not demand on our members," she said. "We leave it to the conscience of each member."

The nun said, however, that as far as she is concerned, she will not endorse any candidate of the President. "Diyos ko po. Dalang-dala na nga tayo kay Duterte eh, dadagdagan mo pa ang kanyang mga alipores? Puwede ba." (My God. We're already sick and tired of Duterte yet you will even increase his minions? Come on.)

Alo cited Senate bet and former police chief Bato dela Rosa, one of the architects of Duterte's anti-drug campaign, as an example. "Si Bato, Diyos ko po...sa totoo lang. You know him naman. (Bato, my God...to tell you the truth. You know him.)

She is talking about politics, Alo explained, because she is also a citizen of the Philippines.

She added it is her responsibility as a nun "to denounce evil and announce the Good News." She stressed, "That is our prophetic role – to denounce evil. And we cannot condone what is evil. We cannot agree to what is evil." – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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 pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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