Catholic Church

Archbishop Fernando Capalla, scourge of Duterte in Davao, dies at 89

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Archbishop Fernando Capalla, scourge of Duterte in Davao, dies at 89


Davao Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla, one of the first to sound the alarm against Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘wild, wild West,’ was a longtime advocate of peace in Mindanao

MANILA, Philippines – Davao Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla, one of the first churchmen to condemn Davao Death Squad (DDS) killings under then-mayor Rodrigo Duterte, died at the age of 89 on Saturday, January 6.

The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Kalookan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, confirmed Capalla’s death in a Facebook post. CBCP News said Capalla died at 1:38 am on Saturday in Davao City. 

Capalla, archbishop of Davao for 15 years, was CBCP president from 2003 to 2005. 

He was the second Filipino Catholic bishop who died in the first week of 2024, following the death of Pagadian Bishop Ronald Lunas also in Davao City on January 2.

Born on November 1, 1934 in Leon, Iloilo, Capalla was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Jaro in 1961. Capalla led the Archdiocese of Davao from 1996 to 2012, a fraction of the time Duterte was Davao City mayor for more than two decades.

Even before the likes of David and Archbishop Socrates Villegas condemned killings when Duterte was Philippine president, Capalla was one of the few voices that cried out against DDS slays in Davao two decades ago. His was a powerful though lonely voice, as Duterte was and still is popular in Davao to this day.

The DDS was the shadowy vigilante group associated with Duterte when he was Davao City mayor, which is now the subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court. The DDS mode of killing drug suspects through extrajudicial means was said to have been Duterte’s template when he was president from 2016 to 2022.

Warning vs Duterte’s ‘wild, wild West’

“Killing, murder, salvaging, or the taking of life in whatever manner, is an affront against the Creator and against humanity,” Capalla wrote in a pastoral letter titled “Thou Shall Not Kill,” read in all Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Davao on November 21, 2001.

Capalla added that “no one takes the law into one’s hands simply because no one is above the law and a law unto oneself” and that rehabilitating prisoners “is an easy possibility” for the government.

“It is therefore erroneous and wrong for any government to have recourse to the principle of self-defense when it inflicts capital punishment on prisoners. Or, when it seems to tolerate criminal groups like the Davao Death Squad to kill. It is an admission of failure in the fulfillment ​​of its obligation to prevent crime and its recurrence,” Capalla said.

“The so-called death squads are violating both civil and moral laws and therefore are criminals themselves. We call on our government and its law enforcement agencies to stop them from making Davao City a ‘wild, wild, West’ where the only law is the law of the gun,” he continued.

In an interview with MindaNews when Duterte was already president, Capalla said the former Davao City mayor should “listen” more. “Listen. Listen. Listen. I will tell him, ‘Digong, ang Ginoo naghatag kanatog duha ka dalunggan, usa ra baba (Digong, God gave us two ears and only one mouth). Which means that we have to listen twice as much as we speak,” he said.

Capalla said he was “worried about him as a friend,” according to this article published on October 8, 2016. 

He remembered Soledad Duterte having approached him after he was installed as archbishop in 1996, with the Duterte matriarch asking him, “Monsignor, can I ask a favor? Can you help my son become a religious leader?”

Capalla told MindaNews that if he had the chance to see Duterte, “I would say to him that what you are doing now, your mother may not like it. I’ll say also that this is not the Digong I knew.”

Capalla’s interview with MindaNews incensed Duterte, prompting him to lash out at Capalla in a speech two days after the article was published.

‘Dialogue is to be human’

Capalla, whom Pope John Paul II named the first bishop of Iligan in 1982, and was caretaker of the Catholic Church in Marawi from 1987 to 1991, was also an advocate of peace in Mindanao.

He was a founding father of the Bishops-Ulama Conference, the interfaith organization seeking to build understanding between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao, according to CBCP News. At the CBCP, he also once led its commissions on interreligious dialogue and ecumenical affairs.

In 2017, Capalla condemned attempts by Christian groups to “proselytize” Muslims in Marawi by giving them Bibles alongside relief goods after terrorists ravaged the city.

“If they do it deliberately, it’s either an insult or ignorance of the needs of Muslims,” Capalla said, according to a UCAN report. “We should be more sensitive.” 

In an interview with ABC Radio International’s Dr. Rachel Kohn in 2006, Capalla pushed for interfaith dialogue to promote peace in the Philippines.

“For me, in the last analysis, dialogue is to be human, although it’s very risky and it’s disastrous for some people. But there’s no other way to solve conflicts except through respectful and human dialogue,” Capalla said.

He said dialogue does not necessarily mean “setting aside one’s doctrinal beliefs.” He said, “No, I think we have to be very clear about ourselves and about the truth that we stand for and not be afraid of telling the truth. And respect each other’s stand on faith matters. That’s to be human.”

He then called on “interfaith people” to push for “reconciliation through repentance and forgiveness.”

“Otherwise there’s no future for our country if the hatred will still be there in the hearts of people,” Capalla said. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email