[OPINION] Duterte and the defensive Catholic Church

Jayeel Cornelio
[OPINION] Duterte and the defensive Catholic Church
The bigger issue for the Church hierarchy is that for many of its faithful, its institutional credibility is in doubt. This situation Duterte clearly exploits.


He’s at it again.

That the Catholic Church is his target is of course not new.

When he introduced himself as a presidential candidate, he took aim at no less than Pope Francis for causing traffic in Manila. Of course it was a joke.

But his other tirades? No joke.

At one point during the campaign, he minced no words to attack the clergy: “I will destroy the Church and the present status of so many priests and what they are doing.” It was to be the start of a series of unfiltered outbursts against the religious hierarchy. Most recently, in exchange for a kiss, he gave a Filipina in South Korea a copy of Aries Rufo’s Altar of Secrets. That he continues to quote the book to discredit the clergy is only being true to his promise.

And now we’ve seen what he can do to his religious opponents. Not even the 71-year-old Sister Patricia Fox, who has dedicated almost 3 decades of her life to our farmers, was spared.

Her fault? Criticizing the administration.

Duterte fired back in public. Not only did he tell her to turn her attention to adulterous Catholic priests. He wielded his power to investigate the woman.

Hypocritical institution?

His animosity with Catholicism, some believe, derives from his childhood when a priest molested him. It allegedly happened during confession, the most intimate of Catholic sacraments.

Be that as it may, his relentless tirades against the clergy have a political use. Why not? The staying power of President Duterte lies in making enemies. When he aims, his zealots aim alongside him.

But why do they gain traction? And how do they serve his purposes?

The answer has to do with the credibility of the Catholic Church. This point needs to be carefully explained.

There is no doubt that Filipino Catholics, who constitute at least 80% of the population, are still religious. Or at least they claim to be. A recent survey by SWS shows that 85% of Catholic adults consider religion to be important in their lives. But it also shows that weekly church attendance has significantly gone down from 64% in 1991 to 41% in 2017.

In a Rappler piece I wrote in 2013, I argued that this decline must be recognized and confronted. Many religious leaders, however, were quick to dismiss the finding. Although I only hinted at it then, I am increasingly convinced that many Catholics are now choosing to stay away from their parishes because they find them neither relevant nor credible. In my previous work on Catholic youths, I discovered that many complained about the hypocrisy within the Church.

This context empowers Duterte. What he does is fairly straightforward. He gives voice to what many could only talk about in hushed tones: corruption, sexual abuses, and the lavish lifestyle of some religious leaders.

Before taking his oath in 2016, Duterte made his conviction unmistakable. “The most hypocritical institution is the Catholic Church.”

The enemy

His critics have suggested that Duterte is complicit to the recent killings of priests. His statements, they say, have emboldened assassins. There may be a trend but this accusation is far-fetched.

At this point, the most that could be objectively said is that his statements have coincided with the killings. Causality can only be invoked once every case has been resolved.

In my view, the bigger issue for the public is not whether Duterte’s statements have sparked the killings. What the public needs to be vigilant about is how the state responds to each of these cases. In other words, these cases need to be resolved.

That some officials treat them as isolated cases is worrying.

Unfortunately, Duterte is not helping by suggesting that some of the priests were involved in illicit affairs. This response is not only a deflection of moral responsibility. It is also a well-rehearsed strategy. Case in point: The deaths of drug addicts around the country are justified because they deserve to be killed in the first place.

Way forward

The bigger issue for the Church hierarchy, in other words, is that for many of its faithful, its institutional credibility is in doubt. This situation Duterte clearly exploits.  

It makes sense that Duterte is becoming harsher towards the clergy because of their position on the war on drugs and extrajudicial killings. But for religious leaders to frame Duterte’s attacks in this manner will only backfire. The public perception is that the hierarchy continues to hide behind a holy veil if only to hide its many skeletons.

What then is the way forward for the Catholic Church? Public accountability, for one, is key. What the Diocese of Antipolo has done to investigate one of its own is a good start.

At the same time, the endurance of Catholicism lies in its local communities. When Fr Nilo was killed, 10,000 people in Nueva Ecija chose not to abandon him. They had stories to tell about his impact on their lives.

What this signifies is that religious leaders must continue working with their communities. That is how they can maintain their relevance. Around the country, many priests and their Catholic faithful are silent heroes defending those affected by militarization, mining industries, and the war on drugs.

In this current political environment, the Catholic Church cannot simply be defensive. To remain so will only be in the interest of the current regime. The task at hand is to uphold the credibility of its remnants. – Rappler.com 

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University. He is the author of Being Catholic in the Contemporary Philippines: Young People Reinterpreting Religion. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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