[OPINION] Becoming Catholic in the age of Duterte

Jovito V. Cariño
[OPINION] Becoming Catholic in the age of Duterte
The only way God can seem stupid is when lives are wasted, rights violated, rule of law undermined and justice compromised, and believers, Catholics or non-Catholics alike, remain quiet on the sidelines

“I could slide to number two or even to number four, but I am not bothered because if God wants me to win, I will win.” These were the words used by then candidate Rodrigo Duterte to fend off naysayers who were doubting his chances of winning the presidency. It was not of course the first time he invoked divine intervention in making an account of his political career. Prior to the public announcement of his electoral plans, he was also quoted to have said: “I have to seek God’s guidance because at the end of the day, it (his presidential bid) will be God’s decision.”

It seemed indeed that God was on Mr Duterte’s side. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, he managed to secure the endorsement of the influential Iglesia ni Cristo. His eventual rise to power was described by Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, the “appointed son of God,” as a validation of a vision he received from God as early as two decades ago. In that vision, he claimed to have seen Mr Duterte playing golf on the very grounds of Malacañang.  

The inclusion of religion in the narrative of power is, of course, as old as humanity itself. History is replete with various episodes involving Egyptian pharaohs, Babylonian kings, Greek conquerors, Roman caesars, medieval popes and kings, and modern strongmen who define their claim to power with either proximity or identity with divinity. Part of the myth of the early Mr Duterte was informed by this leitmotif of divine anointment. With little surprise, it worked on the psyche of the Filipinos given our natural cultural propensity to equate God with will-to-power.  

Recently, however, Mr Duterte seems to have reneged on his own claim to divine anointment when he pronounced in a public speech that God is stupid. God never runs out of haters from the ancient down to our own times; invariably he has been called several names. It’s a relief name calling, be it the exclamatory or the defamatory kind, does not work on God. Philosophers, mystics, gurus, and theologians agree that God, the real one, is simply beyond all human adjectives.  

Mr Duterte’s expletives against God may appear as atheistic or blasphemous or heretical, but they are not the type which could or should make a dent. A Luna or an HR Ocampo or a Van Gogh or a Picasso does not become less of an art simply because a philistine does not see its aesthetic worth. At its best, I suppose his statement should be taken as it is – that is, a demagogue’s provocation dripping with personal and political resentment.  

What disturbs the public is perhaps the novelty of seeing the extent to which a traditional politician can compromise himself for the sake of grandstanding. What surprises me, on the other hand, is how this public agitation has not escalated enough.   

I don’t think Mr. Duterte is really intent on pursuing a debate on the exegesis of the second book of Genesis or the origin of the problem of evil or the morality of human free will or the rationality of the intelligent design when he spewed out those words. And I don’t think anyone will seriously consider engaging him in a discourse on any of these themes considering his propensity for ad hominems or smart shaming or straw man arguments when pushed against the wall. 

His vociferous attacks against God and certain theological doctrines may be best seen, therefore, against the larger backdrop of his sustained polemics against the Catholic Church given the latter’s staunch anti-Duterte stance since day one. With its patently Catholic undertones coupled with the preceding episodes of tirades against the Catholic hierarchy, the “God is stupid” remark may appear as Mr Duterte’s way of raising the ante of his dispute with Catholics.  

In the coming days, we should expect more of the same hostile diatribes. Mr Duterte has discovered and has immensely maximized the utility of the presidential podium as a bully pulpit to hurl invectives at his enemies. It is not unsurprising if his verbal attacks get wilder and louder until probably the Catholic community’s potency for dissent is neutralized.

Ironic as it may seem, this is actually welcome news. Mr Duterte’s recognition of the Catholic Church as an institutional political force is a testament to his residual acknowledgment of religion’s radical feature.

Back in the dark years of martial law, Catholics too played a role in contesting the excesses of the former Marcos regime. A host of bishops, pastors, clerics, and nuns were at the forefront of resistance whether out in the parliament of the streets or underground. Students of Catholic schools were also at the center of activism. Catholic media outfits like Radio Veritas served as a beacon at the time when mainstream media functioned as mouthpieces of propaganda. This Catholic involvement would reach its peak in EDSA where the fate of Marcos’ dictatorial rule was finally sealed.   

This kind of Catholic activism has not been felt by the public for quite a while.The last time the Catholic Church flexed it muscle in a big way was around 2006 and 2008 in the face of charter change being toyed around with by then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The Catholic bishops succeeded in giving the public opposition to constitutional change a voice which then led Mrs Arroyo to backtrack and shelve her plan. In those days, to be a Catholic meant to be a voice of reason as it was to be a bearer of light. 

Political dilemmas and social crises gave the Catholic community a new way of witnessing to their faith and ensuring that justice was not displaced by the arrogance of those hungry for power.   

In this context, the continuous hate and shame campaigns against the Catholics being carried out by Mr Duterte and his minions, while disheartening, should also be considered by the faithful as an opportunity to rethink and revisit how much of the former socio-political anima is retained in their creedal commitment. God after all is not, and will never be, degraded by any amount of public bashing, not even from the most perverted mind.

To paraphrase St Paul, there will always be something in God that will appear folly to man. No wonder the most godly in Nietzsche’s eyes in his work The Gay Science is the madman. If God is beyond good and evil, he is definitely beyond “stupid.” The only way God can seem stupid is when lives are wasted, rights violated, rule of law undermined and justice compromised, and believers, Catholics or non-Catholics alike, remain quiet on the sidelines. The atheist Karl Marx reminds us that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless condition…” Maybe it’s high time for Catholics to be religious again. – Rappler.com

Jovito V. Cariño is a member of the Department of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas. 

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