Indian Catholic News

The Philippine president and the bishops

Catholic prelates are in conflict with a new church — Duterte's.

Members of the clergy join in prayer during the International Eucharistic Congress in 2016. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
By Jayeel Serrano Cornelio

It is a difficult situation for the Filipino clergy to be in.

Some of the country's Catholic bishops have raised the alarm over drug-related killings in the Philippines. In response, President Rodrigo Duterte attacked the prelates. The president accused them of hypocrisy. He has, time and again, said that the church needs to clean up its ranks, accusing its leaders of corruption, sexual immorality, and pedophilia.

The clergy know they need to speak up. They recognize that illegal drugs are a problem, but they also know that the killings have become uncontrollable. They know for a fact that innocent lives have been taken even in their own communities.

But they have a dilemma. The president remains popular. And the public supports the war on drugs. They also think that Duterte is justified in castigating the bishops.


Duterte has mastered the art of destabilizing his critics by simply shaming them. He has done this to journalists. He has done this to the opposition. He is now doing it to the Catholic Church.

In a way then, Duterte has established his own religious community by positioning himself as the savior of the masses. Almost effortlessly, he has done this by using gutter-talk that attracts a massive following among the disgruntled public.

And given that many drug addicts have been arrested, killed, or both, his followers readily agree that he is indeed a man of action.

Whether they like it or not, the Catholic Church is now in a clash with a new church — Duterte's.

It is not necessarily transcendental, but its savior claims to speak and fight for the masses. He wants to redeem them from figures that have been deceiving them all along.

No wonder then that Mocha Uson, one of his fiercest defenders, recently called the country's bishops the "anti-Christ."

Catholic Response

Right now it is rather easy for Duterte to attack the clergy by using some of their most glaring issues against them. The leadership of the church needs to confront some of these issues and come clean. Like any human institution, it is prone to corruption. But because it is religious, expectations are much higher. If it intends to check on the state, it needs to first correct itself.

At the same time, while statements are important in clarifying the position of the Catholic Church on drug-related killings, these in themselves cannot be effective. When priests take to the pulpit, parishioners readily see it as an attack against Duterte. After all, they are not there to listen to politics, and many of them might in fact like the man.

Instead, the indisputable relevance of the Catholic faith still lies in its small communities. And they must be edified more than ever. After all, it is these communities, many of which are urban poor, that bear the brunt of the war on drugs.

This is why the responsibility does not lie only in religious leaders. The Catholic Church is in reality a communion of communities and its most credible figures do not come from the Catholic bishops' conference alone. There are progressive nuns, charismatic preachers, youth leaders, social workers, and committed catechists taking the lead.

And we need to listen to them.

These entities, given their heavy involvement in the life of their community, are very much aware of what is going on. The war on drugs, after all, takes its toll on communities. They might in fact be in a better position to inspire a new generation of believers who can re-imagine the role of the Catholic Church for people looking for saviors. The role then of clergy is to foster spaces for new voices to emerge.

In other words, the voice of the church can be louder if its gets its act together against both illegal drugs and drug-related killings. Catholic communities can fight back by taking care of the weak.

Taken together, all these efforts point back to the most crucial element of democratic participation: credibility through action. Duterte's rhetoric that the church is all talk is of course mistaken.

And so the credibility of the church will speak not only to the administration but the wider public as well. More than ever, its message of mercy and compassion needs to be unassailable.

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, is a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. Share your thoughts via Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

Source: UCAN

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