The Church at a time for ‘critical solidarity’

By: Don Clemmer OSV Newsweekly

An outsider candidate for his country’s presidency, known for his crude rhetoric and stoking of voters’ resentment and fear, achieves victory in 2016. The country’s Catholic bishops grapple with how to engage, speak out for Gospel values and stand with those harmed by the new regime’s policies.

It’s been an interesting year for the Philippines.

On June 30, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the 16th president of the Philippines, the first from the country’s southern island of Mindanao and, at 71, the oldest person ever to assume the office. Now one year into Duterte’s six-year term, the bishops of the Philippines have found reasons to protest.

But Duterte’s run-ins with the Church began well before his election in May 2016. During the visit of Pope Francis to the country in January 2015, Duterte, who was then the mayor of Davao City, located on Mindanao, made headlines by using an epithet in reference to the pope and the traffic congestion created by the visit. The statement didn’t sink his electoral chances in Asia’s only majority-Catholic country, in part because it was understood in the context of an issue he campaigned on, the ineffectiveness of a corrupt government.

Demagogue’s drug war


“The bishops have denounced corruption in the past in no uncertain terms,” Cardinal Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI, archbishop of Cotabato on the island of Mindanao, told Our Sunday Visitor. This included two pastoral statements on corruption that received a positive reaction, but “not much follow-up took place.”

“People were not so much for Duterte as they were against [President Benigno] Aquino and his cohorts who did not bring improvement to the lives of the people,” Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo told OSV. “He was the only alternative for change. Now people see how heartless he can be and how his words are not translated to actions, except in the killings.”

He referred to the more than 5,000 deaths related to the government’s crackdown on illegal drugs since Duterte took office. Duterte has openly encouraged citizens to kill drug dealers and addicts, and many of the killings that have occurred during his tenure have been not at the hands of police in drug raids, but by vigilantes. In the fall two mayors who had been accused of ties to the drug trade were killed in separate incidents.

Duterte allegedly had ties to death squads in Davao City and admitted in December to killing three men personally. He’s scolded critics of the extrajudicial killings on his watch, for instance, saying in October that then-President Barack Obama could “go to hell.”

Duterte also has pushed to reinstate the death penalty in the country and wants to lower the age of criminal culpability from 15 to 9.

An old conflict

Another conflict that has erupted into view of the world since Duterte took office is the terrorist violence on Mindanao, the only part of the country with a significant Muslim population. While militant groups on the island have clashed and engaged in practices such as kidnapping, torture and murder for years, Islamic State-inspired groups, Cardinal Quevedo said, are “new vintage,” and their activities have “projected the reality of terrorism in southern Mindanao onto the world screen.”

Duterte declared martial law across the island after gunmen attacked the city of Marawi on May 23 — storming and desecrating the cathedral in the process — and took several hostages. Numerous religious leaders, including Cardinal Quevedo, said the move should be only temporary. “It is a controversial decision, much protested by the left, which has its own ongoing revolution against the government, a revolution dating back to the early 1970s,” Cardinal Quevedo said.

The protracted conflict on Mindanao also has drawn a response from Pope Francis, who took the unprecedented step of making the archbishop of Cotabato a cardinal in 2014.

“The mantra that Pope Francis has frequently articulated is for the Church to go to the peripheries,” Cardinal Quevedo said of the move that impacted him personally. “It seems to me that this is what Pope Francis did when he appointed a cardinal in Mindanao, especially one from a war-ravaged and poverty-stricken region of southern Mindanao.”

The conflict in Mindanao has made the island one of three priority areas in the world, along with Colombia and the African Great Lakes Region, in which the Catholic Peacebuilding Network — an association of universities, episcopal conferences and Caritas groups — focuses its work of local training for building peace.

The Church finds its way

The Church in the Philippines has responded to Duterte’s policies by launching a drug rehabilitation program and seeking to build shelters where addicts can get help.

Their protests of the president’s drug war also have earned a direct rebuke, most prominently in a January speech to police officers, in which Duterte directly accused the bishops of corruption and complicity in sexual abuse.

“Against all the records of history, he believes that the Church will become irrelevant in a few years,” Cardinal Quevedo said of the attacks, noting that the bishops are inclined to ignore such attacks, because “reaction begets retaliation in even more virulent form. Many of the laity who have supported the president are now saying that in fighting the Church, the president is going too far.”

Cardinal Quevedo described the bishops’ approach as “critical solidarity.” They support working to eradicate drugs, forge peace, develop agriculture and move away from “Manila centralism and imperialism.” But “we are critical of the methods that he uses in the drug war. We are critical of the violations of human rights, the lack of due process and the killing of drug suspects and the lack of accountability for these.” He added that the perception of decisive action by the president “is one significant reason why our faithful are generally supportive of the president, foul language and abuses not withstanding.”

“People are now used to the rantings of Duterte. He does [a] lot of allegations, which later on he will backpedal. People no longer believe what he says,” Bishop Pabillo noted. “Many government leaders support Duterte outwardly for their political survival, but, in private, many are not in accord with his rantings.”

Bishop Pabillo and Cardinal Quevedo agree that support for Duterte among Catholics suggests the “We have been sacramentalized but not evangelized. The consequence has been economic and political imbalances, such as poverty, the wide gap between rich and poor, corruption, structural injustice,” Cardinal Quevedo said.

Bishop Pabillo doesn’t expect a recapturing of the Church’s influence of 30 years ago, when the man who ordained him, the late Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila, helped orchestrate the nonviolent People Power Revolution, which brought down the country’s dictatorial Marcos regime in 1986.

“There is now a new reality among us, and church leaders now do not aspire to be another Cardinal Sin. Besides, secularism is also upon us,” Bishop Pabillo said.

“We are trying to awaken the lay faithful to be more engaged in secular affairs, and this is their turf in the work of the Church.”

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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