Of Prelates and Presidents: Whither the Philippines?

Of Prelates and Presidents: Whither the Philippines? May 15, 2016

The people of the Philippines went to the polls this week to elect a new president.  Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, the current occupant of Malacañan Palace and son of former president Corazon Aquino, was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. On election day, his supporters split between Senator Grace Poe and former Senator and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas. Thus, on Tuesday the world woke up  to discover that the third largest Catholic country in the world, with a population of 100 million of which approximately 85% are Catholic, will be led by Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial (to put it mildly) mayor of the city of Davao on the southern island of Mindanao. While he only managed to win with a plurality of the vote, his election marks a new and highly disconcerting era for both the Church and the protection of human rights in the Philippines.

As mayor, Mr. Duterte’s extrajudicial approach to crime in Davao has included the sanctioning of death squads. According to Human Rights Watch, these entities have murdered 1,424 people. Of those, 132 were children. Mr. Duterte’s actions have consistently drawn the condemnation of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). Archbishop of Cagayan de Oro Antonio Ledesma, in a pastoral letter published by the CBCP before the election made the position of the Church on Duterte’s candidacy quite clear, reminding voters of the dark days of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos:

“We urge you not to sell your votes. We urge you to vote for candidates of conscience with a consistent pro-life ethic and reject candidates who promote the culture of death. The choice you make will determine whether we live in the light and progress as a nation or bring back the darkness that we have experienced and rejected in the past – an autocratic regime characterized by violence, human rights violations and corruption, and a reign of terror and greed.

Candidates who have not undergone change themselves and live moral lives are not worthy and capable of changing our society. Change begins within each one of us. It is we as a people who can change our society. So once again, we appeal to you to vote according to your conscience. And to vote for candidates of conscience – i.e., persons of moral integrity.”

By that point however, Mr. Duterte’s relationship with the Church could hardly have sunk any lower. While raised Catholic, he made headlines earlier this year when he said of Pope Francis‘ visit to the Southeast Asian country: “We were affected by the traffic. It took us five hours… I wanted to call him: ‘Pope, son of a whore, go home. Do not visit us again’.” This language is unprecedented in Filipino  politics, where the Church remains the country’s largest and most visible political actor.

The outstanding question  for observers of Philippine politics is whether the country will consolidate the gains it has made in recent years or see a gradual reversal of those improvements in governance and economy. Under President Aquino’s leadership, the Philippines cast off its “Sick Man of Asia” title and has seen consistently high rates of growth. Moreover, corruption, while still endemic, has significantly declined. At the same time however the country remains mired in poverty with approximately 25% of the population living below the poverty line.

The official statement of the CBCP following the election issued by its chair, Socrates Villegas, Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan, struck a conciliatory yet deeply cautionary note, declaring:

“The greatest promise the Church can offer any government is vigilant collaboration, and that offer, we make now. We will urge our people to work with the government for the good of all, and we shall continue to be vigilant so that ever so often we may speak out to teach and to prophesy, to admonish and to correct — for this is our vocation.”

It’s important to remember that the Church’s vocation “to admonish and to correct” has historically gone far beyond pastoral letters. The former archbishops of Manila and Cebu, Cardinals Jaime Sin and Ricardo Vidal were a driving force behind the People Power Revolution of 1986 that brought and end to the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.  In 2001, I was living in Manila and observed that vocation first hand.  My office was located just a few blocks from the EDSA Shrine (the popular name for the Shrine of Mary, Queen of Peace that commemorates the peaceful 1986 revolution) and I vividly recall the events of “People Power 2:” an aging Cardinal Sin calling for the resignation of President Joseph Estrada who finally left office in disgrace owing to a corruption scandal.

For his part, President-elect Duterte appears to be plowing forward with an agenda directly contrary that of the Church. At a press conference earlier today he stated that he would ask Congress to re-institute the death penalty and “shoot to kill” orders would be given for organized crime figures and those resisting arrest. In 2006,  the CBCP, working with other civil society organizations, managed to have capital punishment suspended during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Whether Mr. Duterte will seek to legalize abortion – illegal under the terms of the 1987 constitution – remains an open question.

Cardinal Luis Tagle, Archbishop of Manila – a rising, global figure in the Church and deemed “papabile” by many – clearly has his work cut out for him. Whatever happens – the Philippines has now entered uncharted territory as regards Church-State relations.


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