MANILA - The Catholic church has demonstrated its influence over Philippine society over the last four centuries, and since 1985, it has been instrumental in the ouster of two presidents, Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada.
But since President Duterte assumed office in mid-2016, the Catholic church's influence is being tested in the face of the tough-talking leader’s relentless attacks against the institution.
Since assuming the presidency, the President has made the Church one of his favorite punching bags, slamming it for criticizing his policies, such as the controversial war on drugs and his push for the death penalty.
Born and raised a Catholic, Duterte has accused the Church of hypocrisy, saying it has no right to criticize his policies since it has yet to discipline members of the clergy who committed abuses.
He has also joked several times that he will form an Iglesia ni Duterte (Church of Duterte), and invited the people to join his “church.”
DUTERTE, THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL BOY
Observers say the President’s anger towards the Church can be traced from his experience as a Catholic school boy. He claims to have been molested by a Jesuit priest.
He made this allegation in 2015, when he was already campaigning for the presidency. Around that time, he also courted another controversy when he cursed Pope Francis after his visit to Manila caused horrible traffic in the nation’s capital.
Indeed, Duterte’s victory proved to be a new test for a Church already faced with challenges from born-again Christian groups and new socio-religious organizations.
The President’s rant against Church abuses also came amid the backdrop of a number of sexual abuse cases by priests that have threatened to jeopardize the Pope’s legacy.
Duterte has used these abuse cases, as well as his own supposed maltreatment at the hands of the late priest, Mark Falvey, to attack the Church when clerics criticize the government’s war on drugs.
"What is your moral ascendancy in the Philippines? Religion?" Duterte said in a January 2017 speech. “You expose me, I expose you.”
Addressing Duterte’s allegations, then-Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) President Socrates Villegas said that although the Church has always been marred by the sinfulness of its members, the 2,000-year-old institution derives its holiness from Christ, not its leaders.
Some priests have remained vocal against his policies, including Villegas and Caloocan Bishop Pablo David. The latter's jurisdiction has been the site of many drug war killings.
TOO MUCH KILLING
The government’s crackdown on illegal drugs has consistently been a sore point in the Church’s relationship with Duterte. In January 2017, after months of holding back, the Church broke its silence amid the series of killings.
“The Church right now is asserting its influence, that's why in the coming months the Church will be at the forefront in leading against extra-judicial killings," Jerome Secillano, CBCP public affairs executive secretary, declared in January 2017.
The Church’s pushback began when Villegas, in an October 2016 pastoral letter, wrote that he was “ashamed of the things I read about the Philippines in the international media and more ashamed of what I hear from our leaders.”
"I can no longer give a word of condolence to the bereaved families because I also need to be assured even a bit that things will get better and not become worse,” Villegas added.
Bishop David, meanwhile, said the situation under Duterte’s rule is reminiscent of the Marcos dictatorship, when many were killed and some disappeared, and when the tag "communist" was the "convenient label and justification" for atrocities committed by law enforcers.
"Now, it's 'drug suspects,'" David said in an August 2017 interview. "I don't know of any law in any civilized society that says a person deserves to die because he or she is a 'drug suspect.'"
Incensed by the Church’s criticisms, Duterte told priests to take illegal drug “shabu” (meth) so they would know why he was against it.
“Hindi ko maintindihan ang simbahan. Alam nila eh. Alam ng mga parish priest kung gaano kalala, and yet they say that… extrajudicial killing,” Duterte said in a January 2017 speech.
(I don’t understand the Church. They know it. The priests know how bad the situation is, and yet they say “extrajudicial killing.”)
“Eh lahat ng durugista, alam mo naman, kayo dito, alam niyo pag ang tao bangag, lumalaban talaga yan. Kaya dapat ibang pari mag shabu para maintindihan nila. I recommend one or two of the bishops. Eh sa kanila walang shabu, pero asawa meron,” he added, in jest.
(If a person is under the influence of drugs, they really fight back. That’s why some priests must take shabu so they would know how it’s like. I recommend one or two bishops. They don’t have shabu, but they have wives.
DESTABILIZING THE DUTERTE GOV’T?
The Church’s criticisms against Duterte have led some to accuse it of working to destabilize the government. Duterte’s supporters have used the destabilization claim as a retort to anyone who opposes the government’s policies.
In November 2017, the CBCP mounted a prayer rally at the historic EDSA Shrine, the site where people gathered twice, in 1986 and 2001, to oust then dictator Ferdinand Marcos and President Joseph Estrada.
Secillano denied the Church was seeking to overthrow Duterte with its call to mass action.
This same accusation was leveled by self-proclaimed civic leader Pastor Boy Saycon recently. Malacañang distanced itself from Saycon’s pronouncements, while the CBCP again disputed it.
While some see the Church’s criticisms against Duterte as part of a destabilization plot, his political opponents believe the chief executive was launching his diatribes to weaken the institution’s influence over the people.
In some of his speeches, the President has criticized unnamed priests who maintain affairs. He has also made it his habit to distribute copies of the book of the late journalist Aries Rufo titled “Altar of Secrets,” which details some of the misdeeds of Filipino members of the clergy.
"Sinulat niya lahat ng kaputahan ng pari. Maniwala kayo sa Diyos. Pero huwag kayong maniwala diyan sa lokohan ng simbahan," the President said in a recent speech.
MURDERS OF PRIESTS
As Duterte continued with his criticisms against the clergy, the country also saw successive killings of a number of priests. In the last six months, Fathers Marcelito Paez, Richmond Nilo, and Mark Anthony Ventura, were killed, sparking outrage among the Catholic faithful and human rights groups.
Critics say Duterte’s tirades against priests and the Catholic Church had emboldened the priests’ killers.
The President has denied persecuting the clergy nor ordering the killing of priests.
“Wala kaming policy na galit kami sa pari, nothing of the sort. As a matter of fact nirerespeto ko ang simbahan,” he said in a speech in Mandurriao, Iloilo City.
“Sa totoo lang hindi ko kayang magpatay ng pari, pati na babae at bata.”
(We don’t have a policy against priests, nothing of the sort. As a matter of fact, I respect the Church. The truth is, I cannot order the killing of priests, women and children.)
Duterte earlier claimed that Ventura’s supposed affairs could be the reason behind his killing, an allegation condemned by priests and prelates who knew the Cagayan priest.
Bishop David has described the slain priests as “martyrs of the Catholic faith.”
"It is true that there are now a number of priests being killed. Yet it is not something that we should be afraid of. They are not victims. They are martyrs," the bishop was quoted in a CBCP News report.
"They show us how valuable priesthood is. It is willing to stand up amidst persecution."
DUTERTE VS THE NUN
Aside from the local members of the clergy, the President has also set his eyes on another perceived government critic, Australian nun Patricia Fox, who has been helping the poor in the Philippines as part of her missionary work.
Duterte said he ordered an investigation on Fox for “disorderly conduct.” He also said he would not take criticisms from a foreigner like Fox.
Fox was detained in April this year for supposedly engaging in political activities in violation of the terms and conditions of her visa.
In a statement, Fox said she understands Duterte’s pain after his alleged abuse at the hands of a priest.
“The Church is made up of human beings and some of them do very bad things. I understand the Church has acknowledged the record of the priest. It was a grave sin and the Church has apologized,” Fox said.
The Bureau of Immigration recently ordered Fox’s deportation.
Perhaps the biggest religious uproar against Duterte came after he called God “stupid” and mocked the creation story in the Bible.
In a speech in Davao City, Duterte questioned the concept of original sin and said he believes in a universal mind.
Reactions to Duterte’s remarks were swift, with many saying the President failed to show respect to the religious beliefs of many Filipinos. Over 82% of the population are Catholics.
Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles admitted many in Davao were hurt by Duterte's remarks. Jesus is Lord founder Bro. Eddie Villanueva said Duterte’s remarks could bring woes to the nation if he failed to apologize.
Instead of apologizing, the President doubled down on his remarks and said he would resign if anyone could take a selfie with God to prove that He exists.
The CBCP then issued a pastoral letter asking Catholics to join them in praying and fasting for those who blaspheme God.
The President also had a meeting with Valles where they agreed to refrain from issuing statements related to the Church in an effort to ease the tensions caused by his remarks.
A day later, Duterte said the moratorium on his tirades against the Church does not prevent him from publicly discussing his beliefs on God.
He warned critics not to use God in their statements against him.
"Do not ever include God in your platform to attack me. There is a way of difference when it comes to governance. There is a separation of power between any church and State," he said.
"I have the right to answer. There is a separation of powers. Why are you putting the name of the Lord against me. So pagsagot since ang forefront mo Diyos, ba't ka maghinakit pag sinabi ko p***-*** (So in answering, since God is your forefront, why would you feel bad if I say s** of a b****)."
He also said he does not believe in heaven or hell.
"You know, my God never created hell because if he created hell, he must be a stupid God. My God is not stupid to create man just to burn him in hell. I do not believe in Heaven because if I do, only a fraction of you in this crowd will ever enter Heaven. All of us, makita ko lalo na 'yung mga 2 asawa dito mga playboy, lahat man tayo sa impyerno magkita."