Cursing Pope Francis is an unorthodox campaign tactic. This might seem especially obvious if your electorate is over 80 percent Catholic. But Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte, no orthodox candidate, did just that en route to a convincing win in the Philippine presidential election on May 9. Mr. Duterte eventually apologized for his comments, but concerns over his election rest on deeper differences than on an admittedly foul mouth. Duterte’s resounding win is troubling to many who are concerned over his strongman approach to governing. This includes leading voices among the Catholic bishops of the Philippines. His election, in spite of the clergy’s opposition, raises questions about the future role of the Catholic Church in Philippine public life.
To readers in the United States, mention of the Catholic Church in Philippine politics likely conjures righteous images of the so-called People Power Revolution of 1986. Stirring scenes of women and men religious standing before security forces of the Marcos dictatorship are rightly remembered as a high-water mark in the democratization in the Philippines. The partnership between Manila’s Cardinal Jaime Sin and the opposition leader Cory Aquino was central in restoring democracy after dark years of martial law. Elite and grassroots Catholics worked closely with members of other faith communities, as well as with more secular portions of civil society, in these efforts.
While this history is worth memorializing, it can obscure the more complex place of religion in the post-People Power Philippines. Today, while Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle remains a central figure in the Philippines (and Pope Francis’ Vatican), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines faces a diverse religious landscape. Major Protestant associations like the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches are active public voices, while leaders of the Iglesia ni Cristoregularly endorse political candidates. Muslim leaders speak out on issues far beyond the Bangsamoro peace process in Mindanao. Mr. Duterte may have few friends at the C.B.C.P., but high profile Protestant and Muslim leaders have been enthusiastic supporters.
Thus, while clerical and lay Catholics are prominent throughout Philippine public life, the consolidation of democracy has forced the church to jockey with various religious and secular actors. Church advocacy has a mixed record in the past quarter century in areas as diverse as fighting corruption, advancing agrarian reform to alleviate rural poverty and advocating environmental protection and disaster relief. Progress has at times been real. But the images are less riveting than those from the People Power protests of 1986.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the sharp controversy over reproductive health legislation in 2012-13. With Cory Aquino’s son, the outgoing President Benigno Aquino, known as Noynoy, in office, leaders from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines found themselves in disagreement with the government about the “RH Law,” which expanded government provision of contraceptives, among other public health policies. The C.B.C.P. and prominent lay Catholic associations had long opposed such legislation, but President Aquino pushed it through over their objections in the closing days of 2012. Mediation efforts softened some edges of the legislation, especially related to religious liberty, but this was a consolation prize. If the inheritor of the Aquino mantel would push such an issue, some wondered what would remain of Catholic influence in public life.
The Duterte campaign arose against this religious backdrop. The president-elect has long been a polarizing figure in Philippine politics. While a relative newcomer to national office, he is a long-time mayor of Davao City, the largest city on the island of Mindanao. His advocates credit him with improving the quality of life in Davao, especially relative to the crime, traffic and poor infrastructure in other cities. Much of the skepticism about him stems from his way with words, which extends beyond his profane reference to Pope Francis. He has cracked wise about the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary in Davao, threatened to fatten the fish of Manila Bay with the corpses of criminals and boasted about his Viagra-fueled personal life. Mr. Duterte rejects comparisons with Donald Trump, but there is at least a rhetorical resemblance.
But unease with the president elect’s agenda is about more than rhetoric. These fears are particularly rooted in his ambiguous relationship with groups known as the Davao Death Squads during his two decades as the city’s mayor. As the Rev. Amado Picardal, leader of the bishops’ Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities, has documented in conjunction with human rights organizations, from 1998 to 2015 the squads were responsible for the extrajudicial execution of 1,424 individuals, most of whom were young, poor and involved in the drug trade at low levels. In the words of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, “The Mayor of Davao City has done nothing to prevent these killings, and his public comments suggest that he is, in fact, supportive.” He has boasted that with him as president, those 1,000 killings could become 100,000.
As the Duterte campaign gained obvious momentum in opinion polls, rhetoric from Catholic elites hardened. The Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development, a prominent network of Catholic clerics and laypeople, wrote, “[We cannot] vote for anyone who has done nothing to apprehend the perpetrators of more than 1,400 extrajudicial killings under his city administration.” Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro wrote that “summary killings…are illegal, immoral and sinful,” while Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato urged voters to support only candidates who protected the right to life, “even of suspected or convicted criminals.”
This growing opposition culminated in a statement a week before the election from Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the bishops’ conference. Writing on behalf of the bishops, Archbishop Villegas sympathized with the popular “desire for change” espoused by the electorate. But, he continued, “this cannot take the form of supporting a candidate whose speech and actions, whose plans and projects show scant regard for the rights of all, who has openly declared indifference if not dislike and disregard for the Church especially in her moral teachings.” The message was clear even though no candidates were named.
And yet, in spite of church opposition, Mr. Duterte romped to victory in the polls. In part this is because of a fragmented field of candidates and the plurality-based Philippine electoral system. He faced four alternative candidates and won with only 38 percent of the popular vote. Still, the win was decisive.
What does this result mean for the future of religion, and Catholicism in particular, in Philippine public life? The initial response from Archbishop Villegas and the C.B.C.P. was to offer prayers and promise “vigilant collaboration” with the incoming administration. This seems to echo Cardinal Sin’s posture of “critical collaboration” in the early years of the Marcos regime. The bishops pledge “to teach and to prophesy, to admonish and to correct” in pursuit of the common good. In more recent comments, Archbishop Villegas declined to confront Mr. Duterte further, instead pointing to “the silence of respect for those who consider us their enemies but whose good we truly pray for.”
When the bishops find their voice again, likely after the conference’s plenary meeting in July, what will their stance be in Philippine public life in light of the election results? As president-elect, Mr. Duterte has continued his rhetorical excesses, slamming the Catholic Church as “the most hypocritical institution” and inviting people to join the “Church of Duterte.” It seems fair to presume that relations between the C.B.C.P. and the new executive will remain strained.
It would be a loss to both the church’s mission and Philippine society, however, if Catholic leaders decided to withdraw from public life after the twin disappointments of this election and the R.H. law controversy. Indeed, “vigilant collaboration” presents several opportunities to renew Catholicism’s place as a moral voice of the Philippine people.
First, such collaboration is likely to center on preserving the institutions of democracy in the Philippines that the People Power revolution restored three decades ago. This will involve continued election monitoring through groups like the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, as well as work combatting corruption with allies through the Coalition Against Corruption. Mr. Duterte has promised broad constitutional change, which could empower provinces through forms of federalism, but could also further weaken checks on presidential authority. Catholic elites have played an active role in constitutional debates since the 1987 Constitutional Commission and are likely to be called again to this role.
Second, vigilant collaboration presents opportunities for renewed dedication to the protection of the sanctity of life at all stages in the Philippines. As Eleanor Dionisio, a sociologist with the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues, wrote recently in the Philippine Inquirer, the greatest Catholic concern is not Mr. Duterte’s words but his “troubling lack of respect for human life.” Will vigilante justice be tolerated (or encouraged) at a national level? Will the death penalty, suspended since 2006, be reinstated? Will the lives and dignity of the poor be protected, especially in the face of mounting threats from environmental degradation and uneven economic growth? The crisis of the R.H. law divided some in the pro-life community from former allies in civil society. Renewed collaboration could help restore these ties, which historically have been central to advancing human dignity in the Philippines.
Finally, collaboration is likely to involve furthering peace and integral development on the island of Mindanao. This is an area where a Duterte administration could provide unique opportunities. Davao City, where the president-elect built his career, is not a Muslim-majority area of Mindanao, but he has strong relationships with many Moro leaders and performed well on election day in Muslim-majority parts of the island. While the Aquino administration secured a landmark comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014, the Bangsamoro Basic Law needed to implement the agreement has stalled in Congress. Catholic voices, both in Mindanao and Manila, have a role in promoting a peace process that not only ends violence but, in the words of Cardinal Quevedo, “addresses the root causes” of Moro grievances.
While “vigilant collaboration” is an appropriate initial response to this watershed election, why is it that so many found the Duterte campaign so attractive? Exit poll data from Social Weather Stations, a leading survey firm, indicate a sweeping victory across class lines.
Mr. Duterte’s support rests in large part on broad frustration with the perceived failure of entrenched Filipino political, economic and religious elites to improve the daily lives of average Filipinos. The troubling fact is that his brand of populism, which blends fear over crime, anger over corruption and disappointment that high economic growth has failed to reduce endemic levels of poverty, resonated widely. Even his famous slur about Pope Francis was aimed at the miserable traffic caused by the papal visit.
How to respond to this brand of populism is a question that faces Catholic elites everywhere, not only in the Philippines but also the United States. It is reasonable to be skeptical of Rodrigo Duterte’s rhetoric and strongman approach to governance. But there is also little doubt that he is seen as a leader who understands the frustration of the average Filipino, one who, to borrow from another man popular with Filipinos, knows the smell of his sheep.