Duterte vs. God

The Philippine president likes to pick fights. But can he win against the Catholic Church?

Relatives of people killed during the anti-drug operation participate in a Catholic-led  protest in Manila on November 5, 2017.
(NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of people killed during the anti-drug operation participate in a Catholic-led protest in Manila on November 5, 2017. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

MANILA, Philippines — Outspoken and profane rhetoric is a hallmark of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte: The man, after all, told then-U.S. President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” joked about rape, and counts “son of a whore” among his favorite epithets.

But when he called God “stupid” and a “son of a bitch” in a speech last month, that was a step too far for many in the devout Catholic country. “Who is this stupid God?” Duterte said, criticizing God for the concept of original sin. “This son of a bitch is then really stupid.”

Duterte’s indelicate foray into theology would have been controversial in many countries, but it was venturing into a minefield in the Philippines, where the Roman Catholic Church continues to have a strong, though waning, influence in politics and daily life. Duterte’s long-standing ire for the church is well documented, but this isn’t just about a personal animus: It’s a struggle over the church’s long involvement in Philippine politics.

Duterte’s rhetoric has taken on new intensity in recent weeks as the Catholic Church, which helped topple previous autocrats in the country, steps up its opposition to his brutal war on drugs.

Violence against Catholic priests in the Philippines is on the rise: Since last December alone, three priests — all of whom were critical of the government’s policies — have been gunned down by unidentified attackers.

Rather than walking back his comments or issuing an apology, Duterte initially doubled down. “What I said was your God is not my God because your God is stupid,” he said, adding that his God “has a lot of common sense.” And on July 6, he told an audience at a science and technology conference in Davao City that he would resign as president if anyone could prove the existence of God.

In response, Philippine Catholic bishops called for a national day of prayer this coming Monday, July 16, and three subsequent days of fasting to ask for “God’s mercy and justice on those who have blasphemed God’s holy name, those who slander and bear false witness and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality.”

The comments are only the latest and loudest salvo in Duterte’s long-running efforts to undermine the church, and their sustained resonance threatens to bring down Duterte’s previously sky-high approval ratings in a country where about 80 percent of its 100 million citizens are Catholic.

“A lot of Filipinos … see it as a complete expression of sacrilege,” Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based academic and Duterte biographer, told Foreign Policy. “And we have seen some decline in his numbers, especially among the so-called masses.”

The roots of Duterte’s feud with the church go back before his tenure as president — and, according to Duterte, all the way to his childhood. Asked why he chooses to antagonize the church so frequently and stridently, he and his supporters say it is deeply personal: The president says he and several of his classmates were sexually abused by a Catholic priest as children in Davao City. (The priest in question has since died, and the case was not investigated at the time.)

“The president has publicly said he was a victim of sexual abuse on the part of at least [one] Catholic priest,” Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, told FP in Manila. “That’s where the anger comes from, that’s why he openly accuses the church of hypocrisy, and that’s why the church really is in a bind how to respond to his tirades.”

That issue comes up often with Duterte, who frequently calls out the church for protecting priests who are serial abusers. At public events, he often hands out copies of a book called Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church, which outlines the church’s efforts to cover up cases of abuse in the Philippines. (The number of victims is still unclear, but abuse appears to have been widespread and predators were often protected.) Ironically, the book was written by the late chief investigative reporter for Rappler, an online news organization that is one of Duterte’s biggest foes in the media.

Duterte’s ongoing feud with the church may be personal, but it’s also deeply political: The church has typically held significant sway in politics and among the electorate, helping to keep divorce and abortion illegal and craft many of the country’s laws on family and social issues. Some in the Philippines, including Duterte himself, have gotten around the lack of legal divorce by going through the expensive and often influence-dependent process of getting the marriage annulled by the church; Duterte and his wife were separated using this process when his wife sought an annulment in 1998, which Duterte did not contest at the time.

Barely six months into his tenure, Duterte signed an executive order urging that a 2012 reproductive rights law be immediately enforced. The law, vehemently opposed by the church, includes provisions to significantly expand access to free contraceptives and family planning for Filipina women, particularly among the country’s urban poor.

“Duterte has been a much more aggressive secularist and proponent of reproductive health” than his predecessors, Heydarian said, noting that in addition to his stance on contraception he was a “famous supporter of LGBT groups” as mayor of Davao City.

But what might concern Duterte most is the pivotal role the church has played in ousting past political leaders. During the Ferdinand Marcos regime, Cardinal Jaime Sin, then the archbishop of Manila, forcefully spoke out against Marcos’s reign and helped bring about the dictator’s political demise. And Sin, famous for his outsized role in politics, was also part of the 2001 effort to oust then-President Joseph Estrada.

“The church has been, in a way, kingmaker or queenmaker” in Philippine politics, Heydarian explained. “So President Duterte is also questioning the political role of the Catholic Church … he’s reasserting the state against the power of the church.”

The church doesn’t explicitly endorse or condemn candidates during national elections, but it does make its general opinions on the race known. Though they didn’t mention Duterte by name during the 2016 election, Filipino Catholic bishops’ intentions were clear when they issued a statement discouraging support for “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.”

“The undertone of the bishops’ statement was, ‘Don’t vote for Duterte,’” said Rommel Lopez, a Catholic journalist and professor of theology at the University of Santo Tomas. “What they were saying was, if you want change it cannot just be about violence.”

Once Duterte took office and launched his war on drugs, where he has backed the extrajudicial killings of thousands of alleged drug dealers and addicts, it took the church some time to find its voice on the issue. But as the body count rose early last year, the church began decrying what it called Duterte’s “reign of terror.”

More recently, the church has begun offering sanctuary to those who fear for their lives in the drug war, a move that angered Duterte. The Philippine government estimates 3,000 people have been killed in the campaign, though Human Rights Watch said in January that the true total was at least 12,000; other human rights organizations say the number of victims could even be as high as 20,000.

Some Catholic priests feel that even now, the church has not done enough to combat Duterte’s drug war. Father Robert Reyes, known as the “running priest” in the Philippines for publicly advocating against corruption and the drug war by running across the country, said Catholic bishops should be “shouting from the high heavens” about the extrajudicial killings.

“The attack on God has already begun with the attack on life — you don’t even need a president who says, ‘God is stupid,’” Reyes told FP. “But if he tells his policemen to kill every day, then how does he relate to the God of life?”

Asked whether Duterte was concerned that his comments would affect his standing with Catholic voters, Roque replied: “I guess he just wanted it out of his system.”

“Let’s just say he was a victim of abuse who happened to become president at some point in his life,” Roque continued. “Of course he’s going to use where he is now to expose what happened to him and expose what happened to others.”

Seeking to smooth things out, Duterte said earlier this week that he had apologized to God for his comments and that that he and his staff would refrain from such rhetoric in the future. But that seems unlikely, given his general inability to hold his tongue.

“When he runs his mouth, it’s like a runaway train,” Lopez said. “I’m pretty sure he won’t stop.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism. Twitter: @emilyrs

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