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Philippines needs pro-social justice church

  • 17 January 2018


A change of guard within the Catholic Church of the Philippines may see some of the country's leading progressive activists get off the streets and return to the pulpit in the coming months.

In a country where 80 per cent of the population is Catholic, the church wields immense influence. This is largely conservative and in line with church teachings. LGBT and public health activists point to the church and its influence in keeping sex education out of schools and contraceptive sales low as a major factor in the country's rising HIV rate. But when it comes to taking on President Rodrigo Duterte, the church is the country's strongest progressive force.

The president enjoys unprecedented support in the polls due to his hardline stance on drugs and the successful fight against Islamic insurgency in the southern province of Mindanao. The church, however, is not impressed with the president's tactics. The death toll in the war on drugs numbers into the thousands: just short of 4000 by the end of 2017 according to the government, although media reports say it could be as many as 7000.

Virtually since the government's inauguration the church, via the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), has been at loggerheads with the president. Following a string of high-profile deaths of minors in August last year, bishops from around the country took the lead in demanding justice for the families of the boys.

A handful of boys, aged between 12 and 17 years old, had gone missing, only to show up dead over the following days. The death of 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos in particular sparked fierce demonstration against both the Duterte administration and the police, who had initially accused the boy of being linked to drug crimes and brandishing a weapon, before CCTV proved otherwise.

The incidents proved two things: there is a line which cannot be crossed in the otherwise accepted war on drugs, and the church is taking these human rights abuses seriously.

While previous protests from the church had been muted, the senseless killing of children was a mobilising force which lasted for months. That August saw priests across the country lead demonstrations in the streets, ring church bells in protest and deliver sermons condemning the continuing deaths and the government's seeming willingness to allow police impunity.


"Duterte stands to gain a lot by the move if the archbishop is unwilling to stand the ground the church has stood over the last