Philippines needs pro-social justice church



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.

Archbishop Socrates VillegasIn 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 six months."


'The country is [in] chaos,' Archbishop Socrates Villegas said in August, as reported by the Washington Post. 'The officer who kills is rewarded and the slain get the blame. The corpses could no longer defend themselves from accusations that they fought back.'  Villegas (pictured) was then president of the CBCP, and his words set a tone for parishes throughout the archipelago. The message was clear: these deaths are unacceptable and unChristian. The comments were followed by a 40-day mourning period in September and a month long healing period in November.

Relations between the church and the government collapsed. Duterte took to taunting the church with allegations of corruption and sexual abuse of children, of which he claims to also be a victim, while the church condemned the president's support of introducing marriage equality to the county.

The new year offers hope for mending those frayed ties, with Archbishop Romulo Valles taking the helm at CBCP. The archbishop, like Duterte, hails from Davao City in Mindanao where both enjoy reputations as community leaders over decades. The two have a personal relationship; during Duterte's off-the-cuff diatribes in which he swings at any and everyone, he notably has never publicly criticised the archbishop.

Duterte stands to gain a lot by Valles's appointment if the archbishop is unwilling to stand the ground the church has stood over the last six months. A less vocal church will go a long way to seeing that public support for the war on drugs continues. And with a war on media heating up, Duterte must be wary of how many fights he becomes embroiled in, no matter how much he enjoys conflict.

The Catholic Church of the Philippines must continue to act as a counter-balance to the obscene human rights violations under the Duterte presidency, but with only the newest of foundations underpinning the actively pro-social justice role, even a slight change in priority within the CBCP could see that collapse.



Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Duterte, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

The pedalling of drugs which destroy human reason and erase any concern for others for no reason other than monetary gain are a diabolical abuse of human rights also. The pedallers have ignored other's human rights and in any just society should be considered to have forfeited their own.

john frawley | 17 January 2018  

John, As a regular visitor to the Philippines with family living in the Provinces, I can assure you that the so called drug problem is nowhere as bad as it is portrayed by Duterte. In Metro Manila there is, like many cities, including our own an issue with drugs but is more related to the poverty /unemployment issue than a major social justice issue. The extra judicial killings which occurred in Manila while we were there last year caused significant street protests when it became apparent that young people were being dragged out of their houses and shot in front of parents and siblings. No trials or even evidence was presented. Sadly there were cases where people were 'dobbed' in by others as revenge for 'slights' imaged or otherwise against them-sadly all too common in the Philippines. The Church has taken a very strong reaction to these unjustified attacks on human rights. Hopefully this will continue. While the Church still has a very strong influence on the older generation, my observation is that with young people, and the Philippines is predominantly young, the influence has waned , as it has elsewhere, remarkably in the last twenty years or so and certainly more rapidly over the last decade. While the Church opposes contraception and birth control , the reality, particularly among the young and educated Filipinos is vastly different.

Gavin | 18 January 2018  

Love your penultimate paragraph. So punchy. It's just like in Soccer, all things being similar, the team with signals for each other wins.

Louise Renee | 19 January 2018  

This article raises many important points about the situation in the Philippines. In poorer nations where there is much poverty and repression, many people resort to illegal drug taking to escape reality. Duterte's approach to increase extra-judicial murders to solve the problem is totally unhelpful. All it will do is to increase the number of deaths of innocent people and increase general lawlessness while doing little to solve the problem. Many people who support Duterte's approach indicates that, in reality, they think it is acceptable to totally undermine the rule of law. What is needed to assist addicts to beat their drug dependence is a medical approach where medical staff supervise every step of the process. This is a much more humane approach. The Philippines also needs a government that establishes programs to provide greater levels of employment and improved working conditions and humanitarian support services for all.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 05 February 2018  

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