Rody Duterte (AKP Images/Keith Bacongco )
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks before the protesting residents in the city in 2008. (AKP Images / Keith Bacongco )

It’s not just rare, it’s practically unheard of for any Filipino politician to be critical of the Catholic Church, much less to call its bishops names. Soliciting its support during and after elections; maintaining a respectful silence even when they disagree with its bishops’ pronouncements; meekly nodding their heads in submission; providing bishops SUVs for “missionary work” and other favors; and even outright approval of Church collaboration with dictatorship, have been the most common forms of politician and government engagement with the Church—to which they’re likely to belong, anyway, 80 percent of Filipinos being Catholic.

But there was Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, declaring as early as June last year, prior to his being officially a candidate for President of the Republic, that despite Church opposition to the Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (RA 10354), he would seek its rigorous implementation should he run for, and win the presidency.

Now clearly the President-elect, and only 33 days away from assuming that office, Duterte not only reiterated his support for the RH Law this week during one of his interminable late-night press conferences, and even made its implementation the ninth point in his economic program as part of its focus on poverty-reduction. He also went out of his way to declare the Church as “the most hypocritical institution” (in the country? Perhaps in the world?) for some of its priests’ and bishops’ — on whom he endowed his favorite “sons of whores” expletive — supposedly keeping mistresses and fathering children, and for asking politicians including himself for favors. Duterte also said that his election to the presidency was proof of the Church’s waning influence, since, he said, it had campaigned against him.

Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines spokesperson Bishop Oscar Cruz promptly denied that the CBCP had campaigned against Duterte. But while the bishop may not have lied, he may not have told the entire truth either. He may have forgotten than in the wake of Duterte’s cursing Pope Francis early this year, and his outrageous “the- mayor- should- have- been- first” rape joke during one his political rallies, at least four bishops had suggested that Duterte may not be the right person for the presidency. In other occasions, some bishops also implied the same thing, citing his “vulgarity” and lack of “good manners and right conduct” (sic) as causes.

If they did campaign against Duterte, it wasn’t the first time that the Church and its bishops had endorsed and/or campaigned against a candidate for the country’s highest elective office. The Church supported Corazon Aquino in 1986, after years of “critical collaboration” with the Marcos dictatorship, which was more collaborative than critical. It subsequently supported the candidacy of Ramon Mitra — and in effect campaigned against Fidel V. Ramos — in the presidential elections of 1992. In 1998, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin declared the Joseph Estrada presidency a “disaster.” (Which it was, and about which the cardinal proceeded to do something by mobilizing the faithful to oust Estrada through EDSA 2 in 2001.) Both Ramos and Estrada did win in 1992 and 1998, but not without Church opposition.

Duterte did say that the Church campaign against, and continuing opposition to the RH Law violated the Constitutional mandate on the separation of Church and State, and he’s right, and not only about that particular law. Despite the injunction against it, the Church has been in the thick of State affairs for over 400 years since it used the Cross from the 17th to the 19th century to support the Sword in Spain’s subjugation of these islands. Today the Church is the fifth estate in the Philippines, and in many respects even more powerful than the first (government), the second (business), the third (the citizenry), and the fourth estate (the press). What defies understanding is why, despite its obvious illegitimacy and colonial roots, Church intervention in State affairs persists in the 21st century.

In addition to its opposition to the RH Law, the implementation of which has been practically suspended because of its minions in the bureaucracy’s refusal to provide citizens the information on family planning that would enable them to space births and limit the number of their children, the Church has also been the biggest obstacle to the passage of a divorce law.

The absence of such a law has earned the Philippines the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world where married people who can’t abide each other can’t get a divorce — although they can either murder each other, or get a usually expensive annulment, under the terms of which the marriage is decreed to not have taken place at all, a lie made respectable by the Church which, together with the Filipino institution of the “querida,” (mistress) pushes the meaning of hypocrisy to new lows.

Which raises the question of whether, unlike Benigno Aquino III and his co-religionists in Congress, Duterte will support — indeed fight for — a divorce law. A divorce law would not be an anti-poverty measure. But it would address the duplicity that attends the lives of those who pretend to be respectably married while keeping mistresses and lovers on the side. It could also help put an end to the miseries of those caught in unhappy and/or violence-ridden marriages, in addition to being a crucial element in the liberation of women from the bonds of the machismo culture that forbids them from, once married, ever remarrying again.

What’s obvious is that in the non-resolution of both these issues — family planning and divorce — Church power, as it has been exercised in these stronghold of Catholicism for over 400 years, has been the most crucial factor.

There have been, and there still are, individuals within the Church who have been critical of that power, and who have chosen to champion, not the Church’s, but the people’s cause on such issues as human rights, gender equality, and the right to decide for themselves how best to live their lives including those of their children. But by taking on the institutional Church, Duterte is also challenging the stranglehold on State affairs of one of the most powerful (if most hypocritical) political forces in the Philippines. It’s about time somebody who’s also part of the Philippine power elite did.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image courtesy of Keith Bacongco)

Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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