Rodrigo Duterte and Archbishop Romulo Valles
Rodrigo Duterte and Archbishop Romulo Valles

Before Rodrigo Duterte, no Philippine president, as morally-challenged as some of them may have been, had ever disparaged Catholicism and Christianity, much less cursed the God Christians, Muslims and Jews worship in common. Even Ferdinand Marcos, to whose overthrow in 1986 both the institutional Church as well as its activists contributed, did not take that path, although among the victims of his terrorist regime were nuns, priests, pastors and other religious workers.

That some of the country’s past presidents were devout Catholics was certainly among the reasons. But the more skeptical would probably attribute their refusal to mock the faith of 90 percent of Filipinos to their knowing that it would neither serve any rational purpose nor help them in the next elections. Some did bristle at the Catholic church’s attempts to influence government policies and even took positions contrary to that of the clergy, while having themselves photographed on their knees in church and secretly courting the Iglesia ni Cristo’s fabled command votes. That was about the farthest even the most fervent and most hypocritical disciples of the separation of Church and State went. Common sense decided the rest.

But it was also a matter of good manners and breeding. And perhaps unintentionally, the respect that they showed the Christian faith and its God, as well as Islam and Allah, was in keeping with everyone’s, especially any leader’s, responsibility of respecting the beliefs of others rather than contributing to the further fragmentation of a people already divided along economic, social, ethnic, and even racial lines.

In contrast, Mr. Duterte has been taking every opportunity, including those events in which he’s in attendance but which have nothing to do with Church-State relations, to verbally abuse the clergy. He has even justified the killing of at least one priest because he (Fr. Mark Ventura) was supposedly no different from him (Mr. Duterte) because he too had an eye for the ladies. He has also questioned Biblical accounts of creation and insulted the Judeo-Christian God — whose existence, however, he has denied.

Why Mr. Duterte has been directing the attention of this predominantly Christian, Catholic country to the Church, priests and God could be explained by the circumstances in which it is happening. Among those Filipinos worried about the future of this country, a slew of urgent issues has been of critical concern since he assumed the Presidency two years ago. They include:

[1] The human rights violations and the killing of suspected drug users and pushers mostly among the poor, as well as of social and political activists, Lumad leaders, “istambay” (loiterers), and even local government officials (Ten mayors and five vice mayors have been killed since August 2016, a month after Mr. Duterte assumed office. Three mayors were slain in supposed encounters with the police; a fourth was killed by the police while already in custody.);

[2] The surge in the inflation rate to a record high of 5.5 percent (7.7 percent in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) due to the disastrous Tax Reform Acceleration Inclusion law;

[3] The likely railroading by Mr. Duterte’s rubber-stamp Congress of a new constitution 64 percent of the people do not want, but which would nevertheless change the unitary form of government into a federal one and as a result strengthen dynastic and warlord rule, emasculate the Bill of Rights, enable Mr. Duterte to run for two four-year terms, and allow foreign penetration and control of the media, the economy, public utilities and even the professions;

[4] The Duterte regime’s not doing anything about imperialist China’s continuing violation of Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, where that once socialist country has constructed military bases, bars Filipino fisherfolk from their traditional fishing grounds in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, and even steals the catch of those who manage to elude its coast guard cutters;

[5] The regime’s scuttling of the peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines just when the peace negotiators were on the verge of signing an agreement on the social and economic reforms that if implemented would address the roots of conflict and end the 49-year old civil war; and

[6] The imminent danger of Mr. Duterte’s placing the entire country under martial law supposedly to enable him to address criminality and the illegal drug trade, but which in reality would enable him to suppress all protest and dissent as terrorist acts, arrest regime critics, and keep himself and his co-conspirators in power.

If his rants against the Church, the Bible and God Himself are meant to deflect attention from the above issues so he can more freely prepare for the coup against the 1987 Constitution he’s always had in mind since day one of his troubling rule — in the same manner that he lulled the public and political opposition into complacency when he kept saying he would not run for President in 2016 — if that is the intention, it is at least partly succeeding.

His tirades have offended the Catholic and Christian faithful, except his Bible-thumping acolyte Manny Pacquiao, who believes that even the most vicious governments are founded on divine right. Mr. Duterte has provoked a debate between his partisans, trolls and media mercenaries on the one hand and priests, bishops and those who take their Christianity and Catholicism seriously on the other.

The latter have labeled him blasphemer, called him the anti-Christ, and even cursed him as the devil himself. But his rants have also beguiled free-thinkers, agnostics, atheists, and the simply anti-clerical among the population. They applaud what they think is his attempt to address the long overdue need to put the Catholic Church in its place, question its tax exemption privileges, assail its involvement in politics and its intervening in State policies, chastise it for its great wealth in a country where 22 million are desperately poor, and recall its sorry record of collaboration with the power elite from the Spanish colonial period onwards.

Mr. Duterte’s tirades have apparently struck a sympathetic chord among those who are critical of the many failings of the Church. In the process, he has succeeded in deflecting attention from the real issues that should concern every citizen who still cares for this country and its people.

Some of the accusations against the Church are both accurate and valid. But they are issues best left for a better time when the country is not as perilously close to losing all those gains and values that while far from complete, and always at risk, its best sons and daughters have managed to win for the people through the decades. Respect for human rights and for free expression and press freedom, the enshrinement of the right to life, due process and liberty in the 1987 Constitution, and the making of a just and lasting peace are values and objectives that need defending and constant re-affirmation.

This is not the time to read into the ravings of the Offender of the Faith meanings he very likely never intended. Because he is neither a historian nor theologian, nor even reasonably well-informed, and his profanity-laced tirades against Christianity and God being thoroughly at odds with the standards of rational discourse, there may not, in fact, be any appropriate time at all to ever, ever, ever take his views on anything seriously. But his regime’s relentless march to tyranny, the lawlessness and violence of it, the corruption, brutality and the hate — these are entirely different matters that demand careful attention, and the most appropriate response.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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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