During the Philippines’ recent Sunday Catholic services, priests across the country decried President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly drug war as a “reign of terror”. But experts say its criticisms are unlikely to affect Duterte’s popularity
On Sunday, priests across the Philippines relayed to their respective congregations a pastoral letter, written by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, that labelled President Duterte’s war on drugs a “reign of terror in many places of the poor”.
While the letter acknowledged that illegal drug trafficking was a major issue for the country, it also said that “the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users”.
But despite 80% of the Philippines identifying as Catholic, the recent sermons are unlikely to weaken the abrasive leader’s popularity, according to Ramon Beleno III, chair of the political science and history department at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University.
“Although the church has been very influential in the past, during recent administrations its influence has eroded. Based on recent surveys, Duterte still enjoys majority support,” he said. “People are becoming more practical when it comes to their political decisions. The church’s perspective is too idealistic and detached from reality.”
In 1986, under the guidance of the 30th Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin, the church was instrumental in overthrowing then-President Ferdinand Marcos by appealing to the public’s morality and sense of religious duty.
But while the church remains the “default moral compass of the country”, the death of the assertive Cardinal Sin in 2005 as well as its own overt political ambitions have undermined the church’s position in Philippine society, according to Aries Arugay, associate professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman’s political science department.
“Recently, no politically strong pastoral letters that could challenge the government have been issued,” he said. “The church began to lose its influence when it lost Cardinal Sin and when it allowed itself to be used by political interests.”
The pastoral letter is the latest in a series of public disagreements between the president and the church.
Last month, Duterte signed an executive order calling upon government agencies to enforce the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012, which the church has continually prevented from being implemented.
The church fears that the law, which provides women with free contraception and family planning services, will promote promiscuity.
In the eyes of Beleno, Duterte signing the order despite pastoral opposition shows how the church has lost significant power in Philippine society.
“The church was vocal in its opposition to the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, but it still passed, and it was vocal against Duterte during the last election, but he still won,” he said.
In the past, Duterte has also attacked bishops for engaging in corruption and sexual misconduct.
In May 2016, after being heavily criticised by the church during his presidential campaign, the then-mayor of Davao City described the church as the “most hypocritical institution” and challenged bishops to a public debate so that he could expose the “sins of the Catholic church”. Five months earlier, the mayor claimed to have been molested by a priest decades ago while studying at Ateneo de Davao University.
Arugay believes that despite his caustic and inflammatory rhetoric, the president’s concerns may be legitimate.
“If indeed the church has a pastoral and prophetic role to play, their presence in fighting the country’s problems – inequality, insecurity, crime, corruption – has not been strongly felt by ordinary Filipinos,” he said. “Filipinos have had enough of the church condemning. They want a church that actively participates in political change and social transformation. This might entail the church being less a bastion for the privileged than a Christian institution for the marginalised, downtrodden and hopeless.”