Published on February 7, 2017.
After the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued its pastoral letter on extrajudicial killings, one of President Duterte’s closest allies took direct aim at the bishops. “Sinners [that] they are, the Catholic Church has no moral ascendancy to judge what is right and wrong,” Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said via SMS. “They are simply a bunch of shameless hypocrites.”
It is good that the Speaker, by all accounts a straight talker and a practical man, was clear about his antecedents, because anyone else paying attention to Philippine politics would have thought he was referring to his own chamber of Congress. Having engineered the most recent wave of political turncoatism in our history, he is no stranger to accusations of hypocrisy. What is a majority composed of newly elected or reelected politicians who changed political parties for power and convenience, after all, but a bunch of shameless hypocrites?
But Speaker Alvarez is a power center in the administration, not only because he is one of the handful of true believers who pushed a reluctant Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to run for president, but because he shares the President’s core beliefs. His broadside at the Catholic bishops, generalized to include the entire Church, springs from the same source as the President’s contempt for the religion of his strong-willed, sainted mother. That the Church has “no moral ascendancy”—this is the authentic Dutertismo note.
As a statement, the pastoral letter signed by CBCP president Archbishop Socrates Villegas does not have the same impact, the same moral edge, as that issued after the snap election of 1986. But it is nevertheless a powerful sign of the times, amplified by the thousands of times it was read in churches across the country last Saturday and Sunday.
I note that the bishops took pains to give due weight to the President’s concerns. “Any action that harms another (seriously) is a grave sin. To push drugs is a grave sin as is killing (except in self-defense).” The text is marked by this use of balanced language. While theologically robust, this language, at least to this particular sinner’s ear, sounds like it is forcing or assuming an equivalence between pushing drugs and killing.
But surely killing someone is the greater sin (and crime), because the possibility of redemption (or rehabilitation) is also extinguished.
I can understand this use of language, however, as a necessary tack to win the consent of all the bishops. It has taken some time for the country’s bishops to issue a common statement on President Duterte’s so-called war on drugs; in part this is because they only meet in plenary twice a year, but in part also because the President, despite his disdain for the Church, counts supporters among the bishops.
But read as a whole, the statement says what needs to be said, by a Church that self-identifies, despite its shortcomings, as a Church of the Poor.
“This traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers. We are concerned not only for those who have been killed. The situation of the families of those killed is also cause for concern. Their lives have only become worse. An additional cause of concern is the reign of terror in many places of the poor. Many are killed not because of drugs. Those who kill them are not brought to account. An even greater cause of concern is the indifference of many to this kind of wrong. It is considered as normal, and, even worse, something that (according to them) needs to be done.”
The bishops, listening to their faithful, have spoken: A reign of terror has fallen upon many of the poor. (Even the surveys show that a great majority of Filipinos fear they may be the next victim of Mr. Duterte’s war.) Shameless hypocrites would be among those who pretend otherwise.