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The Brewing Philippine War Between Duterte and the Church

February 13, AD2017

A war is brewing in the Philippines. And it is not a war of guns (although, much of the cause of this brewing war has been the indiscriminate death of some Filipinos). The brewing war is a battle for the minds and hearts of Filipinos regarding the right way to combat the rising drug problem in our country.

Duterte’s Brutal War on Drugs

On one side of the war stands President Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking former mayor of Davao City. He won on a platform to stop the criminality and the drug problem.  Since winning the elections in May of 2016, more than 7,000 people have died in the so-called “war on drugs.” Many of the victims are small time users and pushers living in the poorest areas of the Philippines. A number of them have been killed by vigilantes, riding on motorbikes with their masks on, while others have been killed in police operations.

Still, there is a muted belief that some if not many of the victims have been silenced by rogue policemen. In fact, just last January, a Korean national, who went missing last October, was discovered to have died on the day he was kidnapped. The suspects are some policemen from the Police led Anti-Drug Agency. What made the crime more brutal was that the victim was killed inside the Philippine National Police Headquarters. He was strangled to death inside a van, which was parked near the office of the Head of the Philippine National Police.

While it may be true that the government is not the one sponsoring these so-called “extra-judicial killings”, the way that Duterte speaks and acts has created a culture of impunity in our country. He often calls drug addicts “not human”. Every time he speaks, he rattles the names of suspected drug lords and tells the policemen that he will be responsible for them even if they kill drug suspects. His close aides also echo this line. Our very own Justice Secretary has said that “drug users, pushers, and drug lords are not human at all.” And the Speaker of the House of Congress said that if the death penalty will not be restored in the Philippines, then it would just be better to shoot and kill all criminals on sight.

The Catholic Church’s Criticism

On the other side is the Catholic Church. Ever since the start of Duterte’s presidency, some bishops and lay Catholic groups have been critical of his style in dealing with the drug problem.

Last month, in the recently held World Congress of Mercy, some bishops publicly criticized the government’s strategy in curbing the drug problem. They have asked for a proper investigation of the deaths due to the crackdown on drug use and for respect for the rights of every person, including those suspected users and pushers. And in a strongly worded Pastoral Letter, which was read in all Sunday Masses last February 5, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines condemned the growing “reign of terror” in our streets.

The Pastoral Letter, “For I find no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies – oracle of the Lord God (Ezekiel 18:32)”, reiterates the stand of the Church in calling for the respect for human life. It calls for the faithful to participate actively in dealing with the drug menace and not to remain silent in growing number of deaths. While the bishops have said that they actually support the change that the government would want to bring to the lives of Filipinos, they point out that this change must be rooted in justice and truth.

Duterte’s Attack on the Church

And what has been the response of the President?

Since the start of his presidency, Duterte has taken an antagonistic stand against the Church leaders. He has called them hypocrites. In recent weeks, he has upped the tempo, even publicly naming a retired bishop of having two wives. He has called priests stupid, accused them of having dirty hands when they touch the sacred hosts, and also of having foul breath. And, in one public speaking event, he even questioned the existence of heaven and hell: “Do not believe that you will go to hell. … There is no such thing as heaven and hell. You know it would need a very stupid God if He creates me as a human being and at the end of my earthly life he would just send me to hell.”

The day the Pastoral letter came out, Duterte challenged Catholics, “If you [Catholics] would want to go to heaven, then follow the bishops, but if you would want to stop the drug problem in the country, then come and join me in hell.” Of course, he is not alone in this. His press secretary has said that “the bishops are out of touch with reality.” The Speaker of Congress also chimed in by calling the bishops a bunch of “shameless hypocrites.” Even the Director General of the Philippine National Police joined the fray by saying that if there are “rogue” policemen, there are also “rogue” priests.

Duterte Trolls and Internal Division

As I have said, there is a war brewing in the country. And that war is who wins over the minds and hearts of the people.

In the time of social media and modern technology, the Church appears to be on the losing side. Duterte still enjoys the support of an overwhelming 80% of the voting populace. Every time an article critical of his policies comes out in mainstream and social media, an army of so-called “Duterte Trolls” are on the attack on the internet. Some of the attacks have even gotten so personal that those who espouse a belief contrary to that of the President are threatened with death.

The Church has also been considerably weakened by the scandals that have rocked her these recent years. While, in the past, people tended to let it go, these days one can read all kinds of attacks against Catholics and the bishops on the Internet. There is also an internal division among Church leaders. While the bishops may have taken a strong stand against the “war on drugs” policy of the President, there are priests who support this policy.


Will the Church be cowed into silence even if she finds herself on the losing side? I believe that it is during these times that the Church is called to remain faithful to her calling.

Information is the Key

The Church should be able to create its own media campaign. A common criticism against the Church is that bishops and pastors are quick to criticize the way the government handles the drug problem, yet the Church has not done anything to solve and help rehabilitate drug users. Actually, such an attack is a long way from the truth. Various dioceses in the Philippines have their own programs for drug rehabilitation. Various schools run by religious groups take in drug users as their students and in the process help them recover.

While the nature of the Church has never been to brag about these programs, sometimes, in order to win hearts and minds, information is the key. Catholics must be able to show that a drug rehabilitation rooted in respect for life really works and is more just than shooting people on the streets.

The prison ministry, which many lay faithful take to heart, can be a ground to start advocating for laws that strengthen the justice system in our land. It is a sad fact that much of our Catholic prison ministry has been relegated to counseling, sacramental celebrations, value formation, and charity works for the prisoners. Little thought has been given to the idea that the prison ministry could create a critical mass of people who would help lawmakers create a more just and corrective penal system.

The Laity’s Part

The laity should also take this time to do the fighting for the Church. While Duterte has been relentless in his attacks against the institutional Church, the Church as the people of God has chosen to remain silent about it. I sincerely hope that more lay Catholics would join in condemning the growing unaccounted deaths in our land, while at the same time using their skills in helping those with drug addiction find a meaningful connection in their lives.

There is a brewing war in our country. I hope that in the end, the call to respect and value life will prevail.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Mon hails from the Philippines and currently works as a school head in an affordable private high school in Manila. His passion lies in bringing educational opportunities to young people who have less in life. Someday, he dreams of writing his own book that relates the Gospels to the daily life of teachers and educators.

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  • Elijah fan

    What further weakens the Church though in such debates is that the last three Popes are extremely lenient on crime and have gone against the Church’s support through many centuries til 1952 with Pius XII…for the death penalty…The Church’s greatest Doctor and explainer of the Scriptures, St. Thomas Aquinas, pointed to Romans 13:4 as crucial on the matter in mid 13th century…and yet St. John Paul II totally ignored that scripture in Evangelium Vitae…nor did Pope Benedict mention it…nor Pope Francis…nor the catechism. The 2012 UN figures on world murder rates shows non death penalty Northern Latin America as the most murderous area on earth and largely death penalty Asia as the safest area on earth. Europe is second safest but Europe has few poor people from whom most murders happen. Japan with a death penalty has one of the lowest murder rates on earth but Japan and Europe are middle class. It is in poor countries where the death penalty saves tens of thousands of lives. Phillipines has a murder rate of over 8 per 100,000 whereas China is 1 per 100,000…similar to most of largely death penalty Asia. So the Phillipines has a murder rate that is 8 times the rest of Asia and the Church has failed to discuss relative murder rates and the death penalty.
    With affluent countries, the death penalty or not….is not critical. But where there are many poor, the death penalty saves tens of thousands of lives.
    Watch to see if anti death penalty Bishops ever mention murder rates. They don’t and the last three Popes have not because they give no indication that they even looked into it. Many Filipinos know that some drug addicts are not harmless and passive…they will stab innocent people to death for the little money they are carrying. I saw one instance on youtube and it looked like the Phillipines. A student was carrying his art portfolio along a street and a woman kept grabbing at him and then a man appeared ( her boyfriend) and stabbed him with a long knife several times and the student died right there on video…as they robbed him. That is why high percentages of Filipinos are supporting this bad approach of Duerte. The Church though represents the opposite pacifist extreme and is ignoring the 8+ per 100,000 murder rate in the Phillipines and its victims because She is trying to make St. JPII look correct about the death penalty but it is the majority of Popes throughout history who were correct and supported Romans 13:4…the word of God.

  • As a Filipina, I would like to make some clarifications.

    There were 5 presidential candidates. Duterte only got 33%or the votes. The actual majority went to the 2nd and 3rd (4th and 5th) place candidates. So he did not win by an actual majority.

    More and more people are actually against Duterte but because of the killings they are too a refrain to speak put. Not too different from the arbitrary kidnappings and killing of Martial Law here in the 1970s. There is a survey of an increasing number of people fearful of becoming the next victims of the ‘drug war.’

    There have been reports that the Marcos family ( the political family during the Martial Law era) funded Duterte’s campaign and current social media trolls. They did this because they wanted to get back in power. Duterte’s support for the late dictator’s son seems to support this. Hence, comments on social media are not reliable because they are made by bots, fake accounts and paid trolls.

    • MnkyLv

      The same survey shows that “85 percent satisfied with the ongoing operations to curb drugs.”

    • DLink

      A side note: Chinese mestizos have long held the presidency or strongly influenced its selection. Estrada was the exception and he was removed from office. There are political parties in the Philippines but they are more an alliance of families and associates than platforms. For this reason, there are multiple candidates runn for office and the winner often receives a plurality but not a majority of the vote. For this reason, a majority of voters often feel they are left out of the process. Also, elective office tends to be family thing, handed down from generation to generation. The dilutive effect is quite apparent.

    • MnkyLv

      Not sure how that is connected to what I wrote, but I think it’s been more an issue of political dynasties and points related to that:

    • TomD

      I don’t know the extent to which the Marcos’s may have funded the Duterte campaign, but President Duterte admitted that a significant portion of his early campaign cash came directly from an “anonymous Chinese donor:”

      Since one of Duterte’s first acts as President was to travel to China, and openly speak ill of the United States, one can surmise that the Chinese government, and private interests closely affiliated with that government, provided some significant portion of the campaign funding to the Duterte campaign. And large amounts of money were immediately promised from the Chinese back to the Philippines, as a direct result of Duterte’s trip. A quid pro quo?

      The Chinese had a direct interest in helping to elect Duterte, due to his rather lengthy history of anti-Americanism. His manner of speaking, rather bombastic and direct, must be particularly appealing to the Chinese, who can count on him to continuously provide much critical anti-American rhetoric, from a supposedly independent source.