Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech attacking the Catholic Church during the ceremonial distribution of land ownership certificates to agrarian reform beneficiaries in Kidapawan City on Dec. 29. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has attacked the Catholic Church many times in the course of a lengthy political career, but in recent months he has stepped up his attacks.
His criticism hit a new low on Dec. 29, when, at a ceremony for agrarian reform beneficiaries in Kidapawan City, he mocked one of the central tenets of the Catholic faith, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as "unworthy of belief."
Why the nominally Catholic president of a heavily Catholic country would attack a still-influential church not only for its sordid record of sexual abuse but also for its doctrine is a head-scratcher. However, there is no shortage of possible explanations.
The notion of a deliberate attempt to delegitimize one of the few institutions with a true nationwide constituency is the explanation that seems most reasonable to me. But how President Duterte attacks the Catholic Church is no mystery; he follows a pattern.
Duterte's style of speaking is free association. These days he starts talking about the Catholic Church by talking about the presidency as God's gift to him.
On Dec. 29, he said: "You know, the presidency is a gift from God. So what is my gift to you?" This introduction of a new theme, of legacy, is peremptory, so he starts again, this time in the Filipino language: "God gave me something. That's not luck." And then again in English: "It's a gift from God." Then he speaks in Filipino again: "Why God gave me the presidency as a gift, I don't know. We will know when we are all in heaven."
By this time, he has sufficiently prepared the ground for the idea of a gift, so he starts on the theme of legacy again.
Often, his attacks on the church begin with the same impish gesture; he asks his audience whether there any priests around. Cue the laughter. It is then that he goes on the offensive.
In his Dec. 29 speech, he invited his audience to "review the tapes." Then in Filipino: "I never said there is no God."
This is true, because what he said in June last year was that Christians worshipped a "stupid God." He then recalls some of the hurtful remarks he has heard Catholic bishops or priests say about him — that he's "demonic," that someone prayed for his death during a Mass.
To get back at them, he said, he called for the deaths of the country's bishops. "So there, all of your bishops, kill them all." He ends this first salvo with: "You started it; I only fought back."
Usually the topic of the first salvo is the most recent confrontation with the church. Then the president expands the scope of his attack. In that agrarian reform ceremony, he followed up his justification for calling for the death of the bishops by criticizing all priests. "That's the problem with priests," he said. "Because they are right, we — us — are wrong."
In many of Duterte's attacks on the church, he uses a prop: a collection of articles written by the late reporter Aries Rufo, called "Altar of Secrets."
In Duterte's view, Rufo's investigation of financial impropriety or sexual abuse in different parts of the Philippine Church is proof, not of a dedicated journalist's search for the truth but of the rightness of his own attacks. This is the same book that he gave away as a prize during a visit to South Korea, where he controversially kissed a married woman he gave a copy to.
At the Kidapawan event, he brought the book out again and encouraged his audience to read it. He distributed a few copies, with some banter to lighten the mood. (His preferred prop in talks with military units is a handgun, which he also gives away.)
When Duterte has time, or is feeling expansive, he expands the scope of attack some more. That's what he did last December. He described the country as church-controlled (literally, "in the grip of the church"), then generalized: "All countries controlled by the church really do not develop. All of them, when religion interferes. When religion enters the life of the civilian, that's it. That's what they use like a platform. It's a mess."
He went on in this vein for several minutes. He retold an elaborate story about confessing to a priest that he sexually molested a housemaid when he was still a young boy, ending the anecdote with an amoral moral: "That's really what happens." He added: "It's true. Every boy goes through that."
He then associated his story of abuse with the sexual abuse committed by some priests. "Go easy," he warned priests, and suggested that the church clean its own house first before presuming to preach. "If not, then I will be their enemy. And I will continue to attack them."
Sometimes Duterte includes false history to paint a picture of church wrongdoings over the centuries. Sometimes he refers to Philippine bishops by name, saying he understands their situation. And sometimes he mocks the substance of the faith itself.
In Kidapawan, he wondered, sarcastically, how a Catholic could concentrate on prayer when his God has been crucified. "That's unworthy of belief," he said. "I'm God and you nail me to the cross? Son of a bitch! I will say: 'Lightning, kill them all. Set all heretics on fire.' Son of a bitch!"
This is the same speech where he mocked the Christian mystery of the Trinity. "There's only one God, period. You cannot divide God into three. That's silly."
In terms of direct criticism of church doctrine, the Dec. 29 speech marked a new stage. The president's spokesperson scrambled to repair the damage by using the same excuses. The president was making a joke. Or, more creatively, the president wanted to provoke discussion.
But any denial of Duterte's personal responsibility for the attacks is a lie, which becomes apparent not only via Duterte's own political reputation but by his own words.
Almost every time he addresses a crowd, he starts by acknowledging that his staff prepared a speech for him — but he never calls it his own. He always makes a point of putting some distance between him and his speechwriters.
He says, as he said on Dec. 29: "Let me tell you, I did not do this. My staff did this." Then he makes the address his own. "This is what I want to tell you," he says, and then speaks from his conflicted heart.
John Nery is a senior journalist from the Philippines. He reports on politics, history, the church, and the rule of law, and tracks the South China Sea disputes and climate change issues. He writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Manila and ucanews.com.