On three consecutive days, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has walked back from his comments
wishing violence on Catholic bishops and priests. "Don’t harm the priests. They are not part of politics," he said on Feb. 24. "But do not kill those bishops and priests. It is not allowed," he said on Feb. 25. "There will never be a time for the life of me that I would even suggest harming — the slightest harm that you can inflict on priests and religious people," he said on Feb. 26. The first time Duterte suggested harming religious people was on Dec. 5 when he called on the public to kill bishops
: "But these bishops of yours, kill them, these fools serve no use. All they do is criticize." That invitation came a week after the president for the first time criticized one bishop by name, Pablo Virgilio David of Kaloocan
, who has taken a high-profile role supporting survivors of extrajudicial killings.
Thank you. You are now
signed up to our Daily Full
But read in full Duterte’s remarks last week and the context in which he made them. They suggest he is either responding to a personal request of from a cardinal-archbishop to de-escalate the situation or that the de-escalation is only temporary. About three-quarters of the way through an unusually long and rambling speech at a campaign rally for his party, Duterte was reminded of a message he had received from the archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. He called over his close personal aide, Bong Go, a presidential assistant who is running for the Senate, to retrieve the message that was sent to his phone. Before he read it aloud, the president noted that Cardinal Tagle was in Rome for the special meeting on sexual abuse, and pointed out that that fact validated his criticism of the Catholic Church ("See, I was right. Didn’t I tell you?"). Then he retold his personal experience of sexual abuse. Then he read Cardinal Tagle’s message: "Good day ... Greetings from Rome. I was informed that Bishop David and some priests got death threats from someone claiming to be working for the president’s family. Just to let you know because this might be a smear attempt. Thanks, we pray." Duterte recalled Go’s reply, "No such thing, cardinal. Thank you." Then he read Tagle’s response: "Thank you. Just to let you know that there are persons using the name of the president and his family — that’s why you should know. Take care." Immediately after reading the cardinal’s response, Duterte addressed the crowd: "Don’t harm the priests. They are not part of politics." He added: "Not unless you are a priest but you sell [methamphetamine hydrochloride]. I’ll crucify you. "But to all of you who are listening to me now as this is being broadcast all throughout the Philippines: Do not do it. Do not try to do it. The religious have nothing to do with the vagaries of life. Lay off. Don’t threaten them because I will be your enemy." Official statement
The following day, before a gathering of village-level politicians, the president brought Cardinal Tagle’s message up again. About four-fifths of the way through this speech, he said: "I’d like to make a very public and official statement. I got this message from Cardinal Tagle, who is now in Rome." Again, he pointed to the reason why the cardinal was in Rome, then asked, rhetorically, why the Catholic Church was coming apart. He also reminded those who wanted to invite him to be a wedding or baptism sponsor not to do so. "I do not enter churches anymore." When it was time to read Tagle’s first message, Duterte did not read it in one go but added his own commentary. "Good day ... Greetings from Rome. I was informed that Bishop David.' That’s the one in Kaloocan who is also arrogant. '... some priests got death threats from someone claiming to be working for the president's family.' This is a smear attempt. I’m certain that’s from the opposition. 'Just to let you know because this might be a smear attempt. Thanks, we pray.' That was for Bong." Duterte followed this with a message: "This is my answer: My fight with the Catholics, that’s personal to us. You addicts, don’t take it as true what I said about hitting the bishops and even the cardinals. They are not part of the ruckus, the political ruckus." He also said: "But do not kill those bishops and priests. It is not allowed." "They are not involved. If you do that to them, I will become your enemy and I will be the one to get back at you, because you are doing that to damage me. What do I get out of killing a priest?" In Manila, Duterte later spoke to the general assembly of municipal mayors. As he was about to end his speech, he recalled Cardinal Tagle’s message again. "Tagle called Bong from Rome. Tagle said, 'Good day ... Greetings from Rome. I was informed that Bishop David' — the noisy one; you, David, you make too much noise — 'I was informed that Bishop David and some priests got death threats from someone claiming to be working for the president’s family. Just to let you know because this might be a smear attempt." If a priest or a bishop is killed, Duterte said, he would be blamed for it. "Because Duterte said to hit them with a pipe. That was a joke." He continued: "This is my answer: There will never be a time for the life of me that I would even suggest harming — the slightest harm that you can inflict on priests and the religious people." "Don’t do that. Because when you do that, I will become your enemy. Son of a bitch, that was just a joke. What I said ... you might think that’s true." Influential See
This is not the first time Duterte has backtracked on public statements or proven that he responds to public opinion or to influential opinion privately expressed. It is known that he and Cardinal Tagle, head of the first and most influential See in the Philippines, have a direct means of communication. (Or as direct as is possible with a president who admits to not knowing how to use smartphones.) Contrary to his iron-fist reputation, Duterte has often displayed a readiness to follow public opinion. In August 2017, he declined to go to the wake of 17-year-old Kian de los Santos, possibly an extrajudicial killing victim, because the situation, he said, "was pregnant with so many suppositions." It was recognition of public anger over the teenager’s killing. But the day after the young man’s funeral — in Kaloocan, Bishop David’s diocese — he invited the grieving parents to the presidential palace. And Cardinal Tagle’s politely worded message was a culturally sensitive appeal to the man in power; it drove home the point that death threats were being received but gave the president a graceful way out. It is no surprise that Duterte, in his own fashion, responded so publicly to the cardinal’s private message. But as his three speeches prove, over time he won’t be reading Cardinal Tagle’s message in one go, and eventually he won’t be reading it aloud at all. He will be inserting himself into the exchange, interrupting Cardinal Tagle, and his resentment of Bishop David and other bishops and priests for making "too much noise" will assert itself. John Nery is a senior journalist in the Philippines. He writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ucanews.com.