"Where is our Cardinal Sin?" This was the plaintive question that came from a female leader of the Council of the Laity of the Philippines at a gathering in a diocese in northern Manila, a suburb known for a high kill count in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war. The forum was about the looming overhaul of the Philippine Constitution that seeks to concentrate power in the hands of Duterte and strip away socioeconomic and civil rights gains after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos
in 1986. The discussion segued into the murders of Catholic priests in the past six months, the president's order to "shoot to kill" poor people seeking to occupy an abandoned housing project, and the arrest of about 6,000 mostly poor people in a crackdown against "street idlers." The Catholic lay leaders were preparing to head out into communities and present the proposed charter change as the apex of Duterte's plan to establish one-man rule.
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But the church workers chafed at the reluctance of both Catholic and Protestant bishops and members of the clergy to confront the strongman. "How can we persuade them?" a young man asked at the meeting. There was a heart-rending discussion about a lack of priests to fill the shoes of Cardinal Jaime Sin, the late archbishop of Manila. Cardinal Sin called on Filipinos to rise up and gather on the city's main highway in 1986 in what would lead to the peaceful end of the two-decade-old Marcos dictatorship. Frustration over tentative responses by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines and even Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle
, the current archbishop of Manila, regarding Duterte has grown since last year. The flock is directly confronting the brute power of Duterte's government in villages, in workplaces, in slums, and even in Boracay, the country's most famous tourist destination where 36,000 workers lost their jobs. People have badgered their priests for months for help in resisting the growing tyranny. Instead, some members of the Catholic clergy have reached for their guns. National police chief Oscar Albayalde said his office received 246 gun permit applications from clergymen last year —188 from Catholic priests and the rest from Protestant pastors and ministers. It was a shocking revelation. But the disappointment multiplies with the poor concern shown by most Catholic Church leaders toward the misery of their flock. Only a few have spoken out against Duterte. One of them is Manila Auxillary Bishop Broderick Pabillo
, who oversees the lay council. He expressed frustration over the lack of support from other dioceses. "People are asking why is the church silent? They don't expect church people to have guns but they expect us bishops, priests, nuns, and lay groups to speak out," he said in a homily. "If we all speak out our voices will reverberate, it will be heard in the whole country that it is wrong to kill, enough of the lies, enough of the bad words," he said. Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan is another outspoken critic of Duterte's drug war, but he has refrained from taking on other social and political issues, including the looming charter change. Cardinal Tagle has gingerly discussed rights abuses, lately saying that "freedom is fake if justice is being toyed at" and that "destruction of life is against the will of God." The cardinal, however, has evaded confronting the brutal president and has remained cool to a growing pro-democracy mass movement. The silence of church leaders has allowed Duterte to consolidate power. As he swings into his third year in the presidential palace, the strongman aims to mount a constitutional coup. He has just ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. An overhaul of the constitution would give him oversight of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, where challenges to his drug war and foreign policies are pending. The planned changes to the constitution will also cede control of all institutions of accountability, including independent commissions, to the president who will also have control over the legislature during a transition period. Charter change would cap two years of relentless assaults on the justice system that Duterte frames as a necessary move to rid the Philippines of endemic crime and corruption woes. More than 4,000 suspected drug users and dealers have fallen in police operations. More than 22,000 others are dead, their names on a database of "homicides under investigation" although little movement is seen in this area. Duterte has promised to pardon policemen charged with extrajudicial killings. He has already stomped on any hope for justice for the slain. "If you think that you can get justice simply because you lost somebody who's a bullshit into drugs, I'm sorry to tell you I will not allow it," he said. A year from now, Duterte will have completed his takeover of all government institutions, swept away checks and balances, leaving Filipinos with no hope for justice. Unless the country's church leaders wake up and look beyond their fortresses, where they have barricaded themselves against Duterte's verbal abuse, they will have to account for their paralysis as their flock get swept up into a monster's maw. Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.