Church groups hold a demonstration in Manila on Jan. 25 to show unity against what they described as attacks on the Church. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
Two recent statements issued by the Philippine Catholic bishops’ conference, though muted in tone, sounded the alarm over the country’s political situation.
The statements, released after the bishops met in Manila for the first of their semi-annual assemblies, were carefully written; the documents did not even mention the name of President Rodrigo Duterte.
In an exhortation to voters in the Catholic-majority country to vote for the common good in upcoming mid-term elections, the bishops included a warning that Duterte’s government was headed towards "total control."
"The mid-term elections on May 13 are already crucial. In our country today checks and balances in government are being undermined. So far the Senate is the only institution in government that is holding out as our country is inching towards total control."
The use of "country" to mean "the present government" is both diplomatic and clearly understood. And the context for the bishops' analysis of the undermining of the democratic principle of checks and balances is also clear: The executive branch has almost complete domination of the House of Representatives and effective control of the Supreme Court; in this reading, only the Senate, where a vocal minority is still able to block impeachments or other extraordinary measures, is "holding out."
The bishops use slightly stronger language to signal their opposition to the latest government attempt to change the 1987 constitution.
"However, more than the elections, another serious, and perhaps more insidious, matter that we should pay attention to is the threat the version of constitutional change and federalism approved by the Lower House and now being dangled to the senators [presents]. It takes away the term limits of most of the elected officials and allows political dynasties to continue. It opens the national resources to foreign ownership and eventual control. Its version of federalism is vague and it will do away with the 2019 elections.
"We denounce any attempt to avoid the 2019 elections."
Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao (center), head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, presides over the media briefing at the end of the conference's biannual meeting in Manila on Jan. 28. With Archbishop Valles are Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan (left) and Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
This position should not come as a surprise; a year ago, the bishops released pastoral guidelines "for discerning the moral dimension of the present-day moves" to revise the constitution. In sum, the bishops agreed with those who favor the "full implementation" of the constitution, rather than its revision. The provisions of the three-decade old basic law that have not yet been implemented include a ban on political dynasties.
The second communication from the bishops — a pastoral statement issued to address Duterte’s attacks on Church doctrine as well as criticism of the Church for its response to the president’s extremely violent campaign against illegal drugs — adopted a similarly measured tone.
"We are aware that many of you have been wondering why your bishops have kept a collective silence over many disturbing issues, about which you may have felt you urgently needed our spiritual and pastoral guidance. Forgive us for the length of time that it took us to find our collective voice."
To Duterte’s attacks, the bishops offered the other cheek.
"When people do not understand our essential doctrines as Roman Catholic Christians, we have also ourselves to blame…. Perhaps we should find better and more appropriate ways of communicating the faith."
But to criticism about its role in rehabilitating drug addicts and assisting the families of the victims of the government’s "war on drugs," the conference stood fast.
"There are people who, perhaps out of concern for us, have warned us about being critical of the government’s fight against illegal drugs. Perhaps we need to make ourselves clear about this issue. We are not against the government’s efforts to fight illegal drugs…. It was when we started hearing of mostly poor people being brutally murdered on mere suspicion of being small-time drug users and peddlers while the big-time smugglers and drug lords went scot-free, that we started wondering about the direction this drug war was taking."
While a majority of voting-age people supports the so-called drug war, the same surveys show that a greater majority wants suspects arrested alive. Three-quarters of the respondents say they fear they or someone they know will be the next victim, and only between five to nine percent definitely believe the police when police say suspects were killed because they fought back.
On this issue, the bishops’ position of support for the campaign in principle and its suspicions about the high death toll closely mirrors public opinion.
The pastoral statement, titled "Conquer evil with good," also expressed the bishops’ resolve to continue responding to the drug war and the extrajudicial killings.
"As bishops, we have no intention of interfering in the conduct of state affairs. But neither do we intend to abdicate our sacred mandate as shepherds to whom the Lord has entrusted his flock. We have a solemn duty to defend our flock, especially when they are attacked by wolves."
In their election-related exhortation, the bishops called on the youth "whose future is very much at stake to participate in the electoral process especially by using their skills and knowledge of social media to advance what is true, what is just, and what is for the common good."
This appeal follows the conference’s pioneering release of social media guidelines in January 2017, and its active involvement in efforts to identify fake-news websites and to push back against disinformation. "No one can say in this age of social media that she/he cannot participate in politics," the bishops said.
The pastoral statement and the exhortation were issued on the same day, Jan. 28, in the name of the conference president, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao.
President Duterte was mayor of Davao City for seven terms, or a total of 22 years.
John Nery is a senior journalist from the Philippines. He writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ucanews.com.