When students of the St. Scholastica's College
, a Catholic school for girls in Manila, recently flocked into the streets to show support for displaced tribal youth, the students were honoring decades of church aid for indigenous Filipino people. Other faith-based organizations have also toiled for years in the Philippine countryside, helping environmental activists and farmers defend lush fields and forests coveted by big business, attracting attention only during protest rallies or when they die in defense of their flock. The Promotion of Church People's Rights has listed 31 church workers slain since the turn of the century. At least 13 priests have been murdered since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos took power up until the end of Benigno Aquino's administration in 2016. All the slain priests were fierce grassroots fighters for justice and human rights, living and working with the so-called marginalized sectors. At the grassroots level, this kind of mission continues to this day. It is the church hierarchy that has waffled, with the country's Catholic bishops struggling to find their footing in the first year of President Rodrigo Duterte's
rule as they suffered a barrage of scathing verbal attacks.
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The prelates broke cover only in August, on the heels of a public outcry against killings in a drug war that has largely targeted urban poor communities. "It appears that the power of the church has waned," said Redemptorist Father Amado Picardal. "The church is now perceived by many as powerless and lacking influence or political clout," added the missionary. Catholic bishops are facing attacks on all fronts as the nation squares off into bitter, polarized camps. Duterte has accused the clergy of corruption, sex abuse, double standards, and aiding a conspiracy to overthrow him. At the opposite end, the president's critics have slammed the perceived silence of church leaders and what has been seen as their accommodation of Duterte's brutal law and order program. Nash Tysmans, a teacher and community worker, wrote an impassioned response to a Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle pastoral statement in August that called for a national dialogue for a united response to the problem of illegal drugs. "We need one another. We cannot disregard each other," the cardinal appealed. "The illegal drug problem should not be reduced to a political or criminal issue," he said. Tymans' well-shared response reflected what national surveys would later show: overwhelming repudiation of killings done in the name of the people and frustration that the church was not doing enough for the least of its brethren. The Catholic-schooled Tysmans said Cardinal Tagle focused too much on prayer and reflection and too little on the need for action and solidarity with victims of human rights violations. "Why do the widows of murdered husbands weep alone? Why must they raise frightened children without the comfort of our Catholic consolation? And why do we insist that only the innocent deserve our love?" said Tysmans. Both the cardinal and Tysmans are right. Many of the thousands slain in Asia's most predominantly Catholic country are part of Cardinal Tagle's flock. Filipino Catholics have chafed previously at fierce, condemnatory statements from bishops on divisive issues of reproductive health, gay rights and divorce. They are understandably angry at the atypical response toward the campaign of summary executions. There is no rationalizing murder by state forces. But the cardinal also faces a harsh reality: Many Catholics voted for Duterte
, believing that hammering at the pillars of the country's elite would end poverty and the toxic nexus of crime and corrupt governance. The cardinal cannot just dismiss where they're coming from. There hasn't been a "Catholic vote" in the Philippines for a long time. The issues here that continue to pit flock against their shepherds have all been resolved in other Catholic countries. Still, it's painful to see disconnect on so basic an issue as human rights. Cardinal Tagle is right not to condemn Duterte's supporters, and not just because many are finally speaking out against the killings. Consciences do not die overnight. Neither can they be resurrected with just a few sermons. The weakening of the church's prophetic voice began soon after the victory of People Power in 1986. Faith leaders transformed the Basic Christian Communities that battled the dictatorship to Basic Ecclesial Communities, gradually killing community activism to focus on personal piety and salvation. Father Picardal said that turning Catholics inward eroded the church's ability to help build a collective social conscience and mobilize for social transformation. Critics of church leaders, however, forget that bishops and priests get their strength from the laity. The first urban and rural diocesan centers to come out openly against the drug-related killings were those that had built or repaired links to organized communities tested by years of battles for the right to housing, agrarian reform, environmental preservation and better social services, sometimes amid the silence or even hostility of church leaders. With most laity formations still incapable or unwilling to face the might of the state, Catholic dioceses have sounded a call for battered organizers who have been ushered out to pasture decades back and tempered since by hard work with other sectors. In recent months, as the gunfire and the screams punctuated nights during the reign of Duterte, the pockets of light spreading among Catholics in communities are fashioning a map for the church's stewards. Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and commentator based in Manila.