Tagle steps up to unite church in anti-Duterte march

Church leaders denounce Duterte's federalist constitution as anti-poor and anti-democratic
Tagle steps up to unite church in anti-Duterte march

Church groups join a demonstration in Manila to protest moves to change the Philippine Constitution. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


The rise of a former mayor from the southern Philippines in 2016 has polarized the country's Catholics, bother clergy and laity. Now they may have found a unifying cause in opposing charter change.

Catholics and Filipinos from other Christian groups are marching on Feb. 24 to oppose a planned overhaul of the constitution that is seen as the apex of President Rodrigo Duterte's plan to establish authoritarian rule.

Cardinal Antonio Luis Tagle, the global Caritas chief, will lead the "Walk for Life" on the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the ouster of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Parishes, religious congregations, and lay formations are expected to take part in the event. Many of them will find their way to the capital's main highway later in the day to join a protest rally by a new coalition against charter change.

The Catholic National Council of the Laity announced that the marchers would be calling for a thorough investigation into the extrajudicial killings and drug-related deaths that are estimated to have run into the thousands during Duterte's administration.

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The council has already issued a statement slamming changes in the Philippine Constitution that would worsen "the systematic [pillaging] of our natural resources through mining and development projects that destroy our oceans, rivers, land, forests and other sources of life."

In recent months, nuns and priest from various religious congregations have joined protests against the government's bloody crackdown on suspected drug addicts and narcotics gangs.

The bishops, however, seem to tiptoe around the strongman from the southern Philippines. Some have justified his draconian law and order policies. Others ran for cover when Duterte started attacking the clergy over sexual abuse and corruption.

The proposed changes to the 1987 Constitution have finally jolted the Catholic hierarchy out of its stupor.

For one, it gives a future parliament full discretion in opening key sectors, including education, to foreign ownership and control. That would pose a challenge to church-run schools and universities, including several that are acknowledged as the best providers of higher education.

The opposition to charter change, however, ranges beyond the economic interest of church leaders.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, in new pastoral guidelines, warned that many of the proposed changes, which Duterte defends as modernization of governance, are anti-poor and anti-democratic.

The president has campaigned with a promise to call a constitutional convention to pave the way for a shift to a federal form of government. Instead, a few hundred members of his Congress' supermajority are taking liberties over the fate of the nation. Their planned overhaul of the constitution tramples on the gains of a people that ousted a two-decade-old dictatorship in 1986.

Duterte claims the country needs charter changes to correct a century of "historical injustice" that centralizes power and economic benefits in the national capital at the expense of provinces. He also said federalism will rev up the economy by allowing five new autonomous states to directly transact loans, joint ventures, and the entry of foreign investment.

But the proposed changes drafted by his key political allies have more to do with crippling democratic institutions and consolidating power under an authoritarian leader.

The draft charter strikes out many of the current constitutional safeguards geared to give workers, fisher folk, farmers, and indigenous people a boost up the economic ladder.

The proposed changes also allow ownership and exploitation by foreigners of natural resources, including land, minerals and water bodies. It even gifts incumbent officials with term extensions.

The most dangerous change kills the checks and balances necessary to deflect neglect or abuse of authority.

The judiciary, now a co-equal branch of government, and constitutional independent bodies, would fall under the power of the chief executive, especially during a transitory period that extends for the remainder of Duterte's term. It leaves Filipinos without institutional recourse for grievances against the state.

The country's bishops said Duterte's charter change initiative goes against the church's belief in an inclusive process.

Their guidelines also note that any changes should correct a "blatant disregard for human rights," broaden and deepen the differences among democratic institutions, enhance the separation of state powers, foster social justice and weaken the system of patronage politics and political dynasties that now control 80 percent of elective positions.

"If the constitution is to be revised at all, the process should lead to a greater defense and promotion of the above-mentioned moral values of human dignity and human rights, integrity and truth, participation and solidarity, and the common good," read the guidelines.

Duterte's vision of the future is antithetical to the church's position.

"Let us not wait for dictatorship to happen again before we take a stance," said Bishop Broderick Pabillo, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on the Laity.

Julieta Wasan, president of the National Council of the Laity, said the constitution should not be blamed for festering political, economic and social problems.

The problem is that the political dynasties controlling government bodies have refused to fully implement the constitution.

Duterte's supposed federalist constitution is a deceptive, cynical ploy that takes advantage of people's legitimate complaints. It can only strengthen the powerful, land-owning clans by allowing them full discretion over the country's wealth — and Filipinos' human rights and civil liberties.

Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.

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