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Will Philippine church leaders waltz with Duterte?

Relationship between church and president likely to remain frosty despite election of friendlier prelate as conference chief

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Published: August 17, 2017 05:27 AM GMT

Updated: August 17, 2017 05:31 AM GMT

Will Philippine church leaders waltz with Duterte?

Catholic seminarians join a protest march against the policies of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte during his State of the Nation Address on July 24. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


Even before he took office as Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte drew flak from church leaders for cussing during his presidential campaign.

The future leader later vowed to donate a thousand pesos (about US$20) to the Catholic Church for every cuss word he uttered "to atone for my sins."

He admitted being admonished by Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao.

"I got an admonition and a lecture on Christian values and good manners and right conduct," said Duterte. "The bishop told me to stop talking," he added.

He donated 2,000 pesos, about US$40 to Caritas, the Catholic Church's social action arm, after meeting the Davao prelate.

Fast forward to 2017. Duterte is president of the predominantly Catholic Philippines. He still swears when he gets angry, especially at bishops and priests who criticize his administration's "war against drugs."

It is not known if he continued to donate to Caritas for swearing.

Archbishop Valles has been elected head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines. His election was expected following the tradition of the collegial body to elect the sitting vice president as the next president.

The Davao prelate has served as the conference's vice president since 2013. He will officially take over as president of the body in December.

The presidential palace welcomed the election of Archbishop Valles, saying it "signals a new day of peace for a multi-cultural Philippines."

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A palace statement said the bishop's familiarity with the southern Philippines "would augur well for the country as we promote interfaith dialogue and intercultural understanding."

It also expressed hope that Archbishop Valles would ensure that church leaders will now "have a more open dialogue and cooperation with the government."

The Davao prelate has been seen as friendly with Duterte.

In a June 2016 interview, the archbishop said a "friendly sharing of ideas [with the president] would be good," adding that "like a friend-sinner … we would journey together."

He said he was "always hopeful" that church-state relations under the Duterte administration would be "very okay" because "I think he considers me as somebody like on the normal level, friendly, his friend."

The first year of the Duterte administration was far from friendly with the country's church leaders, who have criticized the president for condoning the killings of suspected drug users and dealers, and of cussing.

"Vulgarity is corruption," said Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, the sitting president of the bishops' conference. "When we find vulgarity funny, we have really become beastly and barbaric as a people," said the prelate.

Other church leaders called for "peace" between Duterte and the bishops.

Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato in Mindanao said "peace and the good of the nation" begin with the "process of rapprochement."

He said the country's church leaders have always been engaged in "critical collaboration with the government." The "attack and counterattack" is not the way of doing things and "does no one any good," he said.

Cardinal Quevedo said the "right man to build a bridge" is Archbishop Valles. 

Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz of Lingayen-Dagupan, a vocal critic of the government, said Archbishop Valles' friendship with Duterte could have advantages.

"They don't fight, they're not distant, they collaborate instead of fight," said the retired prelate.

In an earlier interview, however, Archbishop Cruz said he "would not feel comfortable" with Archbishop Valles as president of the conference because he is "rather close to Duterte."

"The closeness is nothing to do with what is right or wrong. It will have a relevance on how [the conference] will look at the overall value of the actuation of the president of the republic," said Archbishop Cruz.

With Archbishop Valles seen playing the "collaborator" role with the government, the new vice president of the conference, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, will likely play the "critic" in the relationship with the Duterte administration.

Bishop David, an outspoken critic of Duterte's "war against drugs," has already called on the president to "adjust" his anti-narcotics war into a "war against poverty" by "decentralizing progress … toward the countryside."

Archbishop Cruz explained that while the bishops' conference serves as a forum for church leaders to exchange views and issue doctrinal declarations, each bishop is free to speak on issues affecting their respective jurisdictions.

Archbishop Valles and Bishop David are "not higher than any bishop in ranking and in authority," said Archbishop Cruz, an expert on Canon Law.

Philippine Church history bears witness to splits between "conservatives" and "progressives" among its members. 

During the years of the Marcos' rule, some priests, and even bishops, supported the formation of the underground Christians for National Liberation while some bishops cozied with the dictatorship.

So will the new leadership of the country's Catholic bishops dance the waltz with Duterte? It is unlikely.

Joe Torres is bureau chief for UCAN Philippines based in Manila.

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