Philippines President Doubles Down on Drug War Despite Religious Strife

July 23, 2018
Rodrigo Duterte

In his third annual state of the Union address, 73-year-old Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte declined to discuss his ongoing battles with the powerful Catholic Church, instead focusing on his contentious drug war that has taken over 4,500 lives during his reign.

Duterte has been at odds with the powerful Catholic Church presence in the Philippines for years, having previously questioned the concepts of original sin and infant baptism and suggested that the Church is leaching money from Filipino citizens. More recently, Duterte promised to immediately resign from his post if any one of his constituents could prove God’s existence via a selfie. During the same speech, Duterte called God a “stupid” “son of a b----.”

Leaders in the Catholic Church have responded to Duterte’s remarks with thinly-veiled calls for repentance from “those who have blasphemed God’s Holy Name, those who slander and bear false witness, and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality in our country.”

Apart from its quick response to his anti-Church remarks, the Catholic Church has been a vocal opponent of Duterte’s self-proclaimed “relentless and chilling” war on drugs, which has relied on violent national police enforcement and resulted in the murders of at least 10 mayors and thousands of civilians since Duterte took office in 2016.

In an open letter to the president in early July, president of the Philippines bishops’ conference Romulo Valles made a “pastoral exhortation” for an end to the bloody drug war.

“Do we not feel the sufferings of drug addicts who are labelled as ‘non-humans’ and are stigmatized as criminals when their names end up in the dreaded ‘drug watch lists’?” Valles wrote on July 9. “Should we not rather look at them also as victims who are crying out for help? Are we to remain as bystanders when we hear of people being killed in cold blood by ruthless murderers who dispose of human lives like trash?”

Despite the massive influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, where more than 80 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, Duterte’s populist, off-the-cuff style and his strict war on drugs have maintained significant support from his largely Catholic constituents. Only after Duterte’s negative comments about God did his ratings take a significant dip, hitting an all-time low of 45 percent.

Aries Arugay, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, told the Washington Post that he thinks explicitly anti-God comments are responsible for Duterte’s waning popularity.

“It has repercussions in a society that is deeply religious. You’re talking about the biggest Catholic society in Asia,” Arugay said.  

In a defensive speech following the backlash from his anti-God remarks, Duterte said he believes in God but disagrees with the theology of the Catholic Church.

“I didn’t say that my God is stupid,” Duterte said at the end of June. “I said your God is not my God because your God is stupid. Mine has a lot of common sense.”

Duterte’s state of the Union address, however, focused largely on the violent crackdown on drugs that has marked his 2-year reign. Promising that the anti-drug campaign is “far from over,” Duterte suggested the Catholic Church was choosing the wrong side in the conflict.

“Sadly, I have yet to really hear howls of protest from human rights advocates and church leaders against drug lordism, drug dealing and drug pushing as forceful and vociferous,” Duterte said today

It remains to be seen whether Duterte’s open criticisms of God and Catholic Church will do more to alienate him from his Catholic base than his disagreements with the Church in regard to the drug war. Catholic groups numbered among the thousands that gathered in Manila this morning to protest the president’s state of the Union address.

As nearly 8,000 groups assembled outside the St. Peter Parish Church Monday, social critic Mae Paner said interfaith and cross-issue collaboration is key to forging political change.

“It benefits Duterte if we are a fragmented opposition but the fact that we have come together – all political colors, all civil society [groups]; we have really made our force very strong against our president,” Paner said.

Inside the House of Representatives complex, Duterte closed out his remarks with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln.

“I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end,” Duterte said after 48 minutes of a partially-scripted speech. “If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels of God swearing that I was right would make no difference.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Rodrigo Duterte. Photo by PCOO EDP, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.