“It looks like he’s having a breakdown,” said John Batchelor on his nationally syndicated radio show on January 18. That day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had told Catholic priests to take shabu, methamphetamine, if they wanted to understand his war on drugs.
Or more precisely, his war on drug dealers, which according to a recent count has claimed the lives of 7,042 people since he took office last June 30. During this time, police had been “pro-actively gunning down suspects,” the conclusion Reuters draws from a 97 percent kill rate in police raids.
The Catholic Church has been one of the few institutions in Philippine society to oppose the extra-judicial executions—essentially state-sponsored murders—and so it is no surprise that the tough-guy president has now gone after bishops and priests.
Last Thursday, in what Reuters termed a “no-holds-barred tirade,” Duterte, talking to policemen, blasted the church for homosexuality, corruption, and child abuse.
Enraged over Catholic opposition to his campaign, the Philippine leader, a Catholic, challenged the Church to a confrontation. “You asked for it,” he said. “If you want a showdown, then let’s have a showdown. You mend your ways. If you cannot even give justice to the small boys that you have molested in the past, you do not have that moral ascendency to lecture on what to do.”
It is no accident that Duterte talked about molestation when he went after the church. Last year, he claimed he had been sexually abused in his youth by a priest.
The drug campaign defines Duterte. And, in his mind it is the singular issue that divides others into friends or enemies. One of those enemies is the US. The Obama administration criticized Duterte for gross human rights abuses in connection with the war on drugs. And Duterte was quick and dismissive in his sharp response.
“The Punisher,” as Duterte is sometimes called, has gotten away with bashing Washington. Even though the US is generally viewed positively, it is a foreign power that once colonized the country. Yet bashing the Catholic Church is another story.
Some 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, and each Sunday many of them go to Mass, to hear their priest say what the Church’s hierarchy thinks. That gives the bishops, who represent an institution two millennia old, a pulpit—thousands of them in fact—to compete with Duterte. Yet, for now, the Church has not taken direct aim at him, choosing instead to patiently acknowledge the shortcomings he has mentioned.
Duterte will probably maintain his popularity over the next several months by railing at the Church. But this is one fight extremely difficult for him to win in the long run. The Catholic Church, after all, has a long history of dealing with recalcitrant secular leaders, and it usually prevails. Eventually, Duterte’s brutal campaign will surely lose support as police excesses become too blatant to ignore. It seems only a matter of time, therefore, that the bishops will make him bend—or force him out.
Duterte said that if God is displeased with him, He should come down and help him rid the Philippines of pushers. Although one assumes He will not travel to the Philippines any time soon for this purpose, it is likely that His clerical representatives will engage the president. And, if history repeats, it is highly unlikely the president will be pleased with the intervention.