MANILA, Philippines—”May pari ba dito?” (Is there a priest here?)
For the past three years, this question has become the prelude to President Rodrigo Duterte’s scathing and profanity-laden tirades against the Catholic Church. Since becoming the President, he has made the Church and the Catholic priests among the subjects of his wrath.
He mocked their beliefs, teachings, and its members for criticizing his leadership and his iron-fisted anti-drug policies.
Duterte has been denounced for throwing criticisms, mostly unfounded, against the Catholic Church – the religion of at least eight out of 10 Filipinos. In a number of his speeches, the President has lambasted unidentified priests for allegedly having affairs. It has also become his habit to distribute copies of the book of the now-deceased journalist Aries Rufo entitled “Altar of Secrets,” which detailed some of the Filipino clergymen’s misdeeds.
The firebrand leader has tagged the Church as the “most hypocritical” institution in the country, stressing that it has no business to criticize his administration as members of the clergy themselves commit abuses. He has also repeatedly joked of creating his church—Iglesia ni Duterte. His frequent rhetorical outbursts against the Church are often far beyond what’s considered acceptable by his critics.
Molested by a priest?
Even during his 2016 presidential campaign, Duterte minced no words calling out the Church for the alleged sexual molestation he suffered from an American priest when he was still a teenager studying at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University. He even called out his abuser by name in an interview late 2015.
“It happened during our generation, two years ahead of us and two years following us,” then-Davao City mayor Duterte said. “It cost him some P25 million because other victims filed a case, it was a case of fondling—you know what—he did during confession, that’s how we lost our innocence early.”
Duterte said he did not file a case because he was just a young boy that time, and was afraid. “It was a sort of sexual awakening for each of us,” he said, “We realized quite early that ganun talaga ang buhay (that’s life”. Paano magreklamo? Takot kami. (How we will complain? We are scared)”
This perhaps provides cover to some of his bold comments towards the clergymen, whom he asserts that almost 90 percent are homosexual without elaborating or citing a basis.
‘Pope, you son of a…’
In November 2015, Duterte announced his candidacy for President after boasting his zero-tolerance approach to crime, drugs, and corruption. The announcement lured international attention after he cursed Pope Francis for the heavy traffic he had to endure during the Catholic leader’s Manila visit early that year.
Speaking in his usual joking tone, Duterte said: “Gusto kong tawagan, ‘Pope putang ina ka, umuwi ka na. ‘Wag ka nang magbisita dito.”
(I want to call him and say “Pope you’re a son of a bitch, go home. Do not visit here anymore”.)
This controversial remark provoked a storm of outrage and global condemnation from the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide.
Though he has repeatedly claimed that he believes in God, the eternal being, however, was not spared from Duterte’s foul-mouthing.
In a speech in June 2018, he slammed the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Bible and the logic behind the Christian concept of original sin.
Asking “Who is this stupid God?” Duterte lambasted the Biblical story of creation and Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden after they ate the “forbidden fruit.”
“You created something perfect and then you think of an event that would destroy the quality of your work. How can you rationalize that God? How can you believe him? So now we’re all born with original sin. Even in the womb, we already have sinned. What kind of religion is that?” he said.
After he drew the public’s ire, Duterte apologized to God.
The President said: “Sorry, God. I said sorry, God. If God is taken in a generic term by everybody listening, then that’s well and good.”
Christ ‘unimpressive’; Holy Trinity ‘silly’
In a speech in Kidapawan City, Cotabato late last year, the President attacked the doctrine of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
“Magdasal ka na sa isang Diyos, magdasal ka pa dito sa santong yawa. Isa lang ang Diyos. (You pray to God, then you still have to these demon saints. There’s only one God) There’s only one God, period. You cannot divide God into three, that’s silly,” said Duterte.
Before attacking the holy doctrine of Trinity, the President said Jesus Christ is “unimpressive” for allowing himself to be nailed on the cross.
“‘Yung Diyos mo, pinako sa krus. Tangina. Nakakawala ng bilib. Ako ang Diyos, tapos ipako mo ako? Putang ina. Sabihin ko, ‘Lightning, ubusin mo ito. Sunugin mo lahat ng mga erehes,’” he said.
(Your God was crucified on the cross. Fuck. Unbelievable. I am God, and then you crucify me to the cross? Son of a bitch. I’ll say, ‘Lightning, take it down. Burn all the herds.)
Nearly two months before this, Duterte likewise belittled saints, whom he called as“fools” and “drunkards” on All Saints’ Day.
“Tarantado talaga itong mga Katoliko, puta. Bakit may All Souls’ Day tapos may All Saints’ Day. Hindi nga natin alam ‘yung mga santo, na kung sino mga gago na ‘yun, mga lasenggo,” Duterte said.
(These Catholics are really tarnished, fuck. Why is there an All Souls Day and then an All Saints’ Day? We do not even know these saints, who are those fools, drunkards.)
“Dito na lang kayo, I’ll give you one patron para hindi na kayo magpasyal. Get hold of a picture of mine. ‘Yan ang ilagay niyo sa altar: Santo Rodrigo,” he added.
(I’ll give you one patron so you will not go on a trip. Get hold of a picture of mine. ‘Put it on the altar: Santo Rodrigo.)
Days after, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said it was only a joke, a kind of “playful jab,” from the President.
‘Duterte not a priest’
But for presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, the public should take her father’s statements on governance seriously, but not his opinions on religion as he was not a pastor, a priest or an imam.
“Please do not listen to him interpret the Bible or Quran, he is not a priest, a pastor or an imam,” Duterte-Carpio said.
Instead, she urged people to “listen only when he speaks about his work and criticize him on his work and not on his ‘talkkalese’.”
“Do not waste your negative energy on his interpretation of the bible, that is his opinion. He is protected by the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression even if he is President,” she stressed.
‘Kill, rob moneyed bishops’
Perhaps one of the Duterte’s more disturbing attacks happened early 2019 when he asked bystanders to kill and rob rich bishops.
“Kaya pagdating ko sabi ko, ‘Hoy, kayong mga tambay diyan, ‘pag dumaan ‘yang obispo ninyo holdapan ‘yan maraming pera ‘yan putang ina niya. Patayin mo,” Duterte said.
(To the bystanders, if your bishop passes by, rob them, they have lots of money. Kill them.)
The President had defended his public outbursts against the Church by claiming that the men in the cloak were using the pulpit to criticize him and his government.
This was also Panelo’s go-to reason in shielding his boss’ repeated rhetorics.
“If the men of the cloth can unleash tirades against the President, then they should be able to receive some lashes from him to return the favor,” Panelo said in a previous statement.
Priest killings and death threats
Weeks after Duterte’s “order” to bystanders, at least three Catholic priests, known for being outspoken against the drug-related killings in the country, claimed they have received death threats.
Jesuit priest Albert Alejo, Divine Word missionary priest Flavie Villanueva, and diocesan priest Robert Reyes stepped forward on March 11 and said that they are in fear of their lives.
“The President is the President. Whatever he says, whether it sounds like a joke, becomes policy,” Reyes said. “When he says, ‘Kill the bishops,’ that’s policy.”
Before this, another drug war critic in Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David bared receiving death threats.
David has earned the ire of Duterte, who even threatened to kill him in November 2018. The President also accused him of being involved in the drug trade and pocketing church collections.
The priests, however, vowed to continue speaking out against the killings despite the threats because “speaking against evil is our moral obligation.”
Panelo downplayed the death threats and said that it could be from “anti-Duterte trolls” to put the President in a bad light. He even suggested that the threats could also come from the priests’ “personal foes.”
“While there is no denying that some members of the clergy have been receiving threatening messages, there is also the likelihood that these could be from personal foes of the priests who came forward,” Panelo told INQUIRER.net.
“These could also be the work of pranksters since death threats sent via text messages are the easiest and most convenient thing to do as there is a sense of anonymity with an untraceable sender who uses disposable SIM cards. These could also be the handiwork of paid anti-Duterte trolls to put the President in a bad light,” he added.
In 2018, the country saw a spate of killings of priests. Father Mark Ventura was killed in the town of Gattaran, in Cagayan on April 29, just four months after Father Marcelito Paez was killed in Nueva Ecija. In June 2018, Father Richmond Nilo was shot dead in Cabanatuan City.
Critics believe that Duterte’s tirades against priests and the Church had encouraged the killing of the priests. But the President denied persecuting the clergy nor ordering their killings.
“Wala kaming policy na galit kami sa pari. As a matter of fact, rinerespeto ko ‘yung Simbahan,” Duterte said on June 20, during a Philippine Councilors League event in Iloilo City. He also claimed that some of the priests who were recently killed had affairs with women, which he said could be the reason for their deaths.
Attacking the Church in Asia’s biggest Catholic nation could be considered political suicide. But not if you’re Duterte, as shown in a recent Social Weather Station (SWS) survey and the May 2019 elections.
Despite all the outrageous things Duterte has said towards the Church, his anti-Catholic rhetoric does not appear to have seriously damaged his popularity. Nine of 12 senatorial aspirants he endorsed emerged winners in the May elections.
He also scored a record-high 80-percent net satisfaction rating in the second quarter of 2019.
According to Ramon Casiple, a political analyst and Executive Director of Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, this is because the majority of Filipino Catholics are not keen on political meddling and are actually more “critical” toward Catholic teachings.
“Ang Pilipino kasi, except sa sarado Katoliko e napakaliit na grupo nyan, hindi naman nag-mimix ng politika at ng relihiyon. Meaning ibang standards ang sinusunod nila. And historically in fact mas rebelde ang Filipino against the Catholic [Church}…,” Casiple told INQUIRER.net.
But for Panelo, Duterte’s appeal is mainly because Filipinos understand that his remarks against the Church are mere “expression of frustration” at some members of the clergy, which he said were overshadowed by the government’s supposed actions on some pressing issues in the country.”
“People understand that the remarks of the President are just expressions of frustration and exasperation at some members of the clergy,” Panelo told INQUIRER.net.
“His swift actions on other pressing issues such as lowering crime rate, addressing soaring inflation, signing into laws which are critical to poverty reduction, among others, are felt and well-received by our fellowmen making him a well-trusted leader of our country,” he added.
Then, is engaging the Church a strategy of Duterte?
“I don’t think it’s a strategy. It’s more of a question na binibira kasi siya ng mga (ilang) bishops, I’m not talking of all, I’m not talking of the institution. Sa tingin niya, sa aking opinyon, nagtatago sa likod ng pulpito (kaya) binibira niya,” Casiple said.
But for the University of Sto. Tomas (UST) professor and political analyst Dennis Coronacion, Duterte’s perturbed appeal has something to do with his “timing” and the hypocrisy of traditional politicians.
“I supposed it just so happen na ‘yung mga Filipinos have become so fed up with the image being portrayed by politicians that they are religious, living a morally upright life. Fed up na sila [Filipinos] tapos hindi naman sila nagdedeliver,” Coronacion told INQUIRER.net
“It’s just the timing…If it was done before, halimbawa kung hindi pa naman sagad ‘yung pagiging hipokrito ng mga politiko, baka hindi pumatok ito. Baka pandirihan siya [Duterte],” he added.
Tirades vs Church to continue?
In the first half of his presidency, Duterte has delivered some of the most absurd remarks ever made by a public official—from his sexist jokes to unfounded tirades against the Church. With his popularity staying in good shape, it seems that the end to Duterte’s chilling criticisms against the Church and its members is nowhere in sight.
Coronacion said that for Duterte, all his critics, including a number of clergymen, are all but mere “political actors” who were just trying to impose their will.
“This guy is a politciian. He has been in politics for so many decades at ang tingin niya sa mga kaharap niya, ay these are all people who are fighting for their self-interest no matter what the background is,” the University of Sto. Tomas professor said.
“In other words, the President treats the members of the Catholic Church, the clergymen in particular, as nothing but ordinary political actors driven by their self-interest and so on and so forth…hindi ang tingin sa kanila e parang moral institution. Iba ang tingin ng Presidente, parang katulad lang din niya na pinaglalaban yun sariling interest,” he added.
While he did not claim whether Duterte will continue with his attacks on the church, Panelo reiterated that the President remains entitled to the freedom to express his sentiments.
“The President’s right, like any other citizen, to express his opinion or sentiments on any subject matter, can not be restrained or impaired,” the Palace official said.
“He does it to convey a message or to create the desired reaction and for the listeners to ponder for their own enlightenment,” he added.