May The Saint Help The Phillippines

The Philippines is becoming an increasingly violent country which requires the prayers of the whole Church in what could well be its hour of Gethsemane
November 21 2016 | by

Since Rodrigo Duterte was elected as President of the Philippines in May this year in the region of 3,000 people have died in the state-sponsored killings of drug dealers, addicts and other minor criminals.

The police have admitted responsibility for killing about 1,000 of these in a wave of violence demanded by Duterte, who had personally assured officers they had no need to worry about due process. “My order is shoot to kill,” he told them. “I don’t care about human rights, you’d better believe me.”

Most of the remainder are classified as ‘deaths under investigation’ and largely comprise of altogether more complicated cases – for instance, shootings by vigilantes, and bounty hunters and other professional killers, even rogue policemen, hired perhaps by drug gangs to silence rivals and anyone else they suspect may be willing to cooperate with the authorities in return for their own lives and liberty.


Summary executions


In September, Father Luciano Feloni, an Argentine priest serving in Caloocan City, gave an insight into what this bloodshed looks on the ground. He told Catholic News Service, the US press agency, that the killings began in his parish of Our Lady of Lourdes just days before Duterte’s inauguration on June 30. Since then an average of three to five people have been murdered there every week.

“I know the numbers because we said the funeral Mass for them,” he told CNS. “Almost all were killed in the same way – a motorcycle would come up with two people, and one would get off and pull a gun and kill the person, then they would ride away. No one ever gets caught or convicted.”

Naturally, the Catholic Church opposes the summary executions of anyone, and in June the bishops issued a five-point statement in opposition to any shoot-to-kill policy. They reminded police officers that there must be a genuine, not conjectural, threat to human life for such shootings to be justified, and they also said that “it is never morally permissible to receive reward money to kill another.”


Healing, Not Killing


Rhetoric alone was never enough to save drug offenders from Duterte’s Gotham-style justice, however, so, thinking intelligently and creatively, Catholic parishes in the Philippines have set up a scheme called ‘Healing, Not Killing’, which aims to save the lives of drug addicts by encouraging them to surrender to the police and to undergo detoxification and rehabilitation programs.

It may be an example of the Church wisely serving the poorest and most needy in a context where its own survival is endangered, a bit like Pope Pius XII secretly hiding the Jews in the religious houses of Rome under the noses of the Nazis.

In any case, the human rights violations of Duterte are so intolerable that pundits everywhere predict that it might be only a matter of time before they bring him directly into conflict with the Catholic bishops.

This would prove a particularly stern test for Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila, and the favorite with bookmakers to become the next pope. John Allen, the much-respected US Vatican commentator, believes such a clash is inevitable, proclaiming that “the stage has been set for a classic showdown between the Church and the State in the Philippines… and the whole Catholic world has an investment in how this plays out.”


Mercy vs Justice


Luke Coppen, the editor of the Catholic Herald in London, observed that “a battle between the Cardinal and the President would pit mercy against justice, the law of love against the lex talionis (the ‘eye for an eye’ principle of Mosaic law)” before astutely suggesting that the Cardinal would achieve more by standing in patient and quiet solidarity with the poor rather than confronting the President “head on”.

I am sure he is right, but this ‘long-game’ option has the best chance only if the Philippines remains comparatively stable, and since he has been in office Duterte has done little to reassure either the Church or the world that under his leadership he will uphold the rule of law.

If anything, things are getting worse. Take, for instance, the “state of national emergency” Duterte declared following the massacre of 14 people in Davao by Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim terrorist group allied to the Islamic State, in early September.

His decree granted the army and security services new sweeping powers to protect national security. Duterte soon afterwards included common criminals alongside Islamists as threats against the state. Duterte, it seems, had used Islamist terrorism as the pretext to shamelessly grab more power for himself and to further undermine the increasingly precarious situation of democracy in the Philippines.


Dark shadows


At this point, Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila warned Catholics of the danger of their country rapidly becoming a police state, of the return to the “dark shadows” of the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, a late 20th century leader whose corruption and brutality is only a fraction less infamous than his wife Imelda’s penchant for collecting shoes.

And it is not only the Church which is concerned about the direction in which the Philippines is moving: US President Barack Obama voiced his concerns about the extra-judicial killings only to be rebuked as a “son of a whore” by Duterte, which resulted in the cancellation of a meeting between the two men at a summit in Laos.

The insult is one which the 71-year-old populist deploys with astonishing regularity on the public stage; he hurled it even at Pope Francis when he was frustrated by traffic congestion during the papal visit to Manila of 2015. There appear few boundaries he is unwilling to cross. He also called the Filipino bishops corrupt sons of whores, attacked Philip Goldberg, the US Ambassador to the Philippines, as a “gay son of whore,” and he joked that the saddest aspect of the 1989 gang rape and murder of Jacqueline Hamill, an Australian missionary who worked in a prison in Davao, when Duterte was serving as mayor, was that he was not the first in line to violate her.

Indeed, it really is astonishing that a man of such egregious dispositions was ever elected as President of the world’s third most populous Catholic country even if crime and corruption appeared out of control.


Question of conscience


Rodrigo Duterte’s election, by 38 percent of the vote, is all the more perplexing, given the clear opposition of the bishops to his candidacy. One of them, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro City, went so far as to issue a pastoral letter, called ‘A Question of Conscience’, in which he drew the attention of the electorate to the mass murders of more than 1,400 people in Davao during Duterte’s 23-year tenure as mayor of the city. Victims included 76 women and 132 children aged between 12 and 17 years.

The Archbishop’s instincts have proved entirely correct because on assuming office Duterte appointed Rolando Dela Rossa, a Davao police officer, as the new director general of the Philippine National Police, with the implication that he intended to expand his death squad policies from the local to the national level.

Before his election, Duterte’s response to the efforts of the Bishops to keep him from office was to characteristically threaten them and swear at them. At about that time he also revealed that a late US Jesuit molested him as a child. Funnily enough, Archbishop Ledesma is also a Jesuit, a perhaps less than coincidental fact overlooked by media observers marveling at the prospect of the Philippines becoming the first country to be ruled by a survivor of clerical sex abuse. Duterte was in fact warning his ecclesiastical opponents to shut up – or else face some victim’s vengeance.

So far, the Church hasn’t shut up and Duterte keeps giving the Bishops new reasons for them to be upset with him. He is a firm supporter of population control, for instance, and wants to launch a contraceptive campaign with the aim of limiting couples to having a maximum of three children. He has quipped that he was willing to castrate men to achieve his objective, but with Duterte it is not always easy to know when he his joking or not.

He also intends to reintroduce capital punishment 20 years after it was abolished by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – not just for those guilty of heinous crimes, but also for car thieves and, of course, drugs offenders.

This so incensed the Bishops that one of them, Archbishop Ramón Cabrera Argüelles of Lipa, said he would take the place of the first person condemned to death. “The Archbishop of Lipa will volunteer to be executed in the place of all those the government will hang,” he said, speaking of himself in the third person. “Didn’t Christ do that?”


St. Anthony’s relics


So far there have been just two Filipinos canonized as saints – Ss Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod – and both are missionary martyrs. Should Duterte take up Archbishop Argüelles on his offer, then the prelate would have the unique honor of becoming the first Filipino to win the crown of martyrdom on home soil. It might also herald an unprecedented persecution of the Church there.

The fear of this is real. In Caloocan City, Fr. Feloni spoke about the prospect of Duterte’s violence spreading: “A lot of people are really taking the President’s ideas very seriously, and that’s dangerous,” he told CNS. “We are becoming a much more violent society and that can easily spiral out of control. As the Church we have to do something. They were asking me today about what could happen to any of us who are working on this. We can also be targets of violence. And I said that the biggest danger is that we as a Church do nothing. We will face God and God will ask us what we have done beside funerals.”

Cardinal Tagle, for the moment, is keeping his cards close to his chest. But there can be no disputing where his loyalties lie. In April and May, the relics of St. Anthony of Padua were taken to the Philippines, and the Cardinal was filmed speaking briefly about the significance of this saint to him in a meeting with the editor of this magazine, Fr. Mario Conte.

“I grew up learning from my parents… who St. Anthony was – the miracle worker who cared for the poor and a very good preacher of the Word of God,” he said. “I always turn to St. Anthony for the needs of the poor, and also for my own needs as a minister of the Word.”


Hour of Gethsemane


Weeks later, Cardinal Tagle released a novena for the protection of the Philippines to be prayed in the nine days running up to Duterte’s inauguration.

This was a vitally important move: the Cardinal surely understands that our union with God in prayer, along with the sacraments, is how Christians come to discern the will of Our Lord and find the grace to fulfill it. This might include the fortitude to endure suffering.

At this moment, the Philippines requires the prayers of the whole Church in what could well be its hour of Gethsemane.

Updated on November 21 2016