Catholic Church Unsure How to React to Duterte's Violent War on Drugs

The Catholic Church in the Philippines struggles to take a stand against the murderous drug war probed by President Duterte.

The Philippines is Asia’s most Catholic nation, with a reported population of 80 million Catholics in a country of 100 million citizens. This accounts for more than half of the entire continent’s 148 million Catholics. Not only is the country the most populous in the continent in terms of faith, it is the third most active Catholic nation worldwide. It is no wonder, the church has had numerous successes in directing the future of the Philippines, from toppling Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada to successfully repealing the death penalty in 2006. However, with the election of President Rodrigo Duterte the church is faced with a dilemma that is proving hard to resolve.

Duterte, colloquially referred to as ‘the Punisher’ came to power promising to eradicate the drug problem in the country. Since his ascension to power, almost 4,000 people have lost their lives due to extrajudicial killings and vigilante-led purges. Most of the victims were small time drug dealers and drug addicts. Any opposition to this brutal war on drugs has been met by vicious and curse-filled rhetoric from the president.

Per the Social Weather Stations agency, Duterte has a 76 percent satisfaction rating with the populace, indicating his approach to the war on drugs is appealing to as many people as there are Catholics in the Philippines. The Social Weather Stations conducted another poll in which 84 percent of people polled are okay with the war on drugs, although there was a strong majority who have an issue with the killings.

With the way the war on drugs is being waged and popular support, Catholic priests are afraid to openly oppose the recent turn of events. Father Luciano Felloni from Manila remarked, “There is a lot of fear because the way people have been killed is vigilante-style so anyone could become a target … There is no way of protecting yourself.”

President Duterte’s spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, said the church was free to make any comments it wished to make without running the risk of retaliation. He said further, “The Church needs to consider that recent surveys show the people trust and appreciate the president's efforts and it would do well to take heed and not presume that the people share their belief system.”

In the southern city of Zamboanga, Duterte remarked in a speech, “I'm really appalled by so many groups and individuals, including priests and bishops, complaining about the number of persons killed in the operation against drugs. If I stop, the next generation will be lost.”

There are priests who openly support Duterte’s campaign on drugs, with Father Joel Tabora in Davao commenting, “Are the means unnecessarily illegitimate? People are dying, yes, but on the other hand, millions of people are being helped.”

The president is known to have been sexually abused by a priest when he was a little boy, and is not a regular church goer. He has gone on the record to question the church’s relevance in the country and stating that the presidential election held in May was a referendum between his policies, his person and the church.

Duterte is a former mayor of the city of Davao, where he held office for more than two decades, with reports of extrajudicial killings and allegations of supporting death squads that killed criminals and critics. He is also known to have entered a restaurant with a revolver and forced a tourist to eat a cigarette butt for refusing to abide by his smoking ban.

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