Are Priests Duterte’s Fiercest Foes?

Relatives of the victims of drug related killings gather inside a church in Manila, Philippines last March. Jes Aznar/Getty Images
Relatives of the victims of drug related killings gather inside a church in Manila, Philippines last March. Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Flaviano Villanueva, 47, entered the priesthood in his 30s after leading a fast life fueled by drugs and alcohol. So late last year, when a small-time drug dealer approached him in his rectory in one of Manila’s oldest districts, the Roman Catholic priest, recalling his own checkered past, could not turn her away.

“She was a member of a notorious gang that sells shabu in this area,” the priest told me recently, using the local term for crystal meth. “They were a gang of six. Four had already been killed. She came to me crying, ‘Father, can you hide me?’ ” She feared she might soon join the thousands of Filipinos who have been gunned down since President Rodrigo Duterte sanctioned the wanton killing of drug suspects.

“At the onset, it was sympathy,” Mr. Villanueva said, explaining why he gave sanctuary to the dealer. “Then it became a question of justice.”

Mr. Villanueva’s action is but one gesture in a small yet growing resistance, aided and inspired by the Catholic Church, against Mr. Duterte’s draconian rule. Convents, novitiates, schools and parochial centers for the needy have become sites of refuge, support and civic education.

When the president perorates on crime and punishment, the clergy preaches empathy and compassion. To Mr. Duterte’s calls for vengeance and retribution, priests, nuns and religious leaders respond with Christianity’s narrative of redemption. By holding masses and processions with pointed political messages, or inviting testimonials from victims of the government’s drug policies, the Church is forging the bonds of opposition among the faithful.

As the number of drug-related extrajudicial killings has risen, protests have multiplied — some led by members of the clergy, others by citizens spurred on by the Church’s lessons in compassion. The Catholic clergy is providing both a language and a method of resistance against Mr. Duterte’s policies.

The Church has wielded political and social clout in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, for over 400 years. It also has a more recent history of defying authoritarianism. In 1986, at the behest of Cardinal Jaime Sin, the archbishop of Manila, Filipino Catholics came out in droves to support a popular uprising that ended the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The Society of the Divine Word, the religious order to which Mr. Villanueva belongs, was in the vortex of that movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, several of its priests joined the New People’s Army, a communist insurgency group.
At first, some in the clergy supported Mr. Duterte. He promised policies the Church could get behind: bringing discipline to the government, brokering peace with communist rebels, stopping the environmental damage caused by mining and rewriting labor laws in workers’ favor. Mr. Villanueva was among the priests who voted for the president, he told me, but he began to have doubts when he saw the rising casualty count of the government’s antidrug campaign.

Soon, members of the clergy found themselves performing more burial rites for drug suspects and comforting more of the spouses and children left behind. More shabu addicts and drug peddlers sought their protection. All this opened the eyes of priests and nuns to a criminal underworld many of them had not encountered before and to the misery that drives the poor to the drug trade.

“I didn’t feel myself worthy to be a priest,” Mr. Villanueva said, explaining his change of heart. “Before, my battle cry was atonement. Now, it’s grace and hope.”

There is little other resistance to the Duterte administration. The president ended his first year in office in June with a popularity rating of more than 80 percent, despite both the death toll of his antidrug campaign and his decision in late May to declare martial law in the southern Philippines, after Islamic State supporters seized parts of a city there. The political opposition is effete, apparently incapable of articulating an alternative to his populism. Human rights advocates have been unable to marshal public outrage even after the president threatened to behead them.

The Church, however, is galvanizing opposition among the faithful. As early as July 2016, Broderick Pabillo, the auxiliary archbishop of Manila, held mass for victims of the government’s antidrug measures and initiated a “Thou Shall Not Kill” campaign. Banners stating the commandment were displayed in churches all around the capital — where nightly, it seemed, corpses of drug suspects were being found in the streets, hands bound or heads wrapped in packing tape.

The next month, Socrates Villegas, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, instructed the priests in his diocese to read a statement that said, “Both the guilty and the innocent are humans.” The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, which represents the country’s most influential Catholic congregations, followed suit. “We are alarmed at the silence of the government, groups and majority of the people in the face of these killings,” it said in another statement. “Evil prospers where good men are silent.”

The president has struck back, trying to undermine the Church’s claims to moral virtue. “I challenge the Catholic Church,” he said in a speech in January. “You are full of shit. You all smell bad, corruption and all.”

Mr. Duterte has insulted the pope. He has accused a Catholic bishop of having two wives. He has revived old allegations that half a dozen bishops received luxury vehicles from a government charity in 2009 in exchange for supporting Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the president at the time. He has castigated the whole of the Philippine clergy for living opulently amid poverty, sexually abusing children and opposing a popular law requiring state clinics to provide free birth control.

Politicians have challenged the Church’s authority before, but never like this, with such profanity and such disrespect for its values. Past presidents tried to woo religious leaders with tactful language and concessions, and expressed deference even when they were being chastised.

The Church seems unbowed by Mr. Duterte’s lashings; some of its responses have been blistering or provocative. The bishops’ conference has called the government’s antidrug measures a “reign of terror.” Last Christmas, the Redemptorist order hosted an outdoor exhibit of photographs of dead drug suspects, displaying the poster-size shots — some taken by a priest — on the grounds of the immense Baclaran Church in Manila.

More discreet but no less subversive are the clergy’s efforts to protect witnesses of police abuses. It is expanding its drug-counseling and rehabilitation programs — by the same token also expanding the notion of who deserves its compassion. Providing refuge to political dissidents during the Marcos era was one thing, but now drug users and dealers? What might the Church do next?

On a recent Sunday morning, the drug dealer whom Mr. Villanueva had taken in was back at the rectory. This time, she had come to help. In preparation for a protest she was silk-screening white T-shirts with the phrase, “No to Martial Law.”

Sheila S. Coronel is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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