To the Philippine Catholic church, Duterte is a modern-day Henry VIII

To the Philippine Catholic church, Duterte is a modern-day Henry VIII
PHOTO: Reuters

Philippine populist president Rodrigo Duterte is an unprecedented force of creative disruption, who has upended national and even regional politics.

Around the world, he is infamous for his invective, misogynistic outbursts, and geopolitical chutzpah, particularly towards his Western critics.

What's less noticed about Duterte, however, is his 21st century version of Henry VIII's campaign to curtail the influence of the Catholic Church.

At once, Duterte isn't acting only upon his personal and political grievances against the Church, but is also reasserting the primacy of the state in determining public life.

Filipinos pray at the Baclaran Church in Manila. 
Photo: AFP

Duterte's strength is that he is a man of many firsts, giving him both a semblance of fresh authenticity and even political impunity. He is the first national leader to hail from the southern island of Mindanao, an impoverished and conflict-ridden region long confined to the margins of the Philippine politics.

He is the first major political figure to openly question the Philippines' alliance with the United States and, even more shockingly, express his "love" for China, the historical bogeyman in the Filipino strategic imagination.

The most shocking aspect of his politics, however, is his direct and often personal attacks against the Catholic Church hierarchy. Until recently, many experts would have considered this an act of political suicide, given the tremendous influence of the religious organisation in Philippine history.

Throughout centuries of Spanish imperial rule, the church was the fulcrum of public life and an anchor of everyday governance. The advent of American imperialism hardly changed the equation, since the new colonisers allowed the Catholic hierarchy to maintain much of its land and wealth.

A Holy Eucharist mass against extra-judicial killings at a Roman Catholic Church in Paranaque city, metro Manila. Photo: Reuters

The principle of separation of church and state also meant the Catholic hierarchy could hold onto their vast resources without any taxation. The church reached the pinnacle of its power during the 1986 "People Power" revolts against the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, when then Cardinal Jaime Sin called on ordinary Filipinos to join anti-regime protests.

The church also played a central role during the second "People Power" revolt in 2001, which deposed the corrupt populist administration of actor-turned-politician Joseph Estrada.

In the past decade, however, the influence of the Catholic Church has been on the wane, partly due to the rise of well-organised and politically active evangelist groups that have won the loyalty of millions of 'born again' Filipinos and act as 'swing states' during elections.

The Catholic authorities also suffered a political defeat during their showdown over the controversial Reproductive Health bill, which was passed under the previous Benigno Aquino administration and sanctioned the state-provision of contraceptives to indigent families.

The episode underscored an emerging schism between former allies, namely the middle class-supported liberal democrats (led by Aquino) and the church hierarchy, who jointly deposed the Marcos and Estrada presidencies.

In a way, Duterte has pushed this burgeoning schism to its logical conclusion, though taking on both liberals and the Catholic Church. In fact, Duterte has maintained cordial relations with both former president Estrada and the Marcoses, especially Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, the son of the former dictator.

This is more than just a case of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend political formula. It's almost personal to him. On many occasions, Duterte has claimed that a priest sexually harassed him during his early youth.

He often accuses the church of lacking the moral ascendancy to preach the gospel and chide the transgressions of the laymen. In fact, Duterte has challenged both the ideology of liberal democrats and the catechism of the church.

Duterte's vexation with the Catholic hierarchy intensified amid open spats over his scorched-earth drug war. Catholic priests have accused Duterte of conducting an inhumane campaign, which lacks foresight and Christian spirit of redemptive forgiveness.

Catholics join a ‘march for life’ at a park in Manila to oppose an effort to legalise divorce, combining it with their opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-drug war.Photo: AFP

To Duterte's consternation, the church has criticised his anti-drug policy as a de facto 'war on the poor', since the vast majority of drug-related deaths involve the poorest Filipinos.

Last December, a visibly exasperated Duterte went so far as declaring, "these bishops - kill them, those fools are good for nothing. All they do is criticise".

The church has criticised his rhetoric, while raising the alarm over a recent spate of killings of priests by unidentified gunmen. Since last year, four priests have been killed across the country, some while performing Holy Mass.

In response, Archbishop Socrates Villegas urged Duterte to "stop the verbal persecution" of Catholic officials, since doing so could "unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests".

Church leaders have complained that "they are killing our flock. They are killing us, the shepherds. They are killing our faith. They are cursing our church".

The battle lines are being drawn ahead of the upcoming midterm elections, with the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines recently declaring, "we have no intention of interfering in the conduct of state affairs. But neither do we intend to abdicate our sacred mandate" to guide the society towards the right path.

Archbishop Romulo Valles went so far as calling on devout Catholics to "conquer evil with good," while indirectly warning Duterte that, "the freedom of expression does not include a licence to insult other people's faith, especially our core beliefs".

They openly challenged "the direction" of Duterte's drug war, which targets "mostly poor people being brutally murdered on the mere suspicion of being small-time drug users and peddlers while the big-time smugglers and drug lords went scot-free".

Duterte, however, remains highly popular, reflecting growing public tolerance for the reassertion of secular authority against traditional centres of power.

The upcoming elections in the Philippines are likely to pit a popular president and his allies against an opposition supported by a resourceful and increasingly proactive church. The fate of Philippine politics hangs in the balance.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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