God, the State, and Duterte

The clergy could not control this president, and this president also needs to tone down his irreverent rhetoric.

The Catholic church and President Duterte have been bickering for weeks over arcane matters such as the existence and nature of God. On July 7, Digong went so far as to challenge the faithful to show proof of their God’s existence in a selfie. This is sarcastic talk, of course, but the dim local media has reported it in utter literalness. It may not be making St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas turn in their tombs but it surely is upsetting the conservative flock. The clergy has threatened the president with blasphemy, unaware that the UN has decriminalized it.

Just as it felt like we are being thrown back to the Dark Ages, Malacanang quickly arranged a meeting between the President and Archbishop Valles. The church representatives expressed grievances on the presidential mocking of their religious beliefs, although they were also quick to admit their side’s shortcomings in dealing with secular authority.

Although the spat centered on abstruse theological concepts, the real issues involve political principles and practices that should be clarified so that the country can evolve into a truly modern state. First, the Philippine constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, a principle that has been difficult to realize given the church’s long history of interference in state matters, running back to the Spanish colonial times. Second, although 85 percent of the population is Catholic which makes it occupy a privileged position by sheer number, the country is not a theocracy, and church authorities often forget this. 

Third, the church often gets involved in electoral partisanship, as seen during the May 2016 presidential election when some members of the clergy campaigned against the president. Fourth, the church’s championing of human rights places it at loggerheads with the administration’s war on drugs. Many Duterte supporters see the church’s posture as mere “virtue-signaling” and too-narrowly-focused as it does not consider wider national-security and public-safety considerations. 

Threshing out these four issues is complex, but what is obvious is that the clergy could not control this president, and this president also needs to tone down his irreverent rhetoric.

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About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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