Because Pope Francis will be in Sweden on Monday and Tuesday, the eyes of the Catholic world will be on Scandinavia. Halfway around the planet, however, there’s a Catholic drama playing out that deserves at least as much attention, and not just early this week but for a long time to come.
On any list of the most consequential Catholic nations today, the Philippines would easily finish in the top five, and there’s a good case to be made that it’s #1.
It’s the third largest Catholic nation on earth, and unlike its two larger peers, Brazil and Mexico, its levels of faith and practice remain robust. For another, given the swelling Filipino diaspora, in a staggering number of places today, from the Arabian Peninsula to Malaysia, Hong Kong, and beyond, often the most dynamic pockets of Catholic life are populated by enthusiastic Filipino ex-pats.
(That, by the way, is also true of Sweden, with an estimated 13,000 Filipinos living in the country, most working in hotels, as gardeners, caregivers, or in some other domestic capacity. The Filipinos truly are the new Irish, the blue-collar immigrant group carrying the Catholic faith with them wherever they go.)
Today, the Catholic Church in the Philippines is in crisis.
The crisis isn’t primarily self-generated, the result of an abuse scandal or financial meltdown or theological controversy. Instead, it’s the product of the deeply polarized reactions to the country’s new leader, President Rodrigo Duterte.
He only took office June 30, but one certainly can’t accuse Duterte of having presided over a slow first 100 days. He ran on a get-tough platform on crime, and as president he’s launched probably the most lethal anti-drug campaign the world has ever seen.
So far an estimated 3,000 people have died in Duterte’s offensive, most recently the mayor of a small town who was publicly accused by Duterte of complicity in the drug trade and subsequently shot to death by police along with nine other men who were stopped at an anti-drug checkpoint.
(The mayor denied the charges, but police said they responded with deadly force when his bodyguards opened fire.)
While Duterte’s take-no-prisoners style remains popular, it’s generated deep criticism from human rights groups and from international players such as the U.N. and the U.S. It’s also left many Filipinos ambivalent, happy to see someone taking on the drug lords but also wondering if the president’s “let their heads roll” philosophy about perceived enemies may eventually seem a cure worse than its disease.
In the lead among those questioning the wisdom of a Wild West approach, and thus asking critical questions about the new regime, have been the country’s Catholic bishops.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the Filipino bishops’ conference, recently put out a statement titled “Confused and Sad Yet Hopeful,” lamenting a “slow erosion of Filipino values” under Duterte. He cited not only the drug war, but also his penchant for “cuss words, orchestrated lies and vulgarity.”
Meanwhile, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who figures prominently on many short lists as a future papal candidate, is promoting a new Church-sponsored series of treatment and rehabilitation centers as a better way to deal with the drug menace than wholesale killing of offenders.
“God never gave up on us,” the country’s bishops said in a recent statement. “We have no right giving up on ourselves or on our brothers and sisters.”
All this builds on what was already a rocky relationship between Duterte and the Catholic Church, including Duterte referring to Pope Francis as a “son of a bitch” in January 2015 because of traffic jams in Manila caused by his visit, and asserting that he was molested as a young man by a Catholic priest in a Jesuit-run high school.
Adding to the mix, Duterte is the first Filipino president to have emerged “from below,” meaning not from the country’s traditionally dominant political clans, but on the basis of support from the majority who are poor. Since that’s also the Church’s social base, it creates a crisis of conscience for many Catholic leaders, not to mention a rivalry over who speaks most credibly for “the people.”
In other words, the stage appears set for a long-term cycle of church/state conflict in the Philippines not seen since the era of Ferdinand Marcos and the “People’s Power” uprising of the 1980s.
Why does that matter to the rest of us? There are three basic reasons.
First, because of the global reach of the Filipino diaspora, they have an enormous potential to leverage Catholic life around the world for good or ill. Their ability to harness that capacity may be diminished if Filipino Catholic leaders become turned in on their domestic issues – or, alternatively, it may be unleashed if the same grit and drive that Filipino Catholics showed in the 80’s flourishes anew.
Second, Duterte isn’t an isolated case, even if he’s an especially extreme form. The same anti-establishment rage and resentment that brought him to power, in a slightly different guise, helps explain the Donald Trump phenomenon in the United States, and no matter what happens on Nov. 8, Trump’s constituency isn’t going away.
In other words, the church in the Philippines is on the front lines of dealing with a political and cultural thrust with much broader implications.
Third, regardless of whether Tagle is ever elected pope, the global Church is increasingly going to rely on Filipinos for leadership.
Just as it once seemed that half the Catholic bishops in the world were named Murphy, O’Connor and Reilly, before long it’s going to be Santos, Reyes, Cruz and Bautista, as Filipinos take up senior positions in missionary dioceses, in the Vatican, in countries with large Filipino immigrant populations, and pretty much everywhere else.
The experience and outlook they bring into those posts will influence the direction of the Church for a long time, so all of us ought to be rooting for Filipino Catholics to find their way through the present crisis creatively.
Inevitably, Catholicism is on the brink of a “Filipino moment”. The question now is, in shaping what that moment looks like, how much the shadow of Rodrigo Duterte will be part of the picture.
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Speaking of the pope’s trip to Sweden, Austen Ivereigh, author of the papal biography The Great Reformer and Crux’s contributing editor, will be on the papal plane covering things for us. Be sure to check the Crux site starting early Monday morning for his reports.