MANILA, Philippines — A Catholic bishop in the Philippines says it’s too early to judge the performance of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June after a landslide electoral victory over a candidate widely backed by many priests and other church leaders.
“The change of leadership in government will set new directions for the country, and it’s too soon to judge the way it is behaving itself,” said Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
Yet David, citing the example of the current president’s father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who was overthrown in a 1986 popular uprising, said the church will not tolerate the abuse of power.
“These new leaders now in power know well that the church was never comfortable with them. The president’s late father knew very well that the church, as an institution, took a stand against the dictatorship. We didn’t mince words about referring to his father’s government as dictatorial and illegitimate. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference made a very categorical stand against that dictatorship. And they never forgot that,” David told Catholic News Service.
Nonetheless, David says the son deserves to be judged for his own actions, not those of his father.
“This president won an election following the constitution that unseated his father. And he’s aware of that. We’re now a democratic country with democratic institutions in place. He has to respect that. He has to respect the law,” David said.
“If this new leadership starts behaving in a dictatorial way again, they’ll have to contend with a lot of resistance. People won’t take it sitting down.”
Yet the bishop worries about people forgetting the lessons of the past.
“We’ve witnessed a campaign of disinformation and historical revisionism. The new leadership won by suggesting that people had been unfair to his father and claiming that Marcos Sr. was one of the best presidents this country ever had. That worked because the younger generation has no memory of him, and Filipinos tend to be very shortsighted when it comes to historical remembering,” he said.
The president is under a lot of pressure to prove himself, David said.
“He has always pointed out that he shouldn’t be judged against the deeds of his father. Maybe this is his chance to prove himself, prove that he is a better public servant than his father. It’s too soon to judge. He’s just getting started. He’s still selecting his people,” the bishop said.
David suggested that of greater concern than similarities to his father’s dictatorship is the new administration’s ties to the previous administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos’ vice president is Duterte’s daughter, Sara. The new administration has yet to take a stand against extrajudicial killings, which soared under Duterte’s so called “war on drugs.”
Duterte also proved allergic to criticism, and when church leaders spoke out against government-sanctioned killings, they paid the price. Duterte called David a “son of a bitch,” and his government filed sedition charges against David and three other bishops.
Those charges were eventually dropped, and Duterte, facing stiff criticism both at home and abroad, appeared to back away from attacking the church.
“Even before the election, the drug war had subsided a bit, and I was happy about that. They sort of blinked, reacting to our reactions. In a very strong way, we had communicated our disgust, our disappointment, our misgivings about the way they were fighting this war against illegal drugs. It wasn’t really a fight against illegal drugs but rather against drug users. It was inhuman, cruel, immoral, even illegal. We communicated that in the strongest terms possible, and we suffered the consequences. But even if they reacted vehemently against our reactions, they sort of toned it down,” said David.
What worries many church leaders today are accusations against church workers and activists for alleged ties to armed opposition groups, a practice known in the Philippines as “red-tagging.”
Such labeling often precedes assassination, as with the Oct. 3 killing in Manila of Percival Mabasa, a popular radio journalist who was long critical of the Duterte administration and had recently turned his sights on alleged corruption in the new government’s management of sugar imports.
“We seem to have shifted from drug-tagging to red-tagging. It’s always about people in the government defining their perceived enemies,” the bishop said.
Sister Mary John Mananzan has been red-tagged for so long her secretary keeps scrapbooks full of press clippings in which the 84-year old Missionary Benedictine nun is labeled a communist by politicians and military officials.
Mananzan says social status can protect some who are red-tagged, but not all.
“If I were not a sister, I would be assassinated. But because I’m a sister, with institutional support, and because I live in a religious institution with guards outside, they can’t get to me. But if you’re a layperson, they just go and kill you,” she said.
Mananzan, who was one of several Catholic nuns who knelt in front of military tanks during the 1986 People Power Revolution that overthrew the Marcos Sr. regime, claims she’s honored by the threats.
“Christ had an option for the poor. As a Catholic sister, I’m a follower of Christ. Therefore, I have an option for the poor. If they are exploited and repressed, I have to show my option for them by being in solidarity with them in rallies, protests, demonstrations,” she said.
“If I look at all the people they’re red-tagging, they are the most authentic people, they really love their country, they have excellent, self-sacrificing lives. So, I’m not being insulted when I’m lined up with them. I’m being put on the honor roll.”