As I’ve noted before, it’s commonplace these days to say the Filipinos are the “new Irish.” The reference is to waves of Irish immigrants in the 19th century who carried the faith abroad, prominently including the U.S., as well as Irish missionary priests who founded churches in a staggering range of locales from Africa to Asia and beyond.
In similar fashion today, you can pick a Catholic diocese basically anywhere in the world, and you’ll find that much of the most dynamic Catholic energy bubbles in its Philippine community. Filipino priests also have become the church’s backbone in a growing number of places, with more than 1,000 serving abroad – many of them, of course, in the United States.
Despite the fact that the Philippines is becoming more secular, and thus less tethered to its Catholic heritage – a 2012 law guaranteeing universal access to contraception was a watershed in that regard – the faith still remains pervasive, as witnessed, for instance, in the more than six million people who braved a tropical storm in January 2015 to greet Pope Francis in Manila.
The Philippines also features one of the most charismatic leaders in global Catholicism in Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who’s seen as a sort of Asian Pope Francis.
All this by way of making a simple point: If the Church in the Philippines sneezes, sooner or later the rest of us will catch cold.
Right now, it looks as if the stage has been a set for a classic showdown between Church and state in the Philippines, and the whole Catholic world has an investment in how this plays out.
On May 9, the long-serving mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, won the election for president and is set to take office on June 30 for a six-year term.
For Americans, maybe the best way to think about Duterte is as a combination of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump. He’s got the former’s reputation for toughness and “zero tolerance” on crime, and the latter’s flair for shock value and picking fights with perceived enemies.
Chief among those perceived enemies would appear to be the Catholic Church, and especially its bishops. In a press conference shortly after his election win, Duterte blasted the Church as “hypocritical” and said its bishops are “corrupt” for seeking favors from politicians, including himself, as well as getting married in secret or keeping girlfriends.
Duterte’s animus toward the Church is both political and personal.
Politically, he knows his swagger and quick trigger finger don’t play well with many clergy and Catholic activists who see themselves as tribunes of the outcasts, and who generally think that non-violent solutions to problems are the better route.
In particular, Duterte’s plan to reinstitute the death penalty, which was abolished in 2006, for a variety of offenses – even car theft – has drawn the ire of the bishops. Recently Archbishop Ramón Cabrera Argüelles of Lipa said that if Duterte follows through, he’ll volunteer to die in the place of whoever the president condemns.
That could be seen as hollow rhetoric, except this is Duterte we’re talking about, who might just be inclined to take the archbishop up on his offer.
On the personal side, Duterte is likely the first head of state anywhere in the world who claims he’s also a survivor of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Duterte never went public with the charge he’d been abused by a priest until last year, when he found himself under fire for allegedly publicly “cursing” Pope Francis for his January 2015 trip to the Philippines.
He then asserted that he had been molested by a priest at a Jesuit-run school in the late 1950s. He named a long-dead American Jesuit as the culprit, who, records indicate, later faced abuse charges in the Los Angeles area between 1959 and 1975.
What all this adds up to is a forecast for a rocky relationship between the Church and the country’s new chief executive. In terms of what that might mean, two scenarios suggest themselves.
On the one hand, it could fuel a new burst of energy and determination among the country’s Catholics, as happened during the “People Power” uprising against the Marcos regime in the 1980s, when Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila became the voice of civil society and emboldened the country to resist.
That legacy is still at the heart of the respect the Church commands, and taking on the potential excesses of a new administration could bring it back to life.
On the other, the clash could also mean the Catholic Church in the Philippines collapses in on itself, consumed by its internal difficulties and with less inclination to exercise leadership around the world, or to deliver the kind of pastoral care and spiritual leadership for its diaspora communities they’ll need to keep the faith in their new environments.
It’s hard to say which way things will break, and it will depend in part on choices both by the government and by Church leaders such as Tagle, as well as Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the national bishops’ conference. The challenges they’re likely to face are daunting; recently, pro-Duterte Catholics launched an on-line petition to have Villegas and another bishop removed for allegedly meddling in politics.
However it unfolds, the bottom line is that this is hardly just a Filipino drama. Given how dependent the global Church has become on the Philippines, this is very much our story too.