The head of the Philippine bishops’ conference expressed concern over what he perceived to be a growing trend “of rebuffing church morals and doctrine” in his country.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan opened his Easter message with a searing rebuke of the faithful in the Philippines, questioning their behavior.
“How many of our Catholics openly and blatantly declare, ‘I am a Catholic, but I agree that drug addicts must be killed; they are useless. I am a Catholic but I am pro-death penalty. … I am a Catholic, but I do not always obey my bishop, he is too old-fashioned. … I am a priest but my bishop’s circulars are optional for obedience. … I am a Catholic but … I am a Catholic but …,'” Villegas trailed off in the published message.
Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016 on a promise to eradicate crime and kill drug dealers and addicts, the archbishop has been a vocal critic.
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Months later, more than 7,000 people, most of them impoverished, have died in either police anti-drug operations or in unexplained killings. And in early March, Duterte’s allies in the Philippine House helped pass a measure reinstating the death penalty, with the primary goal of executing drug offenders.
Villegas’s criticism has grown more strident with the body count increasing and the latest steps toward restoring execution. The prelate has led prayer marches and authored letters and official conference documents decrying the “war on drugs” and the death penalty. Other church officials have also expressed dismay through various statements.
However, Duterte’s popularity ratings remain high, with supporters expressing strong backing online. In response to his church critics, Duterte has called priests hypocrites and accused them of being pedophiles or leading secretly married lives, among other scathing remarks.
In his Easter message delivered at St. John Cathedral in Dagupan City, Villegas said it has become “fashionable” to make priests and bishops “the punching bags of public officials to the glee of our parishioners.
“The church is ridiculed and her churchmen are rebuked. Christ’s teachings are relentlessly challenged. Human life is cheaper than a gun. God’s mercy is disdained and scorned,” he said, pointing out people’s apathy as they “walk not forward but backward, becoming, day by day, an angry society.”
Villegas was particularly emphatic about bishop-bashing on the internet.
“We bishops have become martyrs in social media,” said the prelate. “We are killed a thousand times; our trolls are in the thousands. When we speak, they want us muted. When we oppose, they want us maimed. When we stand for life, they want us dead.”
The archbishop said if this type of behavior continued he expected to see “more and more priests and bishops dying as martyrs in the prime of their lives.
“If this should happen: Stand up and take courage. Go to jail for the sake of the Gospel. Be ready to be killed for the sake of our faith. The church will not die when Christ’s believers are killed. The Catholic faith will bloom, grow and glow,” said Villegas.