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Catholic leaders in the Philippines haven’t stopped Duterte’s bloody war on drugs — yet. This is why.

- September 29, 2017

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody “War on Drugs” shows little sign of easing. In August, plainclothes police shot and killed 17-year-old student Kian delos Santos, days after killing 32 suspects in the single bloodiest day of the anti-drug campaign. Roughly 3,500 alleged dealers and users have been killed in official police operations since Duterte took office, with thousands more dead in vigilante killings.

After witness accounts and security camera footage revealed Kian to be unarmed, domestic and international protests forced government investigations. Duterte has pledged justice for Kian’s parents. But the president’s allies in the House of Representatives recently proposed a draft budget that would nearly eliminate funding for the constitutionally mandated Commission on Human Rights.

Catholic Church leaders are among those voicing outrage at the killings. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, head of the Archdiocese of Manila, issued a letter expressing “pain and horror” at the killings, and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is launching a campaign to memorialize victims of extrajudicial killings — commonly referred to as “EJKs.”

Tensions between Duterte and many Catholic leaders run deep. A look at recent research sheds light on the disputes, and helps explain why Catholics haven’t stopped the war, yet.

Catholic leaders are sharply criticizing Duterte’s campaign

Tagle, generally cautious in public pronouncements, declared in a Sept. 8 letter, “We cannot govern the nation by killing” and called for followers to “intensify our solidarity with those who have been killed.” On Sept. 12, the CBCP as a group put this more bluntly: “In the name of God, stop the killings!”

These letters have been paired with calls for organized action from clergy and laity. Bishop Pablo Virgilio S. David, incoming CBCP vice president, has given sanctuary to a witness and family members in Kian’s case. Tagle and CBCP leaders have called for a 40-day period of mourning, marked by daily ringing of church bells. The mourning will stretch through Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day, a major holiday commemorating the dead in the Philippines.

But Catholic leaders’ tensions with Duterte go much deeper

While the vivid details of Kian’s case provided an opportunity for Tagle and others to speak out, there are deeper sources of Catholic tension with the Duterte administration.

First, as many scholars have noted, the Catholic Church in the Philippines casts itself as a protector of the legacy of the “People Power Revolution” of 1986, a relatively bloodless overthrow of then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Some among the CBCP leadership clearly view Duterte as a threat to post-authoritarian institutions. Duterte has called for revisions to the 1987 Constitution, which religious elites significantly influenced, and has allowed Marcos to be buried in the nation’s Heroes’ Cemetery.

Second, Duterte has limited accomplishments in areas where some Catholic optimists thought they could make common cause with the president. Despite Catholicism’s relatively hierarchical structure, the CBCP is “multivocal.” Some Catholic elites hoped that Duterte’s proposed agenda could advance church interests on such subjects as peace negotiations with leftist and Moro insurgents, environmental policy, social welfare and land reform.

But a year into Duterte’s administration, peace negotiations have stalled. Duterte has declared martial law across the region of Mindanao to allow his military to combat terrorist cells. Duterte’s cabinet nominees dealing with the environment, land reform and social welfare have been blocked by the Commission on Appointments, a highly unusual occurrence given Duterte’s influence over the commission’s members, which has slowed policy progress related to those portfolios. Those within the CBCP who at first advised patience may be having a harder time making that case.

How influential can religious leaders be in Philippine politics?

My research has shown that Filipinos at large believe Tagle and many of his fellow religious leaders to be very morally credible. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy turning that moral standing into political influence.

First, Filipinos have mixed feelings about religious influence on politics. In research carried out with the Social Weather Stations survey firm before Duterte took office, I found that 46 percent of Filipino Catholics agreed that “religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions,” compared with 32 percent who disagreed. Strikingly, those who attend mass regularly or claim religion is important in their lives were not statistically more supportive of religious influence than those with lower religiosity.

Political scientists have argued that this helps explain why religious actors are most effective through what academic Anna Grzymala-Busse terms “covert institutional access,” rather than overt politicking. Tagle and others have tried to exercise this kind of subtle influence. But so far “institutional access” seems to be yielding little progress on ending EJKs.

Second, ties between Catholic leaders and potential allies in civil society have frayed in the past decade as a result of a controversial bill known as the Reproductive Health (RH) Law, which expanded access to contraceptives and sex education.

As I document in my recent book, relationships between religious and secular elites shape the politics of religion in the Philippines and elsewhere. While the CBCP opposed the RH Law, the bill was supported by many civil society actors who had been the Church’s allies against the Marcos dictatorship. Those weakened ties help explain not only why the CBCP was unable to defeat the RH Law, but also why it’s had weaker influence on other political issues since.

The gap between the Church and its former allies may be closing. Catholic networks are working closely with human rights advocates in civil society to document killings tied to anti-drug operations, and have joined with similar groups to organize the “Movement Against Tyranny,” which convened public protests on Sept. 21, the 45th anniversary of Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972.

But it’s not clear that the Church is influencing public opinion at large. To date, survey evidence does not show any decline in public support for the president, although new data does reveal suspicion of police conduct in the war on drugs. Certainly, the Cardinal of Manila has in the past helped rally public opinion against a once-popular ruler. But Tagle and his colleagues likely know that perhaps the biggest obstacle to their current campaign sits in their pews.

Note on methods: Survey data referenced in this article were collected as a module within the Social Weather Stations 4th Quarter 2015 Social Weather Survey. The survey was conducted from Dec. 5-8, 2015, using face-to-face interviews of 1,200 adults (18 years old and above) nationwide. SWS surveys employ regional cluster sampling, weighted by Philippine National Statistics Office data. The religion and politics questionnaire can be accessed here.

David T. Buckley is Paul Weber Endowed Chair of Politics, Science and Religion and assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville, and author of Faithful to Secularism: The Religious Politics of Democracy in Ireland, Senegal and the Philippines. Research referred to in this article was supported by the Center for Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville.