On July 22, the Philippine Congress extended the martial law, which was first enacted in May, on the southern island of Mindanao for an additional five months. The army continues to battle militants inspired by the Islamic State (also called ISIS) in the regional city of Marawi, and the extension—coupled with the bellicose rhetoric of President Rodrigo Duterte’s second State of the Nation Address, held two days after martial law was extended—has conjured yet more comparisons between Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos, the kleptocratic dictator who was toppled in 1986 after ruling the Philippines 21 years, 9 of them under martial law.

The Duterte-Marcos parallels also bring to mind another figure from the past: Cardinal Jaime Sin, whose rallying cries over Radio Veritas brought the public into the streets in 1986 and helped to force Marcos out. Sin’s death in 2005 marked the end of a remarkable career that mixed pulpit with politics, to the detriment of more than one elected official. Only four years before he died, Sin took part in the campaign to oust President Joseph Estrada. Marcos described him as a “meddlesome friar.” Others called him “the unseen general.”

Since coming to office in June 2016, Duterte has waged a brutal, largely extra-legal war on drugs that has claimed more victims during his short tenure than the death toll under the brutality of Marcos’ long rule, according to rights groups. Nonetheless, Duterte’s violent rhetoric and policies have won him vast popularity: the extension of martial law in the south, for example, has faced little meaningful resistance. By contrast, Marcos faced a genuine popular uprising. Images from his time show main thoroughfares clogged with protesters. For both strongmen, the Catholic Church in the Philippines was a natural foil. But whereas Marcos had Sin, today’s church conspicuously lacks a towering leader to position against Duterte. And finding one would be a challenge, when the president himself has so successfully positioned himself as a moral force on the side of good versus evil.

Even before Sin, there was a long history of tension between church and state in the Philippines. Catholicism had been spread by the Spanish as a tool of colonial control. But it also served as a catalyst of dissent. The religion brought with it the story of Christ, whose dissidence against an imperial regime and consequent death at its hands resonated with an oppressed people. In his book In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, the journalist Stanley Karnow marked the Christ tale as a framing narrative that endured through the years: “The history of the Philippines from the Spanish era through the American colonial period and on into the present has been punctuated by revolts triggered by messianic figures claiming to be divinely guided.”

Catholicism had been spread by the Spanish as a tool of colonial control. But it also served as a catalyst of dissent.

One prominent example was the Spanish execution of three Filipino priests in 1872. The men were strangled to death by iron garrote after they were sketchily implicated in the failed Cavite mutiny against local authorities. Karnow also points to the shrine of José Rizal. High in the pantheon of Filipino independence figures, Rizal was a reformist and eloquent critic of the Spanish colonial establishment, which banned his novels, exiled his family members, and executed him in 1896. The shrine, created after his death, shows Rizal in his trademark suit and tie next to 12 “apostles”: other noted independence fighters.

This theme did not disappear with the end of either Spanish or American colonial rule. A century later, Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. was jailed as an outspoken critic of the Marcos regime; while imprisoned he claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary. Almost three years after Aquino’s 1983 assassination, his wife Corazon Aquino won a snap election that Marcos had called in a last-ditch effort to maintain power. Corazon said divine providence helped her win. Cardinal Sin, in a farewell address to her slain husband, said, “May the martyrs welcome you.”

Filipino Catholics carry an image of the Black Nazarene to Quiapo church during the annual Traslación procession in Manila, January 2016.
Ezra Acayan / Reuters

Unlike the past, when dissidents deployed the narrative and resources of Catholicism to fight autocratic power, Duterte himself has effectively assumed the role of a savior: a suffering man, doing his best to save his homeland from narco-doom. Duterte expresses a nearly unrivaled animus toward the Catholic Church, rooted in a claim that he was molested by a priest as a child. Yet even as his personal story strikes a blow at the church’s institutional credibility—a blow that lands, given recent disclosures of widespread clerical abuse—Duterte’s own rhetoric and world view are plainly biblical, making him seem almost an ally of the faithful, even when he is speaking about the policies most hateful to them. In his recent state of the nation address, for example, he described a plan to reimpose the death penalty in these terms: “In the Philippines, it is really an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

The Catholic Church still retains vast influence in the Philippines—more so than in most other countries. This power extends to religious groups outside the church hierarchy, such as the Philippines-founded Iglesia Ni Cristo, or Church of Christ, which is believed to have powerful political connections. Any visitor to the Philippines quickly observes the infusion of religious icons and images into everyday life; moreover, churches have backed or opposed political candidates and religious organizations have tried to launch their own faith-based political parties, blurring the constitutional divide between church and state. Divorce remains illegal (technically), as does abortion, except when the mother’s life is at risk. After the election, when Duterte reversed himself on a pledge to legalize same-sex marriage, his explanation was simple: “We’re Catholics.”

But last year’s election confirmed that the church’s influence has greatly declined. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines released a statement urging voters not to pick Duterte, even if they did not say his name. “The desire for change is understandable,” the statement said. “Our people have suffered from incompetence and indifference. But this cannot take the form of supporting a candidate whose speech and actions, whose plans and projects show scant regard for the rights of all, who has openly declared indifference if not dislike and disregard for the Church specially [sic] her moral teachings.”

Yet Duterte won easily. Something of an outsider—he is the first president from Mindanao—his appeal rested on a law-and-order campaign and the image of a guy who, like Donald Trump, just tells it like it is, no consultants or focus groups needed. His brash and unpredictable tirades undercut traditional institutions like the church. Meanwhile, a recent study by the University of Oxford shows that his campaign paid supporters to amplify his messages during the contest. Duterte later confirmed that this was true but only in the campaign, not afterward.

Last year’s election confirmed that the church’s influence has greatly declined.

Once in power, he continued with his mixture of appropriation and challenge, carrying out an agenda that has consistently left the church wrong-footed. He has waged a violent war on drugs and pushed to reinstate the death penalty; he has also attempted to lower the age of criminal liability, although the effort has stalled.

To be sure, as can be seen from the Bishops’ Conference election statement and additional public remarks condemning extrajudicial killings, the church has not relinquished its role as a social and political force. Drug war victims have found sanctuary in churches, for example, while priests have helped document abuses and raise awareness. During two reporting trips to the country, in February and June of 2017, I met many people who act through the organs of local churches and whose commitment to victims is astonishing. But I came to see them as exceptions, brave descendants of Cardinal Sin who lack Sin’s platform and influence.

It is also true that some members of the church have capitulated to the reality—and, perhaps, the value—of Duterte’s leadership. I spoke to one priest who related a conversation where a colleague who justified the killings in Duterte’s police action against alleged drug dealers and users with scripture: “If your left eye is causing you to sin, black it out. If your right hand is causing you to sin, cut if off. ”

Duterte has now entered his second of six years in power. The body count in the war on drugs continues, with some putting it well above 7,000. Martial law drags on in the south. Opinion polls suggest that he is still popular, and that his stance as a man who will do whatever is necessary to protect his country is a far more powerful story than the disorganized opposition of the church. This is worrying, but also clarifying—perhaps even hopeful. There’s still time. To stay relevant, the church should be clear about whose side it is really on, and what it is going to do beyond making a few statements here and there. The challenge is even greater with a leader who enjoys widespread support. In April a senior church figure warned of the normalization of a “culture of death.” But for the victims, it’s been normal for far too long. What the church needs now is more meddlesome friars.

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  • JOE FREEMAN reported from the Philippines as part of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.
  • More By Joe Freeman