The Church of Duterte

Catholicism and the Filipino Strongman

Filipino Catholics light candles after attending mass in Paranaque city, metro Manila, October 2016. Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

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.

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