Silence for seven months amid seven thousand deaths. You cannot say the Catholic Church in the Philippines did not give Rodrigo Roa Duterte a chance to make his war on illegal drugs gain traction and work.
The Church is usually loquacious and self-righteous. At times, it is pompous. But priests, bishops, and cardinals observed the Silence Is Golden motto even as President Duterte unleashed the most vicious war ever over a group of alleged criminals and wrongdoers ever waged by a Philippine leader.
From July 1, 2016, Duterte’s first full day in office, to Jan. 22, 2017, some 7,028 were killed. Of that, 2,503 (35.6 percent) were killed by the police, by their own admission, because they allegedly were drug lords, drug pushers, and or drug users. That left 4,520 (64 percent) victims who died with no known killers. Their killing was classified as “deaths under investigation.” Vigilantes and war among the drug lords and users were blamed for the unexplained killings. But the nagging suspicion is that many, if not nearly all the 4,520 unexplained killings, were perpetrated by the police themselves or their hired killers.
Proof: When Duterte ordered a sudden stop to the illegal drugs war, under “Project Tokhang” and “Oplan Double Barrel” of the Philippine National Police, nobody died on the first day the order took effect. Previously, between 11 and 30 killings took place daily under “Project Tokhang” and “Oplan Double Barrel.”
Last Sunday, in churches and chapels and everywhere, a Mass was celebrated nationwide, priests and bishops read a 946-word pastoral letter adopted by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and signed by its president, Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas, DD. The cherubic prelate is also the archbishop of Diocese of Lingayen-Dagupan.
The CBCP pastoral letter uniformly denounced what the bishops called “the reign of terror in many places of the poor” and pleaded that “this traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers.” Killing, they declared, is a “grave sin.” Not even the government, they stressed, has a right to kill.
With the bishops’ pastoral missive, the Catholic Church has declared an open war against Duterte illegal drugs war. And since the President, in recent weeks, has been vitriolic against the churchmen, accusing some bishops of maintaining mistresses and the others of outright immorality, the Catholic Church, in effect has declared war on Duterte and shown a willingness to meet his advocacy.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines is the oldest in Asia and among the most powerful in the world. There are 85 million Catholic Filipinos, among the most fervent Catholics in the world and who are led by four Filipino cardinals. No institution in the country has more credibility, wider network, and greater following and is better respected than its Catholic Church.
There are 96 bishops (archbishops, bishops, and auxiliary bishops), 6,198 diocesan priests, 1,663 religious, 778 religious brothers, 7,556 religious sisters, 7,338 seminarians, 2,966 parishes, 7,966 chapels, 131 colleges and universities, 660 high schools, 486 grade schools, 592 kinder schools. Plus 423 hospitals, 199 retreat centers, 390 pastoral centers, 90 orphanages, 40 homes for the aged, eight printing presses, and 22 radio stations.
Catholic schools educated many of the country’s business and professional elite and politicians.
During the martial law years and his strongman rule, the Catholic Church unleashed its power to abbreviate Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. When no one dared to challenge Marcos’ armed forces, many priests and parishes gave aid and comfort to communist party guerillas.
The Church also helped oust President Joseph Estrada after only 30 months in office.
Now, after an eerie, uncomfortable silence, the Church is taking on Duterte. Just like previous fights with the ruling power, the bishops are mincing no words.
“Your bishops are deeply concerned due to many deaths and killings in the campaign against prohibited drugs,” the churchmen told their faithful.
Without naming Duterte, who went to Catholic schools in high school and in law school, the bishops lectured on the President:
“The life of every person comes from God. It is he who gives it, and it is he alone who can take it back. Not even the government has a right to kill life,” they said.
“To destroy one’s own life and the life of another, is a grave sin and does evil to society,” the bishops added.
The bishops explained: “Any action that harms another (seriously) is a grave sin. To push drugs is a grave sin as is killing (except in self-defense). We cannot correct a wrong by doing another wrong. A good purpose is not a justification for using evil means. It is good to remove the drug problem, but to kill in order to achieve this is also wrong.”
Sounding profound, bishops said “the deep root of the drug problem and criminality is the poverty of the majority, the destruction of the family and corruption in society. The step we have to take is to overcome poverty, especially through the giving of permanent work and sufficient wages to workers.”
The bishops addressed the country’s Catholics and summoned them to be silent no more: “To consent and to keep silent in front of evil is to be an accomplice to it. If we neglect the drug addicts and pushers we have become part of the drug problem. If we consent or allow the killing of suspected drug addicts, we shall also be responsible for their deaths.”
“We in the Church will continue to speak against evil even as we acknowledge and repent of our own shortcomings. We will do this even if it will bring persecution upon us because we are all brothers and sisters responsible for each other,” the bishops dared, in direct challenge to Duterte.
“Let us not allow fear to reign and keep us silent,” the Catholic Church’s leadership said.
On Jan. 29, 2017, Duterte stopped the 160,000-strong PNP from undertaking the illegal drugs war after abuses seeped into the campaign.
A PNP sergeant, Ricky Sta. Isabel, and a PNP colonel, Rafael Dumlao, were found to have conspired to have kidnapped and later kill Jee Ick Joo, a prominent Korean businessman from his house in Angeles City, Pampanga, in the guise of undertaking a Tokhang operation.