IN an unexpected thunder blast, the presumptive President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has called the Catholic Church a “hypocritical institution” for allegedly trying to erode public support for him “prior to” the May 9 elections. He was complaining of a pastoral letter issued by Archbishop Socrates Villegas, of Lingayen-Dagupan, and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, a week before the elections, which called upon the Catholic faithful to reject a “morally reprehensible candidate” who has shown “scant regard” for human rights and the teachings of the Church.
One major broadsheet pictured an angry Duterte threatening to bring down the Church by exposing churchmen who had allegedly had secret affairs with women. It was an unseemly over-reaction by a popular candidate who had every reason to celebrate what had happened to him.
Duterte should be a gallant winner
This tended to portray Duterte as an ungallant winner, which is worse than being a sour loser.
The Church leadership has shown commendable maturity and restraint in not reacting to the verbal assault. Villegas has said nothing. On Tuesday, the media waited for hours for a statement from the Catholic bishops gathered in Dagupan City for the consecration of the new archbishop of Tarlac, but they came away empty-handed. The CBCP’s official silence in the face of the Duterte blast was more eloquent than speech. They seemed to be saying, “Father, forgive our presumptive President-elect, for he needs to be enlightened.”
Many have tried to tear down the Church and failed. This has been its history for the past 2,000 years. The Roman emperors, from Nero to Deoclitian, carried out the most extensive persecution of Christians, feeding them to the lions at the arena and driving them to live inside the catacombs. Instead of extinguishing the Church, they nourished its growth with the blood of martyrs. It was finally a Christian emperor, Constantine, who ended the persecution with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD.
They have all failed
In modern times, fascism, Nazism and communism threatened to subjugate Christianity and render the Church irrelevant. Confronted with the Church’s mysterious courage and strength, Stalin famously asked, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” None, he was told, except for the unarmed ceremonial Swiss Guards, who look as bright as the Roman sun. But, like Mussolini and Hitler before him, Stalin also failed.
Even Satan himself has failed. According to the famous story about Pope Leo XIII’s vision in 1884, Satan appeared before the throne of God to ask for more power and more time to put the Church to the test; he was given a hundred years. This is the reason why the Pope composed the famous prayer to St. Michael the Archangel invoking his protection against the devil.
Can anyone else succeed where all of those colossal tyrants—and the devil himself—have failed? Furthermore, hasn’t the 100 years given to Satan long expired?
Duterte threatened to expose alleged big sinners in the Church. Why should this create headlines at all? The Church is full of sinners, and everyone knows it. But Christ founded the Church, and the powers of darkness shall not prevail against it, because it is sustained by the power and grace of God and by the lives of its saints and the blood of its martyrs.
Even if Digong imagines the Church to be his “enemy,” which it is not, it would be useful for him to know a few basic things, which his successful political career may have hidden from him.
Questions to ask
He could begin by asking, Do we need God, the Church or religion? What does “separation of Church and state,” correctly understood, mean?
A President cannot allow himself to be quoted as saying he has a deep faith in God but does not believe in religion. Or that he was baptized as a Catholic but is not part of the Catholic Church and does not believe in its teachings. Or that the State can tell women how many children they should bear and no power on earth could meddle in it.
These are some of the things that appear to blur our friend’s moral vision. He needs to see like Bartimaeus needs to see; but like the blind man of Jericho he must ask for it—Domine, ut videam!—Lord, that I may see!
Instead, he says, “I have a deep faith in God but I don’t believe in religion.”
Mr. President, this cannot be. Religion, as the Jesuit John A. Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary tells us, comes from the Latin word religare, to bind together, to fasten, etc., means “the moral virtue by which a person is disposed to render to God the worship and service he deserves… It corresponds to the practice of piety toward God as Creator of the universe. Aquinas says it is a special virtue, which leads men to the worship of God.
So you cannot have God without religion, just as you cannot have religion without God.
I am a Catholic but—
Now, “I was baptized as a Catholic, but I am not a part of the Catholic Church, and I do not believe nor obey what it teaches.” What do we say to this?
This is nonsense on stilts. The Catholic Church is not a set of buildings that begins at St. John de Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica or Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. It is the assembly of the people of God with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as its head. It is made up of all baptized Christians who are incorporated into it upon baptism and remain part of it, even after death. It is made up of the Church militant, its living members; the Church suffering, the souls in Purgatory; and the Church triumphant, the justified souls in Heaven. The Church militant is made up of the laity, the clergy and the religious. We are the Church.
You can lose your faith, and also your reason, but you cannot say you are a Catholic but not part of the Church. Neither can you claim to be a good Catholic and say there are Church teachings you believe in, and others that you do not. You cannot be a law-abiding citizen, if you only follow the laws you like. A Catholic believes what the Church believes and rejects what the Church rejects.
Church-state separation, correctly understood
Now, “there is a separation between Church and state; I go to church and listen to the priest on Sunday, but outside of that, the priest or bishop has nothing more to say to me.”
Here, the stilts rise higher by several grades. “Separation” should be correctly understood. The Church should not run the affairs of the State, and the State should not run the Church and administer the sacraments. No bishop or priest should tell the voters whom to vote for in an election, but every priest and bishop has a right and duty to provide moral guidance to the faithful to make sure that by their vote they serve the common good and, ultimately, the Kingdom of God.
What the 1987 Constitution proclaims in one short sentence—“The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable”—the Church discusses at some length. In the Vatican II document, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, we read:
“The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system, nor does she claim competence in proposing solutions to concrete political and economic problems. The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent of each other. Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same human person…”
This should allow Duterte to read the CBCP pastoral letter as no more than a shepherd’s call upon his flock to avoid straying into dangerous cliffs. Duterte himself had bragged doing certain things on which the Church does not have a neutral position. But until Villegas spoke, not one eminent churchman seemed inclined to say anything.
A general madness had descended upon the population; and everyone was applauding Digong for saying the most outrageous things. Many of my columnist friends pounced on him, but at that point they had begun barking up the wrong tree—he was no longer the problem; the deranged rabble on the ground had become the problem.
The golden calf reenacted
I began to see a reenactment of the old story of God’s Chosen People and the Golden Calf, which we read in Exodus 32: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods, who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us out of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ So Aaron took the gold earrings of all the wives and their sons and daughters and used them to fashion a golden idol shaped as a calf, and said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”
We needed a Moses at the time to come down from the mountain and stop the deranged pagan revelry. No Moses came.
Where is Cardinal Sin?
In Manila, the nation’s primary Catholic see, somebody asked, “Where is Cardinal Sin?” He was referring to the irrepressible archbishop of Manila, who called upon the faithful in Feb. 1986 to support the military at EDSA, and who was always the first to speak out on any important moral issue. He died in 2005, but even his ever-smiling and erudite successor, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, whom the American Vatican journalist John Allen, Jr. likes to refer to as “the next Pope,” seemed to be still waiting for him to reappear.
Finally, Villegas released his pastoral letter. It did not name any candidate, but Duterte felt singled out. Still, when the faithful trooped to the polls, they gave Duterte his landslide. This should have been more than enough to appease him.
The Church’s offering
Immediately after Duterte’s rivals had conceded defeat, Villegas issued a statement pledging “vigilant cooperation” with the incoming government. “The greatest promise the Church can offer any government is vigilant collaboration, and that offer we make now,” he said. “We will urge our people to work with the government for the good of all, and we shall continue to be vigilant so that ever so often we may speak out to teach and to prophesy, to admonish and to correct—for that is our vocation.”
He assured the election winners of the Church’s prayers “principally for wisdom, that they may discern God’s will for his people and courageously do as he bid.”
The Church is no enemy
Duterte could have thanked Villegas for this message, and assured him that his government would be happy to work with the Church for the good of all. He would have stood a thousand feet taller had he done that. And he would have won the Church. He still can do it, if he wills it. He has to see and believe that the Church is not his enemy—it is nobody’s enemy except the devil and the damned, and that it wants him to succeed for the good of all.
The Aquino regime has so divided the nation these last six years; it is bound to fracture into pieces if Duterte does anything more to divide it further still.