The Catholic Church has proved a vocal critic of President Duterte’s bloody purge on drug dealers but their words seem to do little to quell popular support. How does this measure up against the values of the world’s third largest Catholic country?
By Tan Zhi Xin
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte won a landslide victory on 9 May on the back of his Campaign Plan Double Barrel to eradicate drug crime. And he has kept to his word. Around 3,500 people connected to the trade have died.
This sets an interesting scene in the world’s third largest country. Is Duterte’s drug war irreconcilable with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines? There is certainly a clear friction between the drug war and the Catholic faith, particularly the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” Yet public support for the blood-letting is high.
“Thou shalt not kill” is one of the Ten Commandments. And the doctrine is pretty straight-forward; unlawful killing will result in bloodguilt. This puts Duterte’s campaign in conflict with the country’s deeply passionate Roman Catholic faith in two quite serious ways.
First, the principle of bloodguilt is very important and no one person has the right to take the life of another. Yet Duterte encourages the masses to join in the morally unjustifiable killing. “Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun – you have my support, ” said Duterte. “(You) can kill him… Shoot him, and I’ll give you a medal”, he added. The practice is even incentivised. Officers get a cash reward for killing drug dealers or users.
The second point is that a legitimate public authority has the right and duty to punish criminals according to the gravity of the offence. While it does not rule out the death penalty, non-lethal means are preferred. However, a considerable number of the people who had died in the recent street conflict were assassinated. While accused officials could be tried, those shot dead on the streets of the Philippines do not have the same opportunity.
If that is the case, then why are Filipinos so in favour of Rody? Is it not hypocritical of them to uphold their religious faith and support a violent campaign at the same time? Certainly, it is possible to grant the masses the benefit of the doubt that they had not expected Duterte to carry out his campaign to such an extent. That seems less likely when his support, despite news of the violence, does not seem to shrinking.
He does it by separating society into two groups – masses (in-group), and drug users and dealers (out-group). He demonises the latter by saying, “(the drug addicts) are no longer viable as human beings on this planet”. In this way, Duterte casts a bad light on these people by blaming them for the high crime rate; this, in turn, ignites the flame of hatred.
More than three million crimes took place in the last three years. Assuming each case has 1.5 victims, that means there were five million victims. Add to that at least one million drug addicts. In total, it is estimated that in just last the three years, 18 million people suffered. The numbers are towering; it is not difficult to understand why the masses turn to support Duterte’s campaign.
Waning influence of the Church?
The Church has denounced the use of violence and confronted the President. It launched the “Huwag Kang Papatay” (thou shalt not kill) campaign and issued an official appeal to the police. The Bishops also stated that killing on the grounds of suspicion is not morally justifiable.
“At first we respect political choices. Our role as church people is to help the people choose who has that moral standard”, said Brother Angel, a monk from Quezon City. “With what has happened, it’s our moral obligation to encourage people to maintain ‘thou shalt not kill’,” he added.
But despite the Church’s outcry, it is unlikely that the situation will change. Granted the power of religion used to be highly influential in politics. However, times have changed. “The church found itself in a particular distinct position of influence because the brazen ineptness of other institutions particularly the military, the bureaucracy and the legislature created a social vacuum,” said political analyst Marvin Bionat. Today, Duterte is formidable.
The President’s campaign slogan was “change in coming”. But what kind of change can the Filipinos expect with such a devastating and brutal war? Crimes, especially drug-related offences, are rife and it is important to rid the country of drug use. However, murdering another person will not lessen the evil of society.
Meanwhile, it is an undeniable but overlooked truth that the root of drug issues is often poverty. And this should be a issue that both the President and the Church are concerned about. Many people entered the muddy water in the hope of getting out of the vicious cycle of poverty, or simply to escape reality. Is Duterte’s drug war a smokescreen for poverty? If so, he has succeeded.