A back and forth with the church: What went before Duterte’s ‘sorry, God’

July 12, 2018 - 2:38 PM
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President Rodrigo Duterte on May 1, 2018 signs an executive order that reiterates legal prohibitions against the regular practice contracting and sub-contracting of workers. (PPD)

President Rodrigo Duterte was dropping controversial slurs against Catholic bishops and Christian teachings in his speeches in June. He called God in the Christian Bible “stupid” while his spokesperson, Harry Roque, claimed, without evidence, that the Catholic Church was being used in a destabilization plot against the president.

Duterte drew flak from the religious sector and some of his allies in the Senate who urged him to show respect for beliefs of a Filipino majority. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines also released a statement condemning the blasphemy.

Malacañang then formed a three-man committee to dialogue with church leaders. Duterte assigned Roque and two clergymen from his team—EDSA People Power Commission member Pastor Boy Saycon and Foreign Affairs undersecretary Ernesto Abella, a founder of a number of religious groups.

The committee, besides aiming to hold talks with the CBCP, also set out to meet with other church leaders.

Dining and shaking hands

Earlier this week and before his meeting with the archbishop of his home province of Davao, Duterte attended a dinner gathering with 18 bishops at the residence of former president and cincumbent Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to discuss the topic of the state’s relations with the church.

The dinner with bishops was reportedly regularly hosted by Arroyo during and even after her presidency, stopping only when she was placed under house arrest in 2012.

On Monday, Duterte met with Valles for 30 minutes at Malacañang where he agreed to a moratorium on issuing statements related to the church. The CBCP, meanwhile, gave its word that it would have a “critical collaboration” with the administration.

Breaking his vow in under 24 hours

It was not the first time—and possibly would not be the last time—that Duterte promised to keep his words in check when speaking about the church and religion. He did so on June 28 before the dialogue with church leaders, saying he would “shut up” about it, but he then lashed out against the church in his next remarks.

Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, presides over the 117th CBCP Plenary Assembly at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Manila, July 7, 2018. (CBCP News)

He also challenged Christians to prove God exists with a selfie. If they’re successful, he siad, he would resign. Threatening to step down from office, however, is something of a habitual expression for the president.

RELATED: The many times Duterte threatened to quit as president

The moratorium supposedly forged at the formal talks on Monday, however, did not have any clear grounds. If it was an agreement or just another one of his spontaneous promises, reports did not say.

So in just one day, Duterte broke the moratorium on the anti-church statements in warning religious leaders from using their positions to criticize him.

“There is a separation of power between any church and state. Huwag mong isali ang Diyos mo doon sa (do not include your God in) platform of your criticism or your attack because when I answer, kapag sinali mo sa issue, sinali mo ang Diyos, p***** i** patayin kita (if you include it in the issue, if you include God, son of a b****, I will kill you),” he said the following day at a business summit.

In another meeting, he gives in

Despite breaking the moratorium, Duterte continued to reach out to other church leaders, and this time he appeared to have listened.

Eddie Villanueva, founder of the Jesus is Lord Church Worldwide and former presidential candidate, was one of those criticized him for his “stupid” comment. He and Duterte sat down for a meeting on Tuesday and discussed various issues. The president even led a prayer facilitated by presidential counsel Salvador Panelo.

Duterte then conceded before Villanueva, issuing an apology to the divine. “Sorry, God,” Panelo quoted him as saying.

But the apology was directed to God alone, not to the church or Christians who felt offended.

President Rodrigo Duterte discusses matter with Jesus Is Lord Church Worldwide founder and president Eduardo “Eddie” Villanueva during a meeting in Malacañang. Also in the photo are Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo and Sec. Bong Go of the Office of the Special Assistant to the President. (PPD/Albert Alcain)

“Immediately after [President Duterte] made those remarks, [he] said, ‘Sorry, God, hindi ka kasama dito, you’re not included,” Panelo told radio dzMM.

Duterte then explained that his controversial comments were triggered by Australian nun Patricia Fox, who was facing deportation. He claimed that Fox was using God’s name “in vain” and violating the country’s laws in joining political activities despite being a foreigner.

The president indeed called Fox “foul-mouthed” in the past, but some groups and lawmakers were petitioning to authorities to allow Fox to remain in the country, where she has served the poor for years.

Some of those on social media were not convinced by Duterte’s “sorry.”

A complicated relationship

When Duterte launched a drug war that has led to the deaths of thousands of mostly poor people and innocent victims dismissed as “casualties,” sectors of the Catholic Church condemned the wasted lives and mounted mainly quiet resistance.

There were, of course, critical voices that joined a growing chorus of condemnation locally and internationally as the administration continued to defend the brutal policy.

Duterte apparently did not take the criticisms lightly, lashing out at the church, his political detractors and international bodies at every opportunity, using his public speeches as occasions to do so.

But his testy attitude toward Roman Catholicism appears to have started even years before his presidency. In 2016, Duterte, a lapsed Catholic, has declared his stance against organized religion. He also claimed having been a victim of molestation by a Catholic priest in his younger days, possible causing his aversion to the church he was baptized in. — Reports from Dan Manglinong