Killing priests is unacceptable, so is the reaction of the church hierarchy

Thursday June 14, 2018 ()

Three priests of the Philippine Catholic Church have been assassinated in the past few months. This is unacceptable – but then, so is the reaction of some members of the church hierarchy to the killing of their fellow priests.

I understand how one prelate can blame the cold-blooded murder of the priests on the culture of impunity that pervades our society. I will even grant that this same culture, which has grown like a social cancer for many decades, could have been exacerbated by the current atmosphere of growing distrust with and disrespect for the clergy, especially whenever they venture into purely secular politics.

But I will not abide by the declaration of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle who, in seeking to make the latest killing of a Nueva Ecija cleric even more current, decried the supposed “fake independence” of the Philippines. It must really have hurt the good cardinal to lose three of his brethren in such a short time; but concluding that the killings have anything to do with the recent Independence Day celebrations is just a bit too much.

Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle
(Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle)

Of course, it doesn’t help any that President Rodrigo Duterte, who was never a favorite of the Catholic Church, is openly hostile to the country’s priests and religious. But then, it’s not as if the Church has ever given Duterte a break since he became president.

Church groups have routinely accused Duterte of mass murder and other high crimes, in a suspicious chorus with political groups that have declared the president as their sworn enemy. Clerics and religious people have routinely (and naively) sided with everyone who has a beef against Duterte’s government, offering up prayers and blessings for – and providing sanctuary and speaking opportunities to – the most vitriolic of the president’s critics like ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo, to name just two.

Church personalities from Sister Patricia Fox to Father Robert Reyes to the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines to the openly Yellow archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, Socrates Villegas, feel it is their duty to criticize the government of Duterte over matters that have little or nothing to do with their real job as spiritual leaders of the Catholic faithful. And Duterte is merely responding in kind, using his own bully pulpit as president to hit back at meddling, corrupt and morally bankrupt leaders of the Church.

But the most glaring and by far the most routinely ignored aspects in the ongoing battle between the Church and the Duterte government is that the Catholic hierarchy never cottoned to Duterte because he is not someone who will bow down to religious leaders – or to anyone, for that matter. Neither is Duterte known as a favorite of the Church like, say, the two Aquino presidents whom Catholic leaders supported to the hilt and about whom they never said a critical word.

To cite just one example, no Catholic organization, from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to the smallest, most obscure religious congregation, has ever criticized the previous administration of Noynoy Aquino for its pushing for the controversial Dengvaxia vaccination program. Not a word has been heard from Tagle, Villegas, Reyes, Fox or any of the usual publicity-seeking Church personages about the alleged overpriced purchase of an incompletely tested vaccine using taxpayers’ money for use on 830,000 schoolchildren and thousands of others to protect them from an unproven threat of dengue fever, or about the dozens of reported deaths that followed from Dengvaxia’s use.

How difficult would it be for the Church leadership to issue a pastoral letter to be read from the pulpits condemning the scandal and calling for the punishment of those involved in the Dengvaxia program? Is it too much to ask Villegas, for example, to order the tolling of the bells in his archdiocese in memory of the children who died after being given the vaccine, just like he does over supposed extrajudicial killings and other alleged crimes committed by the Duterte administration?

It doesn’t help, as well, that Church leaders, while they are so quick to excoriate those in the civilian government for their perceived sins and to call for their public unmasking, punishment and humiliation, have never shown the same commitment to justice and transparency when one of their own runs afoul of the law. The book by the late journalist Aries Rufo, Altar of Secrets, which Duterte himself gleefully hands out, is full of examples of how the Philippine Catholic Church has quietly swept scandals involving the clergy under the rug over the years. The virtual news blackout about the gun-toting monsignor from Rizal province who was arrested for regularly soliciting sex with a teenaged girl through her homosexual pimp is a more recent example of the double standard practiced by the Church when a cleric gets into trouble.

Of course, none of the Church hierarchy’s questionable acts, in my opinion, justifies the killing of the members of the clergy. A murder is a murder, after all, and should be punished to the full extent of the law, whether the victim is a homeless person or a well-loved shepherd of the Catholic Church.

But the recent priest killings should make it clear to Church leaders that if they are truly to “imbibe the odor of the sheep,” as they say in Catholic circles, they cannot be immune to the travails faced daily by their flock, which includes the possibility of apparently senseless, violent death. The latest assassinations are no longer an ideological pursuit or a political exercise for the Church – they hit where it hurts, and it hurts really, really bad.

Perhaps now the Church will understand better how difficult a job it is to pursue criminals in this country and to bring them to justice. And how the easy accusations made in politically charged, purely partisan forums that the Church provides for critics of the government sound so hollow and hypocritical, when confronted with the reality of violent crime and death.


  • Killing priests, Jojo Robles, June 14, 2018, The Manila Times

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