OPINION: Like sharp daggers - Bishops respond to Duterte

MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - To the sharp daggers piercing the Church, the bishops’ response is humility and renewal. “When people do not understand our essential doctrines as Roman Catholic Christians, we have also ourselves to blame. It could also mean we have failed in our preaching. Perhaps we have not been effective enough in our catechesis about the faith?”

The Catholic bishops of the Philippines, at their semiannual meeting over the weekend, issued three statements in two days.

The first was an expression of condolence to the victims of the Jan. 27 bombings at the Jolo cathedral, of condemnation for this latest “act of terrorism,” and of a commitment to continue the advocacy for peace in Mindanao and against “violent extremism.”

The third was an expected exhortation to the Filipino electorate to seek the common good in the May 13 elections: “Let the common good be the aim of our politicians and let the common good be the basis of our choice for our next set of public officials.”

The second, however, was out of the ordinary. It was a pastoral statement to “our dear People of God” written in response, mainly, to President Duterte’s attacks on the Catholic Church, and it began with a candid confession.

“Peace be with you. We are aware that many of you have been wondering why your bishops have kept a collective silence over many disturbing issues, about which you may have felt you urgently needed our spiritual and pastoral guidance. Forgive us for the length of time that it took us to find our collective voice. We too needed to be guided properly in prayer and discernment before we could guide you.”

The influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has in fact been heard from when priests were killed last year, and during different phases of the Duterte administration’s so-called war on illegal drugs. The collective silence of the CBCP, then, referred to the President’s attacks on Catholic doctrine. “Lately, we have also been on the receiving end of
cruel words that pierce into the soul of the Catholic Church like sharp daggers. From deep within, the body of Christ is crying out in anguish as he did to Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus. (Acts 9:4) We have silently noted these painful instances with deep sorrow and prayed over them. We have taken our cue from Pope Francis who tells us that in some instances, ‘…the best response is silence and prayer.’”

“Conquer evil with good,” the pastoral statement Archbishop Romulo Valles issued on behalf of the CBCP, represents the next step after silence and prayer.

It acknowledges the anguish of the faithful. “But as far as we know, the freedom of expression does not include a license to insult other people’s faith, especially our core beliefs. We know that this cuts deeply into the souls of our people—especially the poor, because faith is the only thing they have to hold on to. It gives them hope and strength to continue living and working despite all the odds that come their way. It sustains them when they feel alone and defenceless in foreign lands where they work.”

But it also expresses criticism, carefully worded but unmistakable, of the administration’s signature policy. “Like most other Filipinos we had high hopes that the government would truly flex some political will to be able to use the full force of the law in working against this terrible menace. It was when we started hearing of mostly poor people being brutally murdered on mere suspicion of being small-time drug users and peddlers while the big-time smugglers and drug lords went scot-free, that we started wondering about the direction this ‘drug war’ was taking.”

To the sharp daggers piercing the Church, the bishops’ response is humility and renewal. “When people do not understand our essential doctrines as Roman Catholic Christians, we have also ourselves to blame. It could also mean we have failed in our preaching. Perhaps we have not been effective enough in our catechesis about the faith?”

But to the attacks on the Church as critical of the anti-illegal drugs campaign, the response is defiance. “As bishops, we have no intention of interfering in the conduct of State affairs. But neither do we intend to abdicate our sacred mandate as shepherds to whom the Lord has entrusted his flock. We have a solemn duty to defend our flock, especially when they are attacked by wolves(!) We do not fight with arms. We fight only with the truth. Therefore, no amount of intimidation or even threat to our lives will make us give up our prophetic role, especially that of giving voice to the voiceless. As Paul once said, ‘Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel!’”

The same tone is heard in the exhortation on the May 13 elections, when the bishops describe current political reality. The bishops are speaking in their role as prophets but in priestly tones. By that, I mean that, while neither the pastoral statement nor the exhortation are thunderbolt-and-lightning statements (the bishops do not even mention or reference President Duterte at all), the bishops are still speaking truth to power. Christian theology understands the mission of the priest as mediation, serving as a bridge; this sometimes means not offending the sensibilities of the offender. But the mission of the prophet is to give unremitting witness to God’s truth.

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