Duterte’s moral crusade against drugs is targeting the Catholic Church


(NEWS ANALYSIS) How can the Philippines — a nation so overwhelmingly Roman Catholic — elect a president who repeatedly takes aim at the church, clergy and even God? This religious-political paradox isn’t so out of the ordinary in this divided age. Rodrigo Duterte’s rise is about the popularity of political populism (and often the poor options found at the ballot box) that has become a global trend. It also says a lot about the church’s diminishing power in some parts of the world.

In trying to diminish that power, Duterte has successfully imposed his political will over his people and over that of any religion. Elected in June 2016, Duterte instantly became the most internationally known Filipino leader since infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his democratically-elected successor Corazon Aquino, whose leadership led to the restoration of democracy in 1986.

In a crowded field of candidates — and no provision for a runoff — Duterte captured just 39% of the vote in a five-way race. Other, more moderate and church-friendly candidates, split the vote among themselves, most notably the candidates who finished second and third. Liberal party candidate Mar Roxas and independent Grace Poe finished second and third, respectively. The likeminded candidates garnered nearly 20 million votes combined. By contract, Duterte earned 16.6 million votes.

Had Roxas and Poe joined forces, the outcome could have likely been very different. Duterte joined the race late — allowing the media little time to look into his past and political record — and ran a race largely based on bringing law and order back to the Philippines and against the country’s elites. Duterte’s moral crusade — largely targeting lawlessness and drug dealers — included attacking the church in a bid to consolidate his power of Filipinos.


While Duterte may have split the population (which consists of 100 million people, about 80% of them Catholics), candidates he backed did very well this past spring during the country’s midterm elections. Duterte’s rhetoric and ability to target the establishment has resonated with many and continues to do so. It doesn’t help that other Christian denominations have largely supported Duterte’s policies or remained approvingly silent.

Among those elites Duterte has countered politically is the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. He wasted no time going after the clergy, particularly when the church began opposing his poor human rights record. Duterte has made fighting drugs a priority, using death squads to kill pushers. His bloody war has shocked the world, including the Catholic Church, but has been met largely with approval from his supporters.

The church, on the other hand, has largely opposed such practices — and earned Duterte’s ire as a consequence. Last December, for example, Duterte was quoted as saying:

“These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticize.”

The Washington Post has reported a laundry list of awful comments Duterte has made at the church. He used a crude term to describe Pope Francis, and he angered Catholics in the Philippines last summer when he called God “stupid” during a televised address. He also pushed back on the concept of “original sin,” saying: “What kind of religion is that? I can’t accept it.”

 In January, he again targeted bishops, calling them “sons of bitches.”

“Most of them are gay,” he added. “They should come out in the open, cancel celibacy and allow them to have boyfriends.”  

In what may have been his most-famous attack earlier this year, Duterte said the church “will disappear in about 25 years.”

These comments, while sounding more like the ramblings of a mad man, have not hurt Duterte in public opinion polls. Filipinos are left with an anti-Catholic president not so much because they hate the church, but due to the poor situation the country has found itself in, experts said.

“In my work researching communities that support President Duterte, I find that this concern, while valid, is more complex than it seems. More than being a manipulative demagogue, my research finds that Duterte is a man that reflects long-held yet humble aspirations of ordinary Filipinos, whether it be protection from criminals, freedom from elite rule, or peace in the country’s southernmost region,” said Bianca Ysabelle Franco, a research associate at the Development Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University.

Duterte did say early in his presidency that he had been sexually abused by a priest when he was a child. His hatred for the church may stem from that alleged incident. Nonetheless, Franco argues that Duterte’s policies “are responses to the Filipino people’s anxieties and grievances. But this does not mean he did not exploit these vulnerabilities.”

“It is not the people who are to blame for an increasingly powerful Duterte, but the political system that has failed them time and again,” she added. “This time, this political system created a man who ruined democracy for the people who elected him.”

Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.