The Roman Catholic Church is beginning to criticize Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. On Feb. 18, as many as 50,000 Catholics rallied in Manila to protest a plan to reinstate the death penalty and against the extrajudicial killings unleashed by Duterte's war on drugs. The march, dubbed the "Walk for Life," was endorsed by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), a powerful body in a country where some 80 percent of the population is Catholic. Two archbishops spoke at the rally, calling for active nonviolent resistance to government intimidation and attempts to sow fear.
For the first several months of Duterte's presidency, the church was largely silent about the drug war, in which nearly 8,000 people have been killed. But since mid-January, the church has gradually become more vocal about the killings. On Feb. 6, for example, the CBCP explicitly denounced the drug war in a pastoral letter that was read at Sunday Mass across the country. A week later, Duterte's staunchest supporter among the clergy, a Jesuit priest and university president from the president's hometown, publicly sided with the CBCP.
Anecdotal reports suggest that the church is still divided (somewhat along geographic lines) about how forcefully to oppose the president on extrajudicial killings. After all, polls continue to show that the president and his drug war are broadly popular, and the clergy is not immune to the political views of its parishioners. Even before winning the presidency, Duterte repeatedly lashed out against the church's perceived political meddling (often citing historical abuses), evidently without alienating too many of his supporters.
Still, the church's intensifying spotlight on state-sponsored violence comes as pressure on the president has already begun to grow. Earlier this month, following revelations about a pair of high-profile killings by anti-drug police, Duterte essentially admitted that the drug war had gotten out of hand and announced sweeping changes to its execution. On Feb. 20, a veteran policeman from Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for 22 years, corroborated claims by a whistleblower about Duterte's personal oversight over a vigilante group known as the Davao Death Squad.
The church is unlikely to go beyond denouncing specific policies to spearhead an effort to oust the president. Notably, amid the church's recent surge of activity, there have been no explicit calls for Duterte's removal. But its voice has lent legitimacy to mass movements against several of Duterte's predecessors. And the Feb. 18 rally illustrates how the church can at least nudge its followers to mobilize. The threat would become especially problematic for Duterte if the grassroots backlash expands to issues that have traditionally dogged Philippine presidents, particularly corruption and economic woes. At minimum, it would hamper Duterte's ability to push through other potentially contentious elements of his agenda, such as ambitious peace initiatives with different rebel groups and his goal of changing the government to a federal system.