In the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte characterized his 2016 election as a referendum between him and the Church. For the past two years, he has waged a brutal war on drugs, killing thousands of Filipinos, while prosecuting a parallel assault on the Church. But despite bloodshed and blasphemy, Duterte has retained popular support.
The government’s tolerance for the rising number of extrajudicial killings has forced the Church, once the most influential institution in the country, to a moral crossroads. The global Church has a long and troubling history of complicity with authoritarian regimes, and while the Filipino Church officially opposes the drug killings, it is wrestling with deep division beneath the surface. Some priests have tempered their criticism of Duterte in hopes of preserving the Church’s secular influence while others have taken to the pulpit to call out fellow clergymen for their silence.
Many Filipinos recall when the Catholic Church, in 1986, spurred the "People Power” revolution that overthrew the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a hero of Duterte’s, but the president’s popularity has left today’s Church on precarious footing. As the body count climbs in Duterte’s drug war, the Catholic Church has begun to regain its voice. The course it charts through the remainder of Duterte’s administration will shape the religious future of the most Catholic country in Asia. In its divided and diminished state, the Filipino Catholic Church could emerge as a bastion of morality and humanity, or a weak-kneed and passive enabler.