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Showdown in the Philippines

Only one cardinal had their own campaign song at the last conclave. Not an official one, of course: presumably that would result in an early flight home. The anthem was written by a Filipino rapper called Latigo and set to the tune of “YMCA" by the Village People. (One wonders whether the arranger knew this was one of the most famous gay anthems in history.) It went like this:

Tagle, I know he is the one
I say Tagle, he is a soldier of god
I say Tagle, he won’t do any bad
and he’ll lead us to do good things…

Then came the chorus: “Our next Pope should be Cardinal Tagle …" With his toothy smile and eloquent tongue, the Archbishop of Manila was already a sensation back home in the Philippines. Now, as voting began in the Sistine Chapel, he was on his way to becoming a global one.

Every Vatican-watcher had Cardinal Tagle on their list of papabile. But there was one obvious drawback: he was only 55. Admittedly, John Paul II was just three years older when he was elected pope, but the cardinals were reluctant to commit themselves to what might turn out to be a 30-year papacy.

So Cardinal Tagle emerged from the conclave in red, not white, but now familiar to Catholics the world over. He was, in the words of Vaticanologist John Allen, “the Catholic rock star of Asia". After Pope Francis, he was the most charismatic churchman in the world.

But all of sudden Tagle is not even the most charismatic man in Manila. Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, has nudged him aside for that accolade. Now they are heading for a mighty collision over their country’s future.

If you follow world affairs, you’re likely to have a rough mental image of Duterte: a thuggish-looking, motorbike-riding, Viagra-popping, gun-toting scourge of the criminal class. You may have heard some of his most famous lines: calling Pope Francis a “son of a whore", joking about raping a dead missionary, promising to fatten the fish in Manila Bay with the corpses of law-breakers. These are what pass for quips in Duterte’s circle.

After corrupt officials and felons, there is another group the president appears to have in his sights: the bishops. Why? Partly because they were among Duterte’s most ferocious critics during the election in May. Shortly before the ballot, bishops’ conference president Archbishop Socrates Villegas urged Catholics not to support “a candidate whose speech and actions, whose plans and projects, show scant regard for the rights of all, who has openly declared indifference, if not dislike and disregard, for the Church, especially in her moral teachings".

Many of the nation’s 84 million faithful ignored the archbishop, handing Duterte power with 38 per cent of the vote. The new president has enjoyed rubbing episcopal noses in his victory. “You know the most hypocritical institution?" he recently asked supporters. “The Catholic Church." Some bishops, he claimed, were secretly married and forever begging favours from politicians. “You sons of whores," he said, “aren’t you ashamed?"

Tagle has so far managed to avoid confrontation with Duterte, who was sworn in last week, but he must sense that the ruthless populist poses one of the greatest challenges of his life.

This isn’t just a local story: Tagle is the bookies’ favourite to be the next pope. The Philippines is the world’s third-largest Catholic country after Brazil and Mexico, and Filipino Catholics enliven parishes from Albuquerque to Abu Dhabi. “The stage has been set for a classic showdown between church and state in the Philippines," says Allen, “and the whole Catholic world has an investment in how this plays out."

The cardinal and the president have sharply contrasting personalities. One is known for his humility, the other boasts of his conquests. One leads retreats for journalists, the other insists that corrupt reporters deserve to die. One celebrates Mass for prisoners, the other urges people to “go ahead and kill" drug addicts.

Luis Antonio Tagle grew up in a middle-class family in Metro-Manila, with Chinese ancestry on his mother’s side. Nicknamed Chito (a diminutive of Luis), he aspired to be a doctor, but studied for the priesthood after being tricked into taking the seminary entrance exam. As a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America, he impressed professors with his piety and brainpower. One said he was capable of becoming “the best theologian in Asia and one of the best theologians in the world".

As Cindy Wooden points out in her biography of Tagle, he was a Pope Francis-style figure before the world had heard of Pope Francis. After he was appointed Bishop of Imus, south of Manila, he began inviting beggars outside his cathedral to dine with him.

Like Francis, Tagle insists that mercy is at the heart of Christianity. “Why did Jesus choose to be merciful?" he once asked. “What was the secret of his silent mercy and compassion even to an enemy? It was his trust in God." Those who lack mercy, he said, have placed their trust in something other than the Almighty. “In the world today there are those who rely on money, weapons, private armies … connections. And if we continue to rely on these things the more we become less merciful. You will use all of that even if it will hurt other people."

Rodrigo Roa Duterte was born into a well-connected family with Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Malaysian roots. Baptised a Catholic, he grew up on the southern island of Mindanao. He studied law in Manila, where he claimed to have shot a fellow student who had mocked his ethnic origins. He became a member of the Lex Talionis Fraternitas, an elite legal brotherhood committed to upholding the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye" principle of Mosaic Law.

When he was elected mayor of Davao City in 1988, he applied the lex talionis to spectacular effect. Davao was then known as the murder capital of the Philippines. Today, it is regarded as one of the world’s safest cities. His crime-fighting methods were, he admits, unorthodox. He patrolled the city on a Harley-Davidson or undercover as a taxi driver. He personally beat pickpockets with a cow’s tail and “thrashed" drunken policemen. He once forced a tourist who flouted a ban on smoking to eat a cigarette butt. Most controversially of all, he turned a blind eye as death squads killed around 1,000 members of the criminal underworld.

On paper, the 71-year-old’s rhetoric sounds gruesomely extreme, but when you hear him speak he comes across as a man of surprising conviction. At his modest inauguration ceremony last week, he spoke powerfully about how he had seen corruption, drugs and criminality destroy lives. “Look at this from that perspective," he challenged his audience, “and tell me that I am wrong."

“Duterte Harry" is not a one-dimensional strongman. He built a drug rehabilitation centre in Davao and also passed an anti-discrimination law that expanded gay rights. He has condemned anti-gay bullying, saying he has always hated oppression.

To understand him, Duterte has said, you must “forget about the laws of men" and focus instead on the justice of God. In other words, he seems to see himself as an instrument of divine justice.

But, paradoxically, Duterte doesn’t feel bound by the moral law. “If I listened to the Ten Commandments or to the priests, I would not be able to do anything as a mayor," he has said. He once put it even more vehemently: “I don’t care if I go to hell as long as the people I serve will live in paradise."

Why does Duterte shun the Church’s moral teaching? It may go back to his teens when he says he was molested by an American Jesuit priest. Allen notes that Duterte is probably “the first head of state anywhere in the world who claims he’s also a survivor of clerical sexual abuse".

It is unclear whether Duterte still considers himself a Catholic. He has sought spiritual advice from Apollo Quiboloy, leader of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above Every Name – a Pentecostal sect in Davao. Some accounts say that Duterte decided to run for the presidency after Quiboloy shared a prophecy with him. Duterte now appears to have distanced himself from the man who claims he is the“Appointed Son of God". The president recently joked that he had created his own religion, the Church of Duterte.

One of Duterte’s nicknames is “the Punisher", after the vigilante comic book hero. The policies he is considering certainly have a whiff of punishment about them: for the Church, that is.

He has said he wants to impose a three-child policy to curb the Filipino population. He has also suggested that he will promote contraception, consider same-sex marriage and reintroduce the death penalty. Any one of these policies would set the president on a collision course with the Church. Adopting all of them would be a declaration of war.

Despite their myriad differences, there is one thing Cardinal Tagle and President Duterte have in common: they are both loved by the people. “If there is one thing Chito [Tagle] is, it’s a communicator," a close friend has said. “He has an amazing presence. There’s clearly a depth of theological thinking, but he is able to communicate in the language of the people."

Duterte’s followers, meanwhile, treat him with a quasi-religious reverence. According to Red Tani, founder of the secularist group Filipino Freethinkers, supporters have battled through crowds “for a chance to get a towel graced with his sweat". There is a popular Facebook page called “Duterte Saviour of the Philippines".

A battle between the cardinal and the president would pit mercy against justice, the law of love against the lex talionis. From a purely human point of view, Tagle has the harder pitch: “love your enemies" is less instantly gratifying than “kill your enemies". The Church offers salvation, but it cannot guarantee earthly security.

Catholic leaders are therefore always in danger of being outflanked by law-and-order populists who promise paradise now.

That is why the cardinal is likely to lose if he confronts the president head-on. Instead, he could adopt an indirect approach, confronting Duterte not at his strongest point, but at his weakest.

If Tagle were president of the Filipino bishops’ conference, he would be forced to oppose Duterte directly. But he isn’t, so he is free to pursue a subtler course: quietly witnessing to the Church’s solidarity with the poor and mercy’s superiority to vengeance. If Duterte’s war on crime results in injustice – as it’s likely to – the cardinal should be there to show that, in St Paul’s words, the Church offers “a more excellent way".

Even if Tagle is unable to outmanoeuvre Duterte, he should at least be able to outlast him. Filipino presidents are only allowed to serve one six-year term; the cardinal has 15 years before he reaches the retirement age for bishops.

But he should do more than simply survive the Duterte years. Sharp-tongued, charismatic outsiders are gaining power across the world. Cardinal Tagle can teach the global Church how to adjust to this demanding new political environment: by staying closer to the people than even the most ardent populist.

Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald.










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3 comments

  1. Mike Reply

    I heard one cleric mentioned a theologian saying the maximum of justice is mercy.

  2. Lina Reply

    I agree. The cbcp and the cardinal have always spoken out loud of their opposition to the extra judicial killing policy of Duterte to solve drug problem in the country. I think they should do more as you say by staying close to the people. Intensify reach out ministries to the parishioners particularly the poor, membership registration in the parish should be done, etc. thanks for an insightful article.

  3. Kookie Reply

    Catholic Church: Outlasting oppressive government.
    Since 33AD

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