News Headlines > Bishops appeal to Catholic judiciary in bid to thwart Duterte's death penalty plan

16 September 2016 | by Catholic News Service

Bishops appeal to Catholic judiciary in bid to thwart Duterte's death penalty plan

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Catholic Church in Philippines aims to persuade judges and lawmakers to stop return of capital punishment

When the Catholic bishops of the Philippines issued a statement on the death penalty Sept. 14, they were careful not to directly challenge the country's mercurial president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has spent months calling them names. Instead, they appealed directly to Catholic legislators and judges, and to the Philippine people, to reflect together on what has become a hot topic of discussion here.

"We ask all Filipino Catholics and all men and women of goodwill to read these words borne out of our collegiality as your bishops, to reflect on them and to create 'circles of discernment' so that we can reflect together, decide together, work together and pray together that the truth may prevail," the bishops' statement said.

After months of conflict between some church leaders and the new president, who was sworn into office June 30, the statement did not mention Duterte.

Instead, after quoting Pope Francis and St. John Paul II, international law, and US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, it asks lawmakers, jurists and judges to oppose the reintroduction of the death penalty, a central plank in Duterte's law and order campaign.

The statement was read to the press by Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the episcopal conference. Earlier this year, Duterte called on him to resign after the prelate criticized the president.

Duterte has called the bishops "sons of whores" and during a news conference in his home town of Davao, he warned the bishops, "Don't (expletive deleted) with me!"

Of all the church leaders, Archbishop Villegas has been particularly pointed in his criticism of Duterte's policies, especially an anti-drug campaign that has led to the killing of thousands of suspected drug users and sellers.

Yet sources close to the episcopal conference said his fellow bishops have convinced the archbishop "to calm down," as one observer noted. Archbishop Villegas declined to be interviewed for this story.

Duterte is not without supporters among the bishops. While none publicly agree with either his sailor's tongue or the violence of the extrajudicial killings, they reportedly believe Duterte's support for indigenous rights and his opposition to mining are places where church leaders can find common cause with the president.

In July, unresolved tension between the bishops over how to respond to Duterte resulted in a meeting of the episcopal conference that produced no public statement or news conference, the first time that had occurred in recent memory.

The September statement on the death penalty represents a new approach, according to Father Marvin Mejia, secretary-general of the episcopal conference.

"The conference is learning a new approach to dealing with the president. For a long time, the bishops in the Philippines were the ones telling society what to do and what not to do. They were part of the power structure. Now we have a president who doesn't care if he's talking to an archbishop," Father Mejia told Catholic News Service. "And while I do think he's open to debate, he does tend to take things personally."

Calling the new situation "good for the church," Father Mejia said the death penalty statement is a more proactive appeal than statements in the past. "The bishops have realized they need to do more than just react."

He suggested that after losing recent legislative battles over reproductive rights, church leaders realized they no longer have the automatic authority they once had.

"Before the election, the church had certain positions, but I wondered why millions of people did not listen to us. The church's message was clear, but some people say 'Yes, I'm a Catholic, but ...' On certain things, people listen more to this guy (Duterte) than they do to the church."

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