Ramon Echica – « To prophesy or not to prophesy. Is it the question? »
This text is a part of the issue:
English: Asian Christianities
Deutsch: Asiatischen Christentümer
Italiano: Cristianesimi asiatici
Português: Cristiandades asiáticas
Français: Christianismes asiatiques
Español: Cristianismos asiáticos
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, prophets often came out in the context of turbulent political periods to denounce the abuses of the ruling establishment or the insensitivity of the people to God’s word. They acted as the conscience of Israel. They felt the vocation to proclaim God’s word which was not often heeded. Instead, prophets were seen to be doomsayers or trouble makers. They suffered greatly for their denunciations. Examples are aplenty but citing a few would suffice for our purpose: The prophet Jeremiah condemned King Jehoiakim as someone “who builds his house on wrongdoing, his roof chambers on injustice.” The prophet Elijah condemned King Ahab for the deaths of Naboth and his two sons. Many of these prophets had to undergo persecution for delivering the word of God to the people. The best example would be the Lord Jesus, a prophet who fell victim to the connivance between the temple establishment and the representatives of the Roman empire in the Galilee area. Some modern day examples would include Bartolome de las Casas and Oscar Romero.
This prophetic tradition serves as a starting point for our reflection on the current problem the Catholic Church of the Philippines is facing in the midst of the extra-judicial killing allegedly propagated by the current administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. For their yet legally-unproven involvement in drugs, more than ten thousand people have been killed either by the police or by some police-inspired vigilante groups since June 2016. As if the situation is not dire enough, it is even more aggravated by the fact, admitted even by the administration itself, that almost all victims belong to the poorest strata of society.
Aside from extra-judicial killing, another issue which the Church faces is the seeming authoritarian tendencies of the administration. Even when the more than a decade old Marcos dictatorship should still be in the collective memory of the nation as a warning sign of what we should not fall into, still the administration has demonized legitimate dissenters. One of its most vocal critic is now in prison and there is the threat to go after those officials whose task, as designed by the country’s constitution, is to be the check and balance against possible abuses of the executive branch. Furthermore, seen as an ominous sign is the burial of the late dictator Marcos in a cemetery supposedly reserved for the nation’s heroes and heroines. The administration approved of it and the Supreme Court decided that there was no legal impediment for the said burial.
The unrelenting war against drugs and the perceived authoritarian tendencies are possibly interconnected. The administration has securitized the drug problem instead of seeing it as health or social issue. President Duterte, some allege, has exaggerated the drug problem in order to present himself as a boss who can perform the gargantuan task of conquering the drug menace. Thus, despite the warnings that an all-out war against drugs has never been proven effective, he stubbornly insists on it as the best solution. In the words of one political analyst,
“…the populist Duterte has shrewdly picked on an issue of broad popular concern – drug trafficking – and securitized it. He has hyperbolized the drug menace to justify the deadly “war on drugs.” For Duterte, much more than burnishing his being “tough on crime” and “man of action persona and broadening his popular appeal, the “war on drugs” constitutes a key instrument for turning the national police machinery into his power base and into a quasi-private army…”
With this background, what is the Philippine Church supposed to do?
1. Past Activism of the Philippine Church
The hierarchical Church in the Philippines has a long history of activism. Indeed, it is probably more activist than any other national conference of bishops. Obviously, there were hits and misses. There were times when, in retrospect, the Church misread the signs of the times. But oftentimes, the Church served as the voice of nation’s conscience. It may be that because of the recent (or even ongoing) issue involving reproductive health where many Filipino bishops took an extremely adversarial stance against its proponents, many may think that that the Church hierarchy is obsessed with this issue. But that is far from the truth.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has issued statements on death penalty, corruption in the government, environmental degradation, honest elections, human rights, peace process, proliferation of fake news, and other social and political issues.
But the Philippine Church was at her prophetic best when she denounced the abuses of the Marcos dictatorship. She then appealed to the military that their loyalty is not to any person but to the nation and asked the government to respect the right to dissent. When anyone who opposed the dictatorship then were deemed as subversives by the government, the bishops asked for a precise legal definition of subversion. And in 1986 snap Presidential elections when it was obvious that cheating in favour of Marcos was rampant, the bishops declared that, “According to moral principles, a government that assumes or retains power through fraudulent means has no moral basis. For such an access to power is tantamount to a forcible seizure and cannot command the allegiance of the citizens.” This statement contributed much to the eventual downfall of the dictatorship.
The activist stance of the Church continued in a post-authoritarian context when she called for peace, lamented the ecological damage, and condemned corruption. Should the Church continue this tradition of prophetic denunciation?
It is to be noted that in the early stage of the martial rule of Marcos (1970s), only very few bishops opposed it.But slowly, opposition within the Church grew when there were also increasing evidences of human rights violations and of extra judicial executions where some victims were priests or church pastoral workers.
2. Prophecy in the Time of the Populist President Duterte
Some commentators are calling on the calling on the institutional Church to do what it did in the past when there were perceived abuses by the government. At least in the first year of his presidency, the Church was called upon to be less timid. Waldo Bello, a left- leaning intellectual notes, “Just when the Church’s moral leadership is needed most, it finds itself exercising self-control.” He quotes Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who usually is always ready to say his piece, as having explained, “The CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines) has to be very careful because it might unnecessarily offend a good number of people of good will, who are Catholics themselves.” Bello even compares the silence of many bishops to the silence of the bishops, including the Pope, when the Nazis massacred millions of Jews. A veteran journalist Vergel Santos notes the timidity of the Church manifested in her “lack of readiness to take on the President, not even on such a fundamental and urgent moral question as the taking of lives possibly by shortcutting the rule of law.”
These thinkers compare what the Church did in the past and its failure to repeat it in the present. But while similarities with the past can guide the present, still we acknowledge the differences between previous and current situations.
One major difference is that while leaders of the past court the support of the Church, Duterte openly takes an adversarial stance against the Church. He has often questioned the moral ascendancy of the Church, citing cases of sexual immorality and corruption, like acceptance of bribery from a former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, ironically an ally of his. He has gutter language to describe the Church. He urged his listeners to read the book Altars of Secrets which is about clerical abuses in the Philippines.
That he has remained popular in a predominantly Catholic country despite his tirades against the Church can make one wonder whether many would choose their loyalty to the President over and above their loyalty to the Church if push comes to shove. It is highly possible that some members of the hierarchy are intimidated by his popularity, and afraid that some skeletons in their closets may be exposed.
On the side of the Church, there are also differences since a generation ago when she played a great role in the ouster of a dictator. First, there is no one with the charisma of Jaime Cardinal Sin. Secondly, even if the institutional Church still enjoys much credibility, still she does not hold much persuasive power as in the past. These developments need not be seen negatively. In a world which is increasingly pluralistic, gone should be the days when people believe in Church pronouncements simply because they come from the Church. Today, the Church’s persuasive power depends on the strength of her reason and logic.
These differences mentioned above both on the side of the administration and on the Church may help explain why the Church was and is groping on how to address the issue. But despite the situation, some development can be seen in the response of the CBCP to the issue on the war against drugs. The first statement was issued on June 2016 entitled “Pastoral Appeal to our Law Enforcers.” The statement is basically a set of guidelines on when law enforcers can legitimately invoke self-defense. The second statement, coming out six months after and in view of the continued killing of drug suspects, sounds more prophetic in its title, “For I find no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Moreover, more than just a guideline, the second document offers a more comprehensive view of the problem of drug addiction and criminality. It says that they are “rooted in the poverty of the majority, the destruction of the family, and corruption in society.” It urges the faithful to speak against the evils in society, otherwise one becomes an accomplice to it.
If the killing of drug dependents continues and if the administration becomes more authoritarian, will the Church continue to speak even more boldly? That remains to be seen. One thing that can embolden the church is the growing realization of the people of the prevalence of extra-judicial killing. Surveys have shown that while the majority support the war against drugs, a great majority now also acknowledge that extra judicial killings are happening. It is now the challenge of the Church to help people realize that the extra judicial killing whose existence they acknowledge is grievously wrong and against accepted moral norms.
Conclusion: Authentic Prophecy
We started our reflections with the examples of the prophets of old. We end it with some questions on how the Church can authentically perform her prophetic role today. The last paragraph of the last section should not imply that Church better take a calculative approach, weighing the possible costs and benefits, chances of success and of failure, of her prophetic role. Performing the role of a prophet is a moral imperative. Thus, prophets in the past proclaimed the word of God, unmindful of the possible consequences, confident that God would ultimately vindicate them. The question rather is how to the Church can be an authentic prophet today in view of her belief that the killing of drug suspects is not in conformity with God’s will.
First, the adversarial approach taken by the government, while unwelcome, can also give the Church an opportunity for self-introspection and institutional reform. Prophets of old were aware of their own unworthiness and imperfections. It is good to be reminded that, with the ecclesiology of Vatican II, the Church has abandoned the claim that she is a perfect society. The Church can denounce evil and proclaim the truth even if she is painfully mindful that she is imperfect.
Second, the abandonment of a triumphalist image implies that the Church also does away with the role of being power brokers, determining who will occupy the seat of power. The task of the Church is to preach the Gospel and lend a moral voice. But preaching the Gospel would have political ramifications. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines puts this well: “The task of the Church in announcing a message of liberation, of saturating every strata of humanity with the values of the Good News will necessarily have political repercussions, for the values of the Kingdom often serve as countersigns to the prevailing political systems and practices.”Thirdly, prophecy today also means that the Church must involve the people in the process of moral discernment. This may involve going back to the grassroots again, listening to the voices of ordinary people.
 Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, “Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’: the Securitization of Illegal Drugs and the Return of National Boss Rule” in A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency, ed. Nicole Curato (Quezon City, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017), pp. 146-147.
 Cf. Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, “Obey God rather than Men” February 1986.
 The list of bishops who opposed martial law even during its initial stages can be found in Pasquale T. Giordano, Awakening to Mission: The Philippine Catholic Church 1965-1981 (Quezon City: New Day, 1988), p. 275, n. 64.
 Waldo Bello, “Silent Church” in www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/14937/silent-church, October 17, 2016.
 Vergel Santos, “Default by Timidity” in www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/149498/default-by-timidity, October 19, 2016,
 Aries Rufo, Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church (Pasig: journalism for Nation Building Foundation, 2013).
 Many surveys done by the Social Weather Station would rank the Church as the most credible among different groups like the media, the academe, the government, non-government organizations, etc.
 CBCP, “Pastoral Appeal to Law Enforcers,” http://www.cbcpnews.com/cbcpnews/?p=79170
 “For I find no pleasure in the death of anyone,” http://www.cbcpnews.com/cbcpnews/?p=91162
 Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (Manila, CBCP, 1992), No. 335.
Ramon Echica is currently the Dean of Studies of San Carlos Major Seminary in Cebu. He has served as advisor in the writing of Population and Development Education: Teaching Modules for Catholic Schools. He finished his licentiate and doctorate in theology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.
Address: Pope John Paul 2 Ave, Cebu City, 6000, Philippines.