STRAINED relations between President Rodrigo Duterte and the Catholic Church are likely to improve with the top Catholic religious leaders in Davao City – Duterte’s hometown – taking over the helm of one of the institutions staunchly critical of Duterte.
For over a month now, Archbishop Romulo Valles of the Archdiocese of Davao has been head of the influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), a development that some state and church leaders herald will bury the hatchet of animosity between the two clashing institutions.
Historically both influential figures in the in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Duterte and Valles are friends. Valles said he was committed to engaging the Duterte administration through open dialogue even as he noted that the CBCP acts a collegial body.
“(My) communication lines are open,” the prelate was quoted as saying in a CBCP report.
Valles succeeded Archbishop Socrates Villegas, a major critic of Duterte’s government. Villegas was a protege of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, an icon of the peaceful 1986 EDSA Revolution that toppled the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr and propelled housewife Corazon Aquino to power.
The former CBCP president had been at the receiving end of Duterte’s expletives for leading the body in strongly denouncing the government’s flagship deadly war on drugs that claimed the lives of thousands of drug suspects – mostly from the slums.
Duterte also lambasted other Catholic bishops and priests who criticised him for cursing, womanising and allegedly tolerating the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects by the police and unknown vigilante assassins.
The strongman from Mindanao, who claimed he was molested by a priest when he was young, has repeatedly accused the clergy of corruption and sexual abuses.
But he has spared from attacks on Valles, the archbishop of Davao City since 2012, where Duterte served for three decades in various capacities, mostly as mayor.
Asia’s largest Christian nation witnessed the close ties of Duterte and Valles when the latter led the ecumenical prayer for the presidential inauguration on June 30, 2016. Of the more than 100 million Filipinos, over 80 percent are Catholics.
“That as (Duterte) does his duties in fear of you, you will keep harm away from him, that you will use him for your holy and loving purpose alone, that he will have great understanding of your commands,” the prelate prayed at the time.
To be sure, Valles rose to become CBCP president with the trust of the council and not with Duterte’s influence in a country where the separation of the state and church is enshrined in the constitution.
By tradition, the CBCP elects its vice-president, which was Valles’ previous position for two consecutive terms, as the next president of the 72-year-old collegial body of bishops.
Valles was elected the 20th head of CBCP last July and assumed only last month with Malacanang back then describing the start of his two-year stint as “signaling a new day of peace for a multi-cultural Philippines.”
“Our warm congratulations to Archbishop Valles as he leads the Catholic faithful in the country, towards developing a deeper spiritual life and for the Church to have a more open dialogue and cooperation with the government, especially in working for the poor and the marginalised,” the Malacanang statement said.
Since Valles assumed the post a month ago, the CBCP has notably toned down its attacks on the government, with the four statements he issued so far as head of CBCP sparing Duterte of criticisms.
On Duterte’s deadly drug war, Valles earlier urged the public that instead of condemning the extra-judicial killings, they should “inspire the police to adhere to the rule of law,” noting the country did not realise the enormity of the drug problem until Duterte became president.
During the campaign trail, Duterte drew the ire of the public when he cursed Pope Francis as a “son of a whore” for causing heavy traffic during his Manila visit in January 2015.
Duterte approached Valles and asked him to send his letter of apology to the Holy Father, who eventually forgave the Filipino leader known for his habitual swearing.
The president also tried but failed to heed the advice of Valles to temper his cursing, promising to donate PHP1,000 (US$20) to charity for every expletive hurled.
Valles also officiated the baptism of Duterte’s grandson in Davao City in March 2017 that was attended by the family and their closest friends.
With the cordiality that Duterte and Valles mutually shared, Fr. Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of the CBCP public affairs committee, expressed optimism that a better relationship between the state and the church can move henceforth.
But he quickly added that the CBCP – despite Valles’ closeness to Duterte – will remain critical of other issues including birth control, same-sex marriage, human rights and restoration of the death penalty.
If CBCP tradition will be followed, Valles could serve for four years or until November 30, 2021 since incumbent officials are usually re-elected for their second and last term.
Duterte’s presidential term will last until mid-2022.