About those Filipino Catholics: What does it mean when a murderer is elected president?

In an increasingly insecure world, blow-back politics -- the lurch to the right after years of liberal government stumbles and outright failures -- has increasingly taken hold in the democratic West. We've seen it in Poland and earlier this year in Great Britain (Brexit).

It also goes a long way toward explaining how electoral long shot Donald Trump became President-elect Donald Trump.

How all this ends is anybody's guess. But let's hope it's not like the Philippines, where right-wing, electoral populism has birthed its deadliest spawn. That's where self-confessed murderer President Rodrigo Duterte has taken charge.

This week he uttered what arguably were his most outrageous comments yet. The Washington Post reported it thusly:

In his latest controversial statement, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, known for his bloody anti-drug war that has killed thousands, threatened to throw corrupt officials out of a helicopter, saying he has done it before, to a kidnapper, and won't hesitate to do so again.
“I will pick you up in a helicopter to Manila, and I will throw you out on the way,” Duterte said in Tagalog in front of a crowd in the Camarines Sur province Tuesday, according to GMA News. “I've done it before. Why would I not do it again?”

Yes. The people of the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, freely voted into office a man who brags about his extra-judicial killing of those he judged to be incorrigible drug dealers and abusers, and others. And his henchmen follow his lead. And the Filipino people say they're, by and large, just fine with it.

This despite the fact that their church leaders openly and repeatedly condemned Duterte.

As of mid-December, more than 2,100 drug dealers and users have been killed by government police and the military, authorities said. However, as of the same date, almost 4,000 more unexplained deaths were under investigation as possibly being part of the toll.


To be clear; we're not talking about individuals tried in the courts and sentenced to death. We're talking about individuals who were simply deemed to be a blight on society who, it was decided by Duterte and his lieutenants, needed to be removed forthwith.

Click here for a CNN page that pulls together the situation in the Philippines from a host of angles.

What about the Catholic Church? The one that teaches respect for all human life, no matter how wretched and sad? The church that, theoretically, is the conscience of the Filipino people, about 80 percent of whom are baptized Catholics?

It's flailing, unable to influence the situation in any significant manner. Click here for a Reuters piece on the Filipino church's dilemma. Click here for a National Catholic Reporter article in which the Filipino bishops are criticized more forcefully.

I don't mean to pile on the Filipino Catholic Church. Hindus in India, Buddhists in Myanmar, and Orthodox Jews in Israel, to name just three groups, are among the global believers who have hitched their immediate futures to right-wing policies that openly harm others not of their religious tribe.

But I wonder. Just what does it mean to follow a faith tradition? How is it that human actions so often conflict with bedrock, professed beliefs? When is it all just talk?

(For the record: I'm aware that I'm writing from my biased perspective, which is generally politically and socially liberal, and that I'm equating a lack of compassion toward human suffering and life with hard right policies. Disagree? Please speak your mind in the comments section below.)

Just last week, GetReligion ringleader Terry Mattingly posted this piece in which he pointed to an essay in The Times -- that's Britain's Times -- that underscored the important role that religion plays in politics and the human drama in general. He also noted how critical it is for journalists to understand that role if they're serious about doing informed coverage of real news events, involving real people, living in the real world.

The post had it right, of course.

But how does that help us make sense of what's happening in the Philippines?

How is it that the majority of Filipino Catholics -- despite the hierarchy's fierce opposition to Duterte -- are either supportive of or cowered into silence by their elected government's attitude toward criminal justice?

Only about 40 percent of the Philippines' nearly 80 million Catholics -- the world's third largest Catholic population after Brazil and Mexico -- reportedly attend Mass regularly; about 29 percent consider themselves very religious. The Pew Research Center also notes that Pope Francis is really, really popular in the Philippines. Go figure.

That would seem to indicate that Filipino Catholicism -- a faith imposed by the archipelago's Spanish colonizers -- is little more than a cultural tag for the majority of those baptized into the church. You get baptized into the church, married in the church and buried in accordance with Catholic protocols. But you're free to live a pick-and-choose life in between rites of passage.

Don't we all know believers like that, whose faith is more cultural than doctrinal?

I understand that we all compartmentalize. We prioritize in line with what we consider to be of more immediate importance. Religion is no different. And right now, Filipinos have prioritized ridding themselves of a crime wave fueled by illegal drugs.

Are they consistent? Do they differentiate between the fate of a relative, friend or acquaintance suffering from drug addiction and that of a stranger? Probably. Wouldn't you?

I hesitate to call the situation in the Philippines religious hypocrisy because I think non-believers are just as hypocritical in their non-religious way. Human hypocrisy is permeates all levels of society.

So let's just call it just another facet of the far from perfect human condition. We've seen this throughout human history.

The international media is on to this story. The CNN link above, with its many stories, is testament to the wide coverage Duterte's antics receive. 

I'd like to think it's because the press views the situation as one in need of swift remedy and is doing its job by exposing an injustice. But I fear that much of the international coverage stems from Duterte's penchant for responding to any and all criticism with crass and insulting language -- just as Trump exposed how easy it is to transform journalists into moths drawn to a light bulb with his language.

Here are two examples of how Duterte operates. Click here for his comments about the Filipino Catholic Church and then click here for his response to condemnation from a United Nations official.

If those weren't enough for you, here's what Duterte has said about Pope Francis and President Barack Obama.

For whatever it's worth, so far Duterte has had only kind words, for President-elect Trump, however. How the two interact after Jan. 20 will be interesting.

But no matter where that relationship goes, the Philippines is a brutish story that the international media needs to keep following closely.

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