The killing of priests

The violent attacks on Catholic priests, resulting in the killing of three and the serious wounding of one in the last seven months, represent an alarming development in our nation’s life. It crosses a line that generations of Filipinos have respected even in revolutionary times.

Two of the murders were committed inside chapels, while the priests, dressed in religious vestments, were about to celebrate the Mass or had just given their final blessings to their flock. Perpetrated inside a place of solemnity, in the context of a religious service, these attacks strike the keen observer as being aimed not just on the person of the priests but on what they represent.

There is no word to describe these killings other than brazen. These murders stand out for the disrespect, effrontery and contempt for religion they convey.

It is difficult to comprehend the significance of these unspeakable acts — why they are happening at this time and what they portend — without noting President Duterte’s own unceasing verbal attacks on the Catholic hierarchy and the clergy. It would be irresponsible to suggest that he ordered these killings in the way he has repeatedly ordered the elimination of drug suspects. But, one can’t help wondering why he has used the presidential podium to rationalize these murders by highlighting the alleged moral failings of the murdered priests.

Is Mr. Duterte echoing a hitherto unverbalized radical change in Filipino religious belief and discourse? Or, is he using his current popularity and influence to mainstream the deeply personal resentment he harbors against the Catholic Church and the clergy? Or, is this still part of a strategic and measured attempt to silence the opposition by instilling profound fear in anyone or any group that dares to oppose the direction and methods employed by his presidency?

Without any doubt, religious beliefs and practices in our country have become more diverse and less dogmatic over the years. One may even make a case of the general decline in religious fervor and conformity among Filipinos.

More to the point, there is now a growing number of Catholics who are prepared to challenge the Church hierarchy’s voice on moral and political matters. Still, these cannot be equated with the waning of religious belief and practice, nor as a sign of the decline of Catholicism as a public religion.

Church attendance and religious observance in our country remain high, spilling out of the churches into crowded shopping malls. Our people have brought the strength of their faith to the countries where they have moved as migrants, often rekindling religious worship where it has long lain dead.

For all that we say, in despair, about the lack of fit between the religious beliefs we profess and the misconduct we seem to engage in routinely in our everyday lives, it cannot be denied that we continue to reserve a big place for the holy in our lives. That is why I am at a loss to understand how our people can laugh at their President’s derisive and mocking comments about their faith, their Church, and their bishops and priests.

Is this how the fascist mindset is born? Robert O. Paxton (“The anatomy of fascism”) wrote: “The legitimation of violence against a demonized internal enemy brings us close to the heart of fascism.”

I am not a regular churchgoer myself, but I take offense when someone as powerful as Mr. Duterte, from a position of literalist ignorance, mocks the religious faith I inherited from my elders. As the nation’s highest official, he should be more restrained when speaking about other people’s religious beliefs. Innocuous remarks about other faiths have historically sparked wars, and, as we have seen, could still trigger violent reactions in our time.

Modern constitutions, including ours, have incorporated a profound sensitivity about faith matters. Magistrates, often oscillating between the primacy of the freedom of expression and the urgency of preserving public order, have had to articulate its imperatives under changing circumstances. My favorite is a line from a high court ruling written in 1996 by the late Justice Isagani A. Cruz: “An atheist cannot express his disbelief in acts of derision that wound the feelings of the faithful.”

I must end these reflections with a disclosure. Bishop Pablo Virgilio S. David, bishop of Caloocan and current vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, is my brother. I cannot help worrying about his personal safety. He has been vocal about the rampant killing of drug suspects in his diocese and about keeping the doors of its churches open as sanctuaries for the frightened, the oppressed and the powerless. Some crazy admirer of Mr. Duterte’s so-called war on drugs might think that getting rid of priests like him is a form of public service.

My brother is so clear-eyed about the path he has chosen that I have hesitated to even tell him to be cautious. I believe in what he does. More than ever, he needs to exemplify courage. Recently, he turned to his Facebook account to respond to a seminarian’s apprehension that the killing of priests might discourage young people from pursuing a religious vocation. He replied: “Fr. Paez, Fr. Ventura, and Fr. Nilo were not ‘victims’; they opted to be ‘martyrs,’ meaning witnesses, from the start. They responded freely to the invitation to choose the path of Jesus, knowing full well that it could cost their lives.  This is what martyrdom is about. It is not about dying for a cause; it is about living out that cause, no matter if it means suffering and death.”

Mr. Duterte will find, to his dismay, that it is impossible to win a war against martyrs.