Making sense of Duterte’s anti-Catholic rant

It’s difficult to say what provoked President Duterte to mount a sustained verbal attack on the Catholic faith and the religious clergy this past week. Perhaps, Mr. Duterte himself doesn’t know. Self-awareness and rhetorical restraint have never been his strong suits.

But, he clearly revels in his high survey ratings. He takes them as irrefutable indicators of his popularity and the public approval of his pronouncements and governance style. In true narcissistic style, he says his attack on the Church is his way of finding out how far he could go—in his own words, “to shake up the tree” of Philippine culture and society.

Zeroing in on the Catholic Church is consistent with a radical worldview that gained traction in the early ’60s when Mr. Duterte was a university student. I come from the same generation, and, indeed, I was instantly exposed to the same outlook when I entered the University of the Philippines. Its accompanying vocabulary, in which Mr. Duterte seems time-warped, depicts the Church as the principal ideological rampart of a bankrupt semi-feudal social order. It counts among the nation’s recalcitrant enemies the Manila-centered Western-educated political elite, the landed oligarchy, the elite-owned traditional media, the World Bank, the IMF, the United States, and other agencies of Western imperialism.

If this reading is correct, it is not at all surprising that the arguments Mr. Duterte brings up against the Catholic faith resonate the iconoclastic awakening of the university-based youth to the liberal agnosticism of the ’60s. The emancipatory pleasure of being able to question one’s inherited religious beliefs without flinching, of uttering a blasphemy and savoring it, sums up the irreverent mischief that pervaded the pseudo-philosophical debates in dormitory rooms then.

But to hear the same defiant adolescent rants today from no less than the country’s President is jarring. One cannot even begin to take them as serious philosophical reflections on the nature of the cosmos, the hermeneutics of the Scriptures, the nature of God, of Man, and of evil, the function of religion, or the diversity of religious experience. They seem more like the incoherent musings of someone who glibly parrots the crude atheism of antireligious polemicists, but never tried to comprehend his own beliefs, or, even less, reconcile them with one another.

Of course, one cannot discount the possibility that some people might find his objections to Catholicism so novel and so bold as to induce them to rethink their own religious beliefs. His sensible daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, however, bluntly recommends the correct response: “Don’t listen to him when he talks about religion.”

Meaning, anyone would be a fool to take his comments about religion seriously. For he is neither a theologian nor a philosopher, neither a pastor nor a preacher, nor a Biblical exegete. Nor is he known to have engaged in so sustained a personal study of religion as to qualify him to be a serious commentator on religious matters.

Unfortunately, he is the President. He has repeatedly made use of official occasions in order to mock Catholic religious beliefs. While I am sure that freedom of religion  and freedom of speech protect his right to question or dispute other people’s religious beliefs, I am not sure that this protection extends to acts that insult or offend other people’s religious beliefs. That’s a question best answered by the legal system.

But, as communication coming from the country’s highest official, President Duterte’s mocking references to the Catholic hierarchy and Catholic religious beliefs are bound to have political consequences. To his allies, like Boy Saycon, whom he has named as a member of the newly created presidential committee to dialogue with the Church, Mr. Duterte’s intent seems clear. It is to preempt or undermine the Church’s capability to exert its moral voice and spearhead any effort to overthrow the President.  Saycon suspects that there is such a plot.

The Church hierarchy itself may prefer not to be provoked by Mr. Duterte’s rants, and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s letter to the faithful exemplifies this attitude. But I doubt very much if the Catholic clergy would be intimidated into falling silent about the violence being committed by state forces against the poor. The Church is used to fighting long battles, and will not indulge any clamor to urgently defend itself. This stance may strike some as being too timid in the face of extreme arrogance. But the institutional Church was built on the bedrock of such patience.

Mr. Duterte’s persistent attack on the Church, on the other hand, could induce Catholics who supported him in the last election to rethink their support for him, his administration and his party. It’s likely that Mr. Duterte is aware of this possibility, but he will not be deterred by it. If, despite all this, he maintains his popularity, he would take that to mean he could henceforth do anything.

This syndrome has been well studied and noted by psychologists as pathological narcissism. In a June 20, 2018, article posted on Psychology Today, the author Bill Eddy lists down three basic drives that preoccupy narcissistic leaders: 1) “Being seen as very superior,” i.e. they need to insult others in order to affirm their own greatness. 2) “Expanding their own power,” meaning they always need to pick up a fight to show they are really powerful.  And, 3) “Being admired by all,” especially by high-status people or by those they have insulted or injured.