Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with the leader of the politically influential Catholic Church on Monday and agreed to a truce following weeks of unflattering verbal attacks by him that angered many in this deeply religious country.
During his meeting with Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Duterte agreed to “a moratorium on statements about the church,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
Roque, whom Duterte had earlier appointed as among his special envoys to the church, said both sides agreed there was a constitutional separation of powers between Church and State.
No other details of the meeting were made public. Valles is known to have a long-time association with Duterte, and both men hail from southern Davao city, the president’s political bailiwick.
The church is a political force in the Southeast Asian country, and in the past was instrumental in removing two corrupt presidents - dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001.
Hours before the late afternoon meeting, Valles said in a statement that many Catholics had been “pained” by Duterte’s attacks on the church, which recently included him calling God stupid and threatening to expose unflattering intelligence data about one of three priests gunned down since December.
Valles said the government should regard the church as a partner and not as an enemy, even as it was willing to speak out about what it perceived as wrongs, such as rampant killings in the name of Duterte’s drug war.
“The Church respects the political authority, especially of democratically-elected government officials, as long as they do not contradict the basic spiritual and moral principles we hold dear, such as respect for the sacredness of life, the integrity of creation, and the inherent dignity of the human person,” Valles said.
“We are not political leaders, and certainly not political opponents of government,” he added, noting that throughout history, the Church had coexisted with countless forms of government.
However, he said that on some specific issues, collaboration with the government may not be possible even as it did not impose its own beliefs on people.
“In such instances, we can only invoke our right to conscientious objection. We do recognize the constitutional provision of the separation of church and state, mainly in the sense of distinction of roles in society,” Valles said.
“When we speak out on certain issues, it is always from the perspective of faith and morals, especially the principles of social justice, never with any political or ideological agenda in mind,” he said.
Duterte has never seen eye to eye with the Catholic Church, whose officials he has called corrupt and has branded as “full of shit.”
The church has openly campaigned against Duterte’s war on drugs that has left more than 12,000 dead, according to rights groups, and it has held massive street protests.
It has also offered sanctuary to police officers who want to turn state witness against the government’s drug war, and has often criticized Duterte, a self-described womanizer and politician with a tough guy image who once boasted of killing drug addicts and dumping their bodies into Manila Bay.
And on Monday, Valles said that church leaders were unafraid.
“In these times of darkness, when there’s so much hatred and violence, when murder has become an almost daily occurrence, when people have gotten so used to exchanging insults and hurting words in the social media, we admonish the faithful to remain steadfast in our common vocation and mission to actively work for peace,” Valles said.