Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Separating the Philippine state from the church

Filipino Catholic voters separate the Church from the State and uphold this in political practice.

Palm Sunday at the Basilica del Santo Niño (Photo: dbgg1979/ Flickr)
Palm Sunday at the Basilica del Santo Niño (Photo: dbgg1979/ Flickr)
Published 11 Dec 2018 

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is a very different leader than his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.

Duterte has expressed his love for Xi Jinping. Aquino took China to court. Aquino significantly enhanced Philippine-US relations during the Obama administration. Duterte called Obama a “son of a whore” and “black and arrogant”. Aquino is the scion of the leading political family in the Philippines. Duterte is the first president from Mindanao.

Duterte’s challenge to the Catholic Church has been profane, personal, and consistent.

Yet in two important ways, their presidencies are similar and these similarities challenge one of the most conventional of wisdoms about Philippine politics. Duterte and Aquino are the most popular presidents in the post-Marcos era, exhibiting much more durable levels of popular support than their predecessors. And both presidents, in their very different styles, have directly challenged the Catholic Church.

In 2012, four days before Christmas, Aquino signed the Reproductive Health Bill that had been successfully opposed by the Catholic Church for decades. A week earlier, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines released a pastoral letter to be read at all masses against the Reproductive Health Bill with the title “Contraception is Corruption!”

Duterte’s challenge to the Catholic Church has been much more profane, personal, and consistent. He supports the return of the death penalty and on 9 January 2017 signed an Executive Order calling for universal access to family planning methods and an accelerated implementation of the Reproductive Health Bill. Duterte has gone much further, repeatedly castigating Catholic priests and the Church for their criticisms of him and his bloody war on drugs, calling the Pope a son of a whore for aggravating Metro Manila’s traffic during his papal visit and the 2016 presidential campaign, and calling God “stupid”.

While opinion polls show that Filipinos are disappointed with these anti-Catholic comments, there is little sign that this has translated into any withdrawal of support for Duterte.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is less politically important than the conventional wisdom based on the role of the church in the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship suggests. Presidents can take the Church on directly at little cost and possibly even some political benefit.

In the view of Filipino Catholic voters, the Church is separate from the State, and this is upheld in political practice by the separation enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.

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