This story and the accompanying images were produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
At La Loma Cemetery in Caloocan City, Manila, Bishop Pablo “Ambo” David’s cassock curled behind him as he stepped through the iron chapel doors into the morning light, half-past nine on All Souls Day last November. Mass was over. So were the blessings, greetings, and photo-ops that always follow, and he stepped away from the stone chapel with warlike urgency. At the bottom of the chapel steps, he was whisked off in a white van, and I jumped into an SUV with two other journalists, speeding out of a parking spot to keep pace.
Ambo was headed for the grave of Kian Delos Santos, the most famous of the nearly twenty-five thousand victims in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In August of 2017, security cameras in Caloocan City captured uniformed officers dragging the seventeen-year-old into an alley, and multiple witnesses watched as the officers forced a gun into his hand and shot him as he kneeled on the ground in his boxer shorts. Whatever veneer of justice still hung over the anti-drug operations was stripped away with Kian’s death. Though the Philippine Catholic Church was slow to respond to the vicious, violent anti-drug campaign, Kian’s death galvanized marches in the streets and spurred calls to activism in the church.
Through the windows of his van I watched Ambo’s imposing silhouette—tall with wide shoulders. When the van stopped, we joined a small party of journalists and parishioners and followed Ambo into the tombs, his amaranth zucchetto gliding between rows of apartment-style graves, which are common in crowded Manila: four vaults high, a basketball court long, and a body deep. The scratch of besom brooms on the cemetery floor, clearing litter from the bishop’s path, was the only sound in the air. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath.
In front of Kian’s grave, Ambo swept a purple stole over his shoulders and assessed the marker, the bamboo shoots in the candle holders, and the pocket-sized picture frame of a teenage boy in a backwards hat. The bishop’s lips moved quietly as he blessed the grave; you couldn’t make out his words if you were standing more than a few steps away. Someone handed him a bottle of holy water. He shook it across Kian’s tomb, and then across all of the adjacent apartments.
And then Ambo turned, for the first time, and smiled, greeting each member of the party individually. Tension was sucked from the air. The blessing was finished, the short mission complete.
In the two and a half years since Duterte’s election and the launch of his war on drugs, Ambo’s Caloocan diocese has been one of the hardest hit. A study by Ateneo de Manila University estimated 375 people were killed in Caloocan between Duterte’s election in May 2016 and September 2017, the majority of them by unidentified, masked assailants. Ambo, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the president’s most forceful critics. Days after Kian’s death, Ambo deemed his diocese a “killing field,” and demanded, “Is it legitimate for the police to conduct police operations in masks?”
Following Ambo to Kian’s grave, I was reminded of the bishop’s warning when we first met two days earlier, on Halloween at Caloocan’s San Roque Cathedral. “We are at war,” he had said with concern in his eyes. As the most outspoken Catholic prelate against Duterte in the Philippines, Ambo is at the forefront of the church’s quest to repair the country’s moral fabric, torn apart by a demagogic regime. But in the contest between these competing visions it can often feel that the opposing sides clash on uneven ground.
The Philippines’ slide into violent authoritarianism has exposed new limits to the Catholic Church’s political sway in the country. Its decline did not begin with Duterte; as in many countries, the institutional church has been on the wane for years. But even in recent Filipino history, the Catholic Church has proved a resilient pillar of society: in 1986 it was the church that spurred the People Power Revolution and helped overthrow the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and in 2000 its clergy were again instrumental in a revolution, this time aiding those who deposed President Joseph Estrada. But between a secularizing society and an aggressively anti-Catholic president, today’s church has been pushed to the brink.
In the past three months, Ambo’s blunt critiques have drawn the ire of Duterte, who first insinuated that the Caloocan bishop steals from his congregation’s offerings. “You, David, you be quiet,” Duterte said. “You keep asking for contributions—where is the people’s money?” When Ambo denied the baseless accusation, Duterte responded with one even more severe: “I am puzzled as to why you always go out at night. I suspect, son of a whore, you are into illegal drugs.” In the twisted moral hierarchy of Duterte’s Philippines, drug addiction is the cardinal sin, and, in a city marked by vigilante death squads operating on some blurred impulse between inspiration and official command, Duterte’s charge alone amounts to an act of terror. But the president did not stop at a wink. “Bishop, ask someone to buy drugs for you,” he continued, “I will decapitate you.”
Duterte, sensing the church is on its heels, has made a public enemy of an institution that was, not so long ago, a trusted source of moral leadership. He wields the clergy’s history of sexual impropriety and abuse as leverage, often waving a copy of the book Altar of Secrets, an exposé on sex, money, and cover-ups in the Philippine church, and promising a copy to anyone who wants one. He antagonizes priests, alleges corruption in the church hierarchy, and mocks the Catholic faith. Famously, after the papal visit to Manila in 2015, he cursed Pope Francis: “Son of a whore, go home. Don’t visit anymore.”
After threatening Ambo, Duterte stoked violence against his entire class of clerics: “These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools.” Father Amado Picardal, a Redemptorist priest who has been documenting Duterte’s connection to death squads for several decades, reached out to me with a letter, also published on his blog, observing that Duterte seemed to have “stepped up” his war on the church. “These are statements that one does not expect from any sane government leader, not even in non-Christian countries,” he wrote, bewildered that such language could prevail in “a great Catholic nation.”
While Ambo is personally outspoken, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), for which he serves as vice president, has taken criticism for its infrequent and tepid responses to Duterte’s war on drugs and attacks on Catholic institutions. But Duterte’s escalating and increasingly pointed attacks on the church seem to have at last shaken many of its members out of quietude. “We will no longer be silent,” was a refrain at a January protest called One Faith, One Nation, One Voice, and, after prolonged silence on the president’s hostilities, the CBCP issued a statement a few days after the rally. Under the title “Conquering Evil with Good,” they sought forgiveness for “collective silence” and outlined dire stakes for Filipino Catholicism. Without acknowledging Duterte by name (the CBCP have done this only once, after the 2015 papal visit), the assembly wrote that recent hostilities “pierce into the soul of the Catholic Church like sharp daggers,” and lamented, “the body of Christ is crying out in anguish.” Calling on Catholics to fight back with prayer, the CBCP announced “a moment for relearning the core beliefs, principles and values of our faith,” and cemented their stance with a passage from Ephesians: “The battles that we fight are spiritual.”
Duterte’s provocations against the church are not idle threats. Since December 2017, three priests have been killed under mysterious circumstances. Fr. Picardal now lives in hiding outside of the Philippines because, on two occasions, mysterious men on motorcycles appeared at his parish asking for his whereabouts. And after a priest was killed while preparing for Mass in his church in June, 246 priests and ministers petitioned for licenses to carry firearms. Later that month, Duterte elevated his attack higher even than Pope Francis, calling God himself a “son of a whore,” and asking, “Who is this stupid God?”
Duterte has thus inaugurated a two-front war in the Philippines—one waged on the streets under cover of night against drugs and crime, and the other waged in presidential speeches to overturn the country’s religious and moral foundations. The apparent popularity of Duterte’s message has resulted in what Ambo terms a “death of conscience,” the normalization of violence and the erosion of a commitment to the sanctity of human life. “This government has succeeded in killing the conscience of the people in making it so easy for people to accept that these [victims of the drug war] deserve to die,” Ambo told me.
As Duterte tears down the old pillars of morality in the Philippines, he proposes a competing vision—a new religion for which he is the farcical deity. He has stoked a cult of personality with cribbed and warped Biblical themes. He jokes often about founding a “Church of Duterte.” On All Saints Day of this year, after dismissing Catholic saints as “fools” and “drunkards,” he proposed himself as a worthier object of Filipino worship: “Santo Rodrigo.” He once pledged that he would “sell his soul to the devil” and sacrifice his own life, or the life of his son, to purge the Philippines of its drug affliction—shades of the gospel from an Old Testament ruler. Duterte thus positions himself as a kind of messianic figure, a godlike alternative to faith, savior to the masses, and iconoclast to Catholic tradition. “He’s not trying to co-opt religious leaders so much as he’s trying to directly challenge them,” says David Buckley, a professor at the University of Louisville and author of the book Faithful to Secularism: The Religious Politics of Democracy in Ireland, Senegal and the Philippines, declaring “that he has an alternative vision for morality, and he has an alternative vision for good governance.”
As is often the case in historic clashes between the immoral despot and the moral gatekeeper, Ambo fights with a different set of weapons. The bishop names Óscar Romero, the recently canonized bishop martyred in 1980 for preaching against death squads in El Salvador, and Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish friar who submitted his own life for that of a stranger in Auschwitz, as his moral heroes. When a senator and Duterte ally proposed changing the final line of the Philippine national anthem earlier this year—from, “I’d be willing to die for you” to “I’d be willing to fight for you”—Ambo reacted viscerally. “I am a bit afraid of those people who are a bit too eager to fight,” he said, “I’d rather be willing to die than to kill.” The final line of the anthem about sacrificing one’s life, Ambo said, offers rare lyrical evidence “that the faith has made a dent, somehow, in the nation that we have built.”
After tens of thousands have been killed, justice denied, and a whole moral system nearly supplanted, what is left? Is anything still holy? For Catholics in the Philippines, the erosion of their traditional moral code has given rise to a new understanding of the value of human life. As much as rehabilitating addicts, as much as protecting the families of drug-war victims, as much as holding Mass and offering Communion and hearing confessions, the church is now charged with reconstructing a country’s lost concept of what is holy. “Lives have become so cheap in this country,” Ambo said.
Many Filipino Catholics believe that Duterte’s methods have burrowed deep into the country’s self-understanding. “In the end, they are not just killing bodies,” said Father Albert Alejo, a human rights activist and professor at Ateneo de Manila, “they are killing our logic, and they are killing our moral foundations.” Duterte’s moral vision is built on misogyny, violence, and a central assumption that some lives are worth less than others. Preaching against this vision, Ambo laments that his homilies have not been able to bring more Filipinos back into the fold. “As a church leader, I would say that I am a miserable failure in this diocese,” Ambo said. “In spite of all the regular church services, in spite of all the Masses that we celebrate, we have not quite succeeded in educating the consciences of the majority of people about even a basic sense of good and bad.”
Ambo has hope for the future of Catholicism in his country, but, “It will take a long, long time to repair the damage on the psyche of the people.” Still others fear that fight may have already been lost. “In no way should this be seen as a struggle between the Church and State,” wrote Fr. Picardal. “It is not a question of which one is more powerful. The Church must be prepared to become a powerless, persecuted Church.”
At the chapel in La Loma Cemetery, before he blessed the tomb of Kian Delos Santos, Ambo said the All Souls Day Mass. He began with a blessing for all the departed souls not celebrated on All Saints Day the day before: “We know not all of them are resting in peace.” That morning, Ambo’s homily hinged on a story from his boyhood in Pampanga, a province north of Manila, when he encountered his first dead body. A man was killed in the street not far from his home, and Ambo recalled how he and his siblings approached the body and covered it with palms. It was a small, symbolic gesture that came with a lesson: this lifeless form was something more than flesh and bone. “This is how I learned that bodies are holy,” he said. “We do not know this today.”