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.”