Catholic bishops in the Philippines are speaking out against the imminent reintroduction of the death penalty but many citizens in the predominantly Catholic country have rallied around the tough-on-crime approach of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Philippine House of Representatives will vote by the end of this
year on reinstating capital punishment, a sentence one opposition
lawmaker has called “the worst Christmas gift” for the Philippine
One archbishop dubbed the move a lazy dodge instead of helping offenders.
Amid his war on drugs, Duterte has presented the death penalty as an
essential deterrent to crime. He has strong support in this from
Jose Manuel Diokno, who heads the law school at De La Salle
University in Manila, said he thinks members of the House of
Representatives who support reimposing the death penalty are “simply
pandering to the Duterte administration and trying to curry political
favour with the president.”
Diokno said while there have been no recent polls to provide figures,
support for the move from citizens likely stems from those who are fed
up with the Philippines’ weak justice system. Critics allege routine
shoddy work by police investigators and note that prosecutors bring only
one in five cases to trial.
In 1987, the Philippines became the first Asian nation to abolish the
death penalty. It reinstated the punishment from 1993 to 2006, but
critics say convictions were rife with errors and were applied
overwhelmingly against the poor. A case in 2004 revealed a 71 percent
wrongful conviction rate by lower courts.
As the nation races toward reinstatement, Catholic bishops are speaking up.
“Cleanse the police ranks! Fix all the courts!” Archbishop Socrates
Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the Catholic Bishops’
Conference of the Philippines, told a prayer rally in San Carlos City on
“(The) death penalty is a lazy form of penalty instead of helping reform those who made mistakes.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila told worshippers on December 11
that God does not give up on sinners, and neither should the Philippine
“Every life has hope,” he said. “There is hope for transformation.”
A prayer against the death penalty read in Manila parishes earlier
this month spoke of “a cry for vengeance” disguised as a call for
justice, reported Reuters, the British news agency.
In a nation where at least 80 percent of people are Catholic, the
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines is urging unity among
“Let us make a more forceful stand against the death penalty,”
Rodolfo Diamante, the bishops’ prisons commissioner, said in
mid-December. “Now more than ever, we need to act fast and swiftly to
counteract the prevailing culture of death in our society.”
But some observers say to reach a full audience, the bishops must not appear to be anti-Duterte.
“Many Filipinos do not like it when priests use the pulpit to talk
about politics,” said Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, director of the
development studies programme at Ateneo de Manila University.
Cornelio notes that in 2012, the Philippines introduced universal
access to contraception, a measure 71 percent of adult Catholics
supported, but which the church opposed.
Nevertheless, Cornelio said, the church can be an effective counterpoint to an authoritarian state.
“Many people, for example, are looking for clarity from Catholic
leaders when it comes to the war on drugs, and now the death penalty,”
he said. “The crucial consideration for them is expressing it in a way
that speaks to a wide audience and without being readily seen as
anti-Duterte. That would be a mistake, certainly during these days when
Duterte still enjoys high popularity ratings.”
Duterte won the presidential election this year pledging to drive
down crime. He has claimed that in his previous role as mayor of Davao
City, he personally executed crime suspects to show police officers that
he supported a no-questions approach.
Around 5,000 drugs suspects have died in street killings nationwide since July, when he became president.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church allows for the death penalty if
it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives
against the unjust aggressor.”
Advocates of the death penalty bill are strongly dismissive of the
church’s position. House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a
co-author of the law, mocked the bishops’ approach.
“Here comes the church, (which) wants to protect the evil-doers. Why
do you want to protect evil? Why do you want evil to triumph over good?”
he told the Philippine social news network Rappler.
“All Asian countries have it; we are the only one foolish to not have
it. Most of the countries that have no death penalty are the countries
in Europe,” he said “That’s their culture; don’t impose it on us.”