President Duterte and the Bishops: Where Do They Stand?

Vacating a campaign promise, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has said he opposes legalizing marriage equality in the heavily Catholic nation. But given the president’s controversial record, how will the bishops engage his latest shift on LGBT rights?


President Rodrigo Duterte

The New York Times reported that Duterte, while speaking to Filipino expats in the Asian nation of Myanmar, “did not take issue with anyone’s sexuality [as] two of his brothers-in-law, and some of his cousins, are gay.” However, the president said no one could “erase the great divide between a woman and a man.” Further, referencing a Time magazine cover on gender identity, he said:

“‘That is their culture [the United States]. That’s for them. That can’t apply to us, because we are Catholics. . . And there is the civil code, which states you can only marry a woman for me, and for a woman to marry a man. That’s the law in the Philippines.'”

But marriage equality is a legal right Duterte once affirmed. Campaigning in January 2016, he said there was an “error in the Bible” as it should have said marriage was for “Adam, Eve, and the gays.”

This mixed messaging was repeated after he arrived home from the Myanmar trip, reported Asian Journal. Duterte told journalists that his nation’s laws, which ban same-gender marriage, must be upheld, and yet:

“I am centered on the human being. . .[W]hatever makes you happy, you go out of this universe happy and fulfilled. If it makes the gays happy, let them be. I do not condemn anybody there. What makes you happy, good. Just don’t violate the law.”

A final complication is that Duterte’s Myanmar speech, in which he criticized marriage equality, “stressed that the [Philippines] was Asia’s bastion of Roman Catholicism,” according to The New York Times. He rooted his opposition to marriage equality in the Catholic faith. Yet, this is a president who allegedly called Pope Francis the “son of a whore.” His newfound fidelity to Roman Catholicism contradicts much of his record.  The Times reported:

“Mr. Duterte has had a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church, which he has assailed in vulgar terms as a ‘hypocritical institution.’ He has openly accused its leaders of corruption and sexual exploitation.

“The usually outspoken church has largely kept silent in the face of such attacks, but it has lately been forced to criticize the government amid mounting pressure to say something about Mr. Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drugs.”

Duterte’s administration is deeply controversial. He is tied to many alleged human rights abuses via his now-suspended war on drugs–abuses which may have included extrajudicial killings. Manila’s Archbishop Louis Antonio Tagle has expressed concerns publicly about the president’s leadership. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines said in a pastoral letter that Duterte was “morally reprehensible” and had little concern for church teaching.

The Filipino bishops remain a powerful force in their nation: divorce remains outlawed and contraceptive access is restricted despite a major reproductive health push in 2012. And the church has successfully led movements which removed two dictators in the last twenty-five years.

Given Duterte’s troubled relationship with the church and the immense power that the bishops wield, could the Filipino president be using a tougher opposition to LGBT rights to deflect the bishops’ attention away from his alleged corruption and human rights violations? If so, perhaps the more important question is whether bishops in the Philippines will take Duterte’s bait? Or will they follow Pope Francis’ advice to stop obsessing over sexual issues, and focus instead on helping the human rights of all people flourish?

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 3, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit    



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