New CBCP head views self as Duterte's 'friend-sinner'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – On May 22, 2016, then President-elect Rodrigo Duterte launched his first major attack against the Catholic Church, calling it "the most hypocritical institution" that asks "so many favors", even from him.

Days after these televised remarks, the Davao City mayor chanced upon the archbishop of Davao, Romulo Valles, in a birthday party.  

"Nu'ng nalaman ni Mayor na nandiyan si Bishop, hinanap niya. Nilapitan niya. Tapos sinabi niya kay Bishop, 'Bishop, 'wag kang maniwala sa mga sinasabi ko sa TV ha. Bugoy-bugoy lang 'yon," according to a source privy to the information. 

(When Mayor learned Bishop was already there, he looked for him. He approached him. Then he told Bishop, 'Bishop, don't believe the things I say on TV. I was just acting like a thug.)

Valles himself disclosed this in a meeting with priests in the Archdiocese of Davao in June 2016, the Rappler source said.

It was a snapshot of the ties between Duterte and Valles, who was elected president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on Saturday, July 8, to replace Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas. 

To be clear, Valles' election as CBCP president was expected. This is because Valles has been CBCP vice president since 2013, and the CBCP usually elects the vice president as its next president. 

In any case, even the Palace hailed the election of Valles, who replaces Villegas on December 1. This, even after Duterte has attacked other Catholic bishops for criticizing him over cursing, womanizing, and supposedly condoning extrajudicial killings (EJKs).

After all, despite Duterte's tirades against the Catholic Church, Valles enjoys close ties with Duterte, his friend for years. Most recently, Valles baptized Duterte's newest grandson, Stonefish Duterte Carpio. He also led the opening prayer at Duterte's presidential inauguration on June 30, 2016. 

Valles himself said in June 2016 that "there's no conflict" between Duterte and the Catholic Church in Davao. How did this happen? Valles said he engages Duterte through a "friendly sharing of ideas" – and by thinking of himself as their long-time mayor's "friend-sinner."

'To think of myself also as a sinner'

The Davao archbishop explained this in an interview in June 2016, when we asked him what he thinks is the best way to engage Duterte.

Valles responded: "I'm just coming from Davao, and having observed him, I don't have that fear…coming from other parts of the country. But I would say a friendly sharing ideas would be good." 

He continued, "I have not thought of that area, but just offhand, to think of myself also as a sinner, as a friend, like a friend-sinner, that we would journey together."

DAVAO LEADERS. Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles (2nd from left) poses with then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte (3rd), among others, after the mayor visited him on December 4, 2015, to apologize for cursing Pope Francis. File photo from the Facebook page of Christopher 'Bong' Go

DAVAO LEADERS. Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles (2nd from left) poses with then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte (3rd), among others, after the mayor visited him on December 4, 2015, to apologize for cursing Pope Francis.

File photo from the Facebook page of Christopher 'Bong' Go

Valles was also asked if he thinks Duterte's ties with the Catholic Church will ever improve. 

The archbishop answered, "I am always hopeful because, with me, I think he considers me as somebody like on the normal level – friendly, his friend."

On Duterte's relationship with the Catholic Church in Davao, Valles described it as "very okay." In this June 2016 interview, Valles added in reference to Duterte, "As he said, there's no conflict between us."

'Be a friend to him' 

Monsignor Paul Cuison, spokesman of the Archdiocese of Davao, also told Rappler in June 2016, "We maintain a very good relationship with the Mayor since we know him already for a long time. And we are used to his language."

"We don't judge him by the things that come out of his mouth, but by the goodness of his heart," Cuison said. 

By the goodness of Duterte's heart, the monsignor was referring to Duterte's efforts to help children stricken with cancer and those addicted to drugs, among others. He said Duterte was also "helping in a silent way" a feeding center established by the Archdiocese of Davao.

On the best way to deal with Duterte, Cuison said: "Be a friend to him, because you can talk to him, and he listens to you if you're a friend. But if you would be an enemy, he will be your worst enemy."

Cuison said the Archdiocese of Davao, however, still voiced its concern about a number of issues when Duterte was mayor.

One of these is the issue of vigilante killings. In 2009, the Archdiocese of Davao, then led by Archbishop Fernando Capalla, released an oratio imperata or obligatory prayer to end EJKs. 

Cuison said: "When we came out with a strong oratio imperata trying to draw the people's attention against extrajudicial killings, I remember him telling me, 'It is your moral obligation to speak against it.'"

He said that when the Catholic Church was pushing for natural family planning methods, Duterte also said it is their "duty as a church to campaign" for their beliefs.

"But that doesn't mean that he would agree with us, because he has his own political agenda," Cuison pointed out.

Cuison explained: "He lets us be. He allows us to speak. He allows us to be who we are, to perform our obligation as a church."

How the Catholic Church in Davao relates to Duterte, is one of the things Valles can bring as CBCP president. 

Ex-bishop of Kidapawan, Zamboanga 

Born in Maribojoc, Bohol, Valles has been Davao archbishop since May 2012.

A graduate of the Pontificio Ateneo Sant' Anselmo in Rome, he has been a Catholic priest in Mindanao for the past 4 decades.

Before the Pope made him Davao archbishop in 2012, he became bishop of Kidapawan in 1997 then archbishop of Zamboanga in 2007.

Now, his archdiocese of around 1.5 million Catholics includes Davao City, where Dutere was mayor for more than two decades.

In a sign of close ties with Duterte, Valles was the bishop before whom Duterte apologized for cursing Pope Francis in November 2015.

Duterte ended up writing a letter of apology to Francis. 

In April 2016, it was Valles who read to the media a letter from the Vatican acknowledging receipt of Duterte's apology.

Pros and cons

Valles' ties with Duterte prompted Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, who was CBCP president from 1995 to 1999, to air his concerns in a earlier interview with ANC.

In an interview with Mornings@ANC in August 2016, Cruz said he "would not feel comfortable" about having Valles as CBCP head because he is "rather close to Duterte."

"The closeness is nothing to do with what is right or wrong. It will have a relevance on how CBCP will look at the overall value of the actuation of the President of the Republic," Cruz said.

MANO PO. President Rodrigo Duterte (right) greets Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles (left) during the 50th wedding anniversary rite of Undersecretary Jesus Melchor Quitain and his wife Anita at St Francis of Assisi Parish in Davao City on August 27, 2016. Malacau00c3u00b1ang file photo

MANO PO. President Rodrigo Duterte (right) greets Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles (left) during the 50th wedding anniversary rite of Undersecretary Jesus Melchor Quitain and his wife Anita at St Francis of Assisi Parish in Davao City on August 27, 2016.

Malacau00c3u00b1ang file photo

Eventually, Cruz told Rappler on Thursday, July 6, he felt, "little by little," that Valles was a feasible choice as CBCP head. "I felt something else – why not? What's wrong it? Now I'm open to anybody."

Cruz said one advantage of having Valles as CBCP head is having better communication lines with Duterte.

He said that if Duterte has a message to the CBCP, he can easily reach Valles, and the other way around.

"That could be one advantage – they don't fight, they're not distant, they collaborate instead of fight," Cruz said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Asked for the possible disadvantages of Valles as CBCP head, Cruz said he cannot think of any. "The fact that he was elected vice president, and he is now the incumbent, means that the CBCP trusts him and sees in him some potentials."

Symbol of the local church

This year, the CBCP election especially matters because the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions – aside from human rights groups and the media – that have dared to criticize the popular Duterte's bloody war on drugs. 

As CBCP president, Valles will have to face a President who has openly attacked the Catholic Church and, against basic moral norms, convinced many Filipinos that it is okay to kill to end the drug menace. (READ: Duterte's 1st year an 'eye opener' for Catholic Church

Cruz admitted that being CBCP president "is not an honor." He said, "It is rather a demanding job."

To be clear, the CBCP president is not the direct superior of the bishops. In the Catholic Church, the direct superior of every bishop is only the Pope in Rome. 

While respecting each bishop's jurisdiction, the CBCP serves as a forum for bishops to exchange views, formulate joint policies if needed, and issue doctrinal declarations, among other things, according to the CBCP constitution

Referring to the CBCP president, Cruz, a canon lawyer, explained to Rappler: "He is not higher than any bishop in ranking and in authority. He is exactly the same. But among equals, he is the head, the head among equals."

The CBCP president, however, is the bishop who signs statements of the whole bishops' conference, exposing himself to the ire of the government or the attacks of the trolls.

Former CBCP secretary general Monsignor Pedro Quitorio III pointed out: "Ang CBCP president, parang utusan ng lahat eh. So long as 'yun ang sinabi ng lahat, kahit na iba ang persuasion mo, sunod ka eh. Unlike in the government, ikaw talaga ang hari. Dito servant ka sa lahat eh."

(The CBCP president is like the servant of all. So long as that is everyone's statement, even if you have a different persuasion, you have to follow. Unlike in the government, you are really the king. Here, you are the servant of all.)

On the CBCP president, Quitorio said: "Nagiging simbolo siya, nagiging figure ng simbahan na lokal." (He becomes the symbol, the figure of the local church.) – Rappler.com