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Catholic but not Christian?

MANILA (SE): The Philippines is widely hailed as the only Catholic country in Asia, but despite being Catholic, it is struggling to live out its Christian values.

In recent months, Archbishop Socrates Villegas has lamented the silence of his flock in the face of the mass killing of the poor instigated by the president, Rodrigo Duterte, saying that it is the complicity of silence from the pews that has enabled the massacre to prosper.

Only six of its bishops have cried out against this and, of the six, only Bishop Broderick Pabillo and Archbishop Villegas have spoken bravely and strongly, although by their own admission they have been like voices crying for justice in the wilderness.

Now they are faced with a new challenge, the determination of the president and the lower house of the congress to reintroduce the death penalty, something which has been condemned as barbaric and ineffectual in the fight against crime by a majority of countries in the world.

Certainly, the worldwide Church has spoken strongly against it and, while it has not issued any absolute condemnation, Pope John Paul II did say that it is difficult to think of an example in today’s world where it could be necessary even to achieve the strongest claim for its use, the protection of society.

But in this fight, the archbishop has found more support. On February 18, thousands of people were expected to rally at the Quirino Grandstand to speak out against the move and the ongoing spate of extrajudicial murders that the increasingly un-Christian Catholic country has witnessed over the past eight months.

At least some bishops have promised to join them in what is being billed as a Walk for Life.

But Archbishop Villegas has powerful enemies. The deputy speaker in the lower house, Fred Castro, quoted St. Thomas Aquinas in support of his case for the death penalty, but Aquinas was writing in a different age and unrelated social and societal context and, as Pope Francis points out, you can’t rely on the wisdom of the past for everything.

Castro argues that criminals are having a field day because of the lack of a death penalty, but they were having a field day even when the law was on the books prior to 2006.

Castro is talking off the top of his political head, as there is no evidence to show that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime.

In fact there is little evidence to show whether it either acts as a deterrent or is totally ineffectual.

Research carried out by the National Research Council of the National Academies in the United States of America (US) says that studies in this area have been inconclusive.

It points out that research demonstrates that it cannot be claimed that the death penalty either decreases or increases the crime rate by a specified amount, or alternatively, has no effect at all.

Consequently, it should not influence policy judgments.

Although the authors add that this is a controversial stand to take, they believe that no one is served well by unfounded claims about the death penalty and, no doubt, would include Castro’s opportunist waffle in this category as well.

“Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment,” the US study concludes.

The Justice and Peace Commission organised a gathering at the Philippine Consulate General to Hong Kong in Admiralty on January 10, together with the Abolish the Death Penalty organisation.

They issued a statement condemning the arbitrary murders that have been going on since Duterte came to power and particularly his promise to execute six people a day if the death penalty was reinstated, especially in a country that does not have a judiciary capable of conducting that many trials in a proper manner, let alone six a day.

Wiser heads are also pointing to a corrupt police force, a dysfunctional judiciary and poverty as being closer to the root source of crime than the lack of a hangman’s rope or lethal injection room.

The archbishop of Manila, Luis Cardinal Tagle, cites the loss of Christian values, injustice, inequality, poverty, lack of food and education, as well as employment and housing, in addition to ready availability of guns, drugs and pornography as having a bigger impact on the crime rate than instilling fear instead of hope into the hearts of a people who live in circumstances that have already deprived them of a future.

Hong Kong sociologist and poverty studies pioneer, Nelson Chow, says that crime rates drop when there is hope in society of a better future, but when that hope is withheld, the rates of both petty crime and more serious offences will consequently rise.

He likes to say, “When the great way prevails, the world is equally shared by all.”

Cristina Palabay, from the Philippine human rights group, Karapatan, was straight forward in saying, “The death penalty is essentially a legislative fiat to the current spate of extrajudicial killings… which will mostly affect the poor.”

She also points to the vast number of people in prison, who have been convicted of what she calls trumped up charges for political reasons, or worse, not convicted of anything, but left to rot while Duterte fiddles with the peace process.

But Archbishop Villegas has powerful friends too. Franklin Drilon is among one of several senators who have vowed to fight the bill in the upper house. “It is clear that we cannot revive it because of our treaty commitments,” he said.

But the great danger in The Philippines is that the final decision on the death penalty will not be made out of any carefully considered study, but the flurry of fluffy rhetoric in the congress, coupled with a few well-aimed poisoned presidential arrows and the massive silence that emanates from the pews of Asia’s only Catholic, but increasingly un-Christian country.

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