MANILA, Philippines — Philippine Catholic bishops on Monday called for fasting and prayers after President Rodrigo Duterte called God "stupid" and questioned God's existence in profane remarks that set the foul-mouthed leader on a collision course with Asia's largest Catholic church.
Archbishop Romulo Valles and the association of bishops that he heads called for a day of prayers on July 16 to invoke "God's mercy and justice on those who have blasphemed God's holy name, those who slander and bear false witness and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality."
Starting July 17, the bishops asked Filipino Catholics to join bishops in three more days of prayers with fasting and almsgiving without giving other details.
Duterte has had a thorny relationship with Catholic bishops, who have criticized his bloody anti-drug crackdown and vulgar language and expressed alarm over the killings of three priests in brazen gun attacks in recent months. In televised speeches, the 73-year-old leader has often lashed out at Catholic bishops, recalling reports of sexual abuses by members of the clergy, including a foreign Jesuit priest, who, he said, fondled him and other fellow students in a Catholic university.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines did not name Duterte in a carefully worded but highly critical "pastoral exhortation," but the allusion to the president and his tough anti-crime crackdowns, which have alarmed human rights groups, was clear.
To "those who arrogantly regard themselves as wise in their own estimation and the Christian faith as nonsense, those who blaspheme our God as stupid, Saint Paul's words are to the point: 'For the stupidity of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength,'" the bishops said, referring to one of the most important saints in the Catholic faith.
The statement was read in a news conference after more than 100 active and retired Filipino bishops and other church officials concluded three days of meetings in Manila that focused on Duterte's recent tirades against the Catholic faith and the killings of three priests in brazen gun attacks in recent months.
Amid the animosity, Duterte's office invited Valles for a dialogue with the president, Valles said. Presidential aides later announced that the two met for 30 minutes at the presidential palace, with Duterte agreeing "to a moratorium on statements about the church."
Duterte was slammed, including by some of his political allies, two weeks ago for calling God "stupid" in a speech, with one bishop calling him a "psychopath."
Duterte lamented in that speech that Adam and Eve's sin in Christian theology resulted in all the faithful falling from divine grace. "Who is this stupid God? This son of a bitch is then really stupid," he said. On Friday, he said he would resign if even one witness can prove that God exists.
In response, the bishops cited Saint Paul's teaching that "when we are persecuted, we bear it patiently; when slandered, we respond gently." But they added that God's "peace is never the peace of compromise or capitulation to evil."
The bishops denied accusations that they were involved in moves to destabilize the government and said the church respects elected officials "as long as they do not contradict the basic spiritual and moral principles we hold dear, such as respect for the sacredness of life."
Catholic church leaders played key roles in the Philippines' 1986 "people power" revolt that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos and in the massive protests in 2001 that forced President Joseph Estrada from power after being accused of corruption. Duterte, however, has remained popular based on surveys and has repeatedly vowed to step down if allegations of corruption against him and his family can be proven.