IT WOULD be so easy to write off Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing war on the Catholic church as the braggadocio of a bully resentful at being told off by an elder, or the rantings of an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

From one of his earliest diatribes against the religion that claims the most Filipino adherents – telling Pope Francis “put*ng ina ka” for the traffic jams during the pontiff’s visit to the country – to calling God “stupid,” to his latest and, arguably, most dangerous pronouncement – “Itong mga obispo ninyo, patayin ninyo. Walang silbi iyang mga gagong iyan. All they do is criticize,” uttered at the conferment of the 2017 Presidential Award for Child-Friendly Municipalities and Cities in Malacañang on Wednesday, very soon after he accused Caloocan Bishop Virgilio David of, first, stealing from church collections and, later, of involvement in the drug trade – Duterte has steadily upped the ante in insulting the church.

Which, of course, does not exactly mark him as brave or even daring. No, not by a long shot.

One has only to count how many times he has insulted the leaders of other countries only to go hiding instead of coming face-to-face with them – his faking a bum stomach to avoid then US President Barack Obama at the 2016 Apec summit, and the supposed “power naps” that made him miss several events at the recent Asean summit in Singapore, especially a breakfast meeting with Australia soon after deporting Sister Patricia Fox, immediately come to mind.

But while it would be correct to describe Duterte’s verbal assaults on a church that eight of 10 Filipinos belong to as “demented,” closer scrutiny suggests there is, in fact, method to his madness, so to speak.

It is the same with every slur he commits against women, our indigenous peoples, journalists and everyone else who he does not agree with.

Methinks Duterte and the agencies at his command are testing the limits of our tolerance to his outrageousness, as well as how much fear they can strike into the heart of most, if not everyone, of us, rendering us too resigned and powerless to protest, much less oppose them as they abuse and subvert the law in pursuit of their ultimate goal – a return to iron-fisted governance, one in which the rulers can do pretty much what they will with impunity.

The “war on drugs,” clearly now a war on the powerless, is of course part and parcel of this game plan. As for why and how the real drug lords remain scot free, your guess is as good – and probably just as correct – as mine.

The point is, with some estimates placing the death toll at near, or even over, 30,000 by now and counting, even as the scourge continues to spread to more corners of the country, that there is as yet no massive outrage at this horrendous loss of lives sends a clear signal to Duterte and his minions that they can continue the mass murder without worrying too much about immediate consequences.

This is why the head of government can so casually and so horribly flout our laws by making murder official state policy with his announcement of the creation of “death squads” and his public call for the killing of bishops.

In the face of this, it is disconcerting that there isn’t that strong a pushback from the Catholic leadership in the country, and I mean not just Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, who is looked up to as the “prince” of the church but also, truth to tell, most of the bishops.

I am not really keen on religion but do understand if the church leadership wishes to underscore the Christian imperative of forgiveness insofar as threats to their persons is concerned.

But the general meekness of the “shepherds” – except for a notable few like Caloocan’s Ambo David – even as their flock continue to be slaughtered just boggles the mind. As does the general lethargy of those who profess to believe in the face of the unrelenting attacks on their faith.

I fear that, unless we all shake off the fear and apathy, we may end up surrendering not just our bodies but our souls as well to the evil tightening its grip on the land.