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The Church under attack, May 5, 1956

In Classic articles on May 5, 2006 at 11:00 am
May 5, 1956
There is a new outburst of anti-clericalism as Catholic politicians denounce the Catholic hierarchy’s
opposition to the bill requiring Filipino students to read the two controversial novels of Rizal

By Teodoro M. Locsin
Staff Member
NOT for a long time has the Catholic Church, or, at any rate, the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines,
been subjected to such attacks as it has for the last two weeks. Archbishops, accustomed to having high
government officials kiss the ring of their office, were mocked and ridiculed, were called enemies of
freedom, to great applause. Catholic political leaders led the attack….
Did the hierarchy expect the attacks when it issued the pastoral letter objecting to the Senate bill which
would make the two novels of Rizal required reading in all public schools—novels the hierarchy
considered impious and heretical? If it did, and went ahead just the same and registered its objection, it
could only be because of an overriding concern for the safety of the Faith; to read Rizal is to endanger
it. A temporary embarrassment is nothing in the light of eternity; the Church is 2,000 years old; it will
still be standing when the supporters of the bill are no longer around. The Senate, as it is presently
composed, will not prevail against it. Thus, perhaps, wen the thought of the churchmen. It was a
calculated risk.
It was all very surprising. A month ago, one could not have imagined a Filipino politician speaking in
any but the most respectful terms of the prelates of the Church; he would have considered it political
suicide to express himself critically of them. Now all caution seems to have been thrown to the wind.
Anything goes. There is a new freedom, or, to put it another way, license.
The Church has grown in power and influence since the days immediately following the Revolution.
Then every other Filipino leader seemed to be the critic if not the enemy of the Church. Many had lost
their faith; even among those who retained it, there were not a few who were, in some degree, anti-
clerical. The women were pious but the men were something else. During Mass, when the priest turned
around to deliver a sermon, the men would walk out of the church; when the priest was done, they
would come back. “Do what I say, but don’t do what I do,” the men would say, referring to the man of
In time, many Filipino leaders returned to the Church, abjuring Masonry as in the case of the late
President Quezon; they became quite devout. It no longer seemed queer to be a priest or to listen to
one. The Church grew in prestige. When a Protestant, Camilo Osias, made known his intention to run
for president, he was told he couldn’t win; he was not a Catholic. He could be a senator; he was. He
could never be president. He must face the facts of political life. When he wouldn’t, and bolted to the
other side, he couldn’t even get elected as senator.
If Ramon Magsaysay is president of the Philippines today, it is due not a little to the help of the Church.
The hierarchy, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the perpetuation of the Quirino administration
through electoral fraud and terrorism would eventually drive the people into Communism, urged the
faithful to keep the elections free. Free elections would mean the defeat of the Quirino administration.
The Church couldn’t help that. The elections were free, and there was a new administration.

Never had the Church seemed such a power in Philippine politics! A maker of presidents, it suddenly
seemed. At any rate, a maker of senators it proved itself two years later, when Francisco Rodrigo ran as
a candidate of the Catholic Church—to be precise, the people were made to believe he was the
candidate of the Church; with no political experience whatsoever, he polled more votes than many
veteran politicians.
The Church had become a great, perhaps the greatest, political factor in the Philippines. Catholic action
had taken on a political color. This was, Catholics felt, as it should be. It is impossible to separate
politics from religion, or the practice of religion. Human life is a unity, not a series of separate
compartments. A good Catholic not only goes to the right church but votes for the right people.
Then came the Senate bill making Rizal’s novels required reading in all schools and the pastoral letter
opposing the bill. Bishops and archbishops were suddenly being called unpatriotic, worse than the
country’s former Spanish oppressors. The political climate had suddenly changed.
So stormy was the atmosphere that Senator Rodrigo proposed running for cover; let the debate on the
bill be held behind closed doors, he said.
Let the hearings remains public, said Sen. Lorenzo Tañada, as good a Catholic as Rodrigo. (Rodrigo
had left Tañada’s Citizens Party without even a letter of resignation to run for senator on the
administration’s ticket.) Closed-door sessions would imply that the Filipino people were not yet
prepared for democratic processes, Tañada said.
Another senator, Quintin Paredes, observed that when Rodrigo pleaded for national unity, all he really
wanted was for everybody to do his will. According to Rodrigo, Paredes went on, there would be unity
only if the bill was not passed, and no unity if it was.
“How can we instill unity when you, who advocate it, insist on enforcing your will?” asked Paredes?
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Rodrigo said.
“Then why not give Rizal what is Rizal’s and God what is God’s?” demanded another senator,
Domocao Alonto of Mindanao. The Moro senator disclosed that Rizal’s books were the Bible of the
Indonesians during their struggle for independence. He attacked Filipinos who proclaimed Rizal as
“their national hero” but seemed to “despise what he had written.”
Rodrigo hinted that “ulterior political motives” were behind the filing of the Rizal bill…
“They say that this bill was filed not really for the sake of Rizal, but for the sake of political
expediency. They say that this bill was filed to create cleavage and confusion in the ranks of our
Catholics in order to nip in the bud the growing political unity of Catholic citizens.
“I even heard some people say that the real purpose of this bill is to put President Magsaysay in a very
tight spot. If this bill, they say, passes Congress, and if the present controversy spreads and increases,
then when this bill reaches the President for his signature, he will be placed between the two horns of a
dilemma, where he will suffer politically either way.
“If he approves the bill, then he antagonizes a big Catholic voting sector; if he vetoes the bill, then he
alienates the sympathy and the votes of those who zealously favor the bill. And if he does not act on the
bill and just allows it to become a law, then he loses even more, for he will be accused of moral
Mayor Arsenio H. Lacson of Manila spoke up, denouncing those who opposed the Rizal bill as
“enemies that threaten the very foundations of our freedom.” This “new breed of Filipinos” would, on
the one hand, deny to the state the right to prescribe the books to be read in school, on the other hand,
dictate to the state what books should not be read by the people….
“These are colonial-minded people who, fronting for their alien masters, would shackle the minds of
our youth with the fetters of artificial prejudice, of artificial ignorance, and of artificial imbecility…The
evils that Rizal denounced exist very much to this day, though it may be in a modified form, and those
countrymen of his who set such a high premium on their animal comfort are very much alive and with
us today, together with their alien masters still as bigoted and intolerant as of old.”
Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo attacked Filipino Catholic priests for being still, according to him, “under the
yoke of the old Spanish friars, against whom the Filipinos of 1896 had risen in arms for their
tyrannies.” The government should assert the constitutional separation of church and state. The
revolutionary general recalled how Rizal’s Noli was banned by the Spanish authorities who had kept
Filipinos subject for more than 300 years under “the guise of Christianity.” The influence of the
Spanish friars was still here, according to Aguinaldo, “despite our blood spilled on the battlefields.”
While the Philippine Public School Teachers Association, with a membership of 70,000, came out in
favor of the Rizal bill, a spokesman of the Cavite chapter of the Philippine Veterans Legion announced
that the chapter had unanimously approved a manifesto calling “un-Filipino and morally repulsive” any
opposition to the bill. The spokesman, a Catholic, said he would stop going to church on Sundays until
the bill was approved.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Pedro Lopez of Cebu told the story of the Filipino struggle for
national independence….Filipinism asserted itself for the first time in Mactan Island, according to him.
There Lapulapu, “refusing to yield to alien imposition, slew Magellan, thus repelling Spanish
aggression.” That turned out to be “the first, the only, and the last successful defense put up by our
people throughout our history against foreign invasion and domination….”
The congressman then hit the men of the Church:
“Nowhere in the world except here have alien educators garbed in their ecclesiastical habits had the
temerity to act as our back-seat drivers or kibitzers and publicly tell a congressional committee what
books our youth in school should not read.”
In the Senate, Sen. Claro M. Recto accused the Catholic hierarchy of being more intolerant than the
Spanish friars whom Rizal had attacked…
“It was natural for the Spanish friars to retaliate against Rizal because he had been unmerciless in his
charges against some of them. But I can’t understand why Filipino bishops…are now condemning his
books. Without Rizal’s books, perhaps there would not be any Filipino bishop today.”
Those who oppose the Rizal bill, Recto said, “would blot out Rizal from our memory.”
Instead of being grateful to Rizal for helping in their exaltation, they call him and his books impious,
and heretical.
When Senator Rodrigo asked Recto to point out where in the pastoral letter the Catholic hierarchy had
directly called Rizal or his books impious and heretical, Recto read the portions of the letter accusing
Rizal of having attacked various dogmas and practices of the Church. To attack the dogmas and
practices of the Church is to be impious and heretical; the letter says that Rizal had attacked the dogmas
and practices of the Church; that is the same as calling him impious and heretical, Recto said.
Rodrigo insisted it was not the same.
“If you describe a person as constantly telling falsehoods, is that not calling him a liar?” asked Recto.
“If you call a boy the son of a woman by a man not her husband, there is no need to say that the child is
an ‘s.o.b.’”
Recto went on:
“The tragedy of Rizal is that even after his death he is being mercilessly persecuted.”
When Rodrigo said that it was not necessary to have read the novels of Rizal in order to venerate him,
that Rizal would still be a hero even if he had not written his books, Recto quickly tore that argument to
pieces. For what would Rodrigo honor Rizal if he had no written the Noli and the Fili? When Rodrigo
said, “For the suffering he had endured,” Recto pointed out that if Rizal had not written the two books,
the Spaniards would not have made him suffer; they would not have shot him. He would not be the
national hero of the Philippines.
When Rodrigo said that the Church ban on Rizal’s books was not absolute, that a Catholic could always
obtain permission to read them if the Church was satisfied that it would not shake his faith, Recto
asked, sardonically, how the Church would go about processing the applications of millions of Filipinos
to read the novels of Rizal.
Rodrigo must have found Recto a difficult if not impossible man to debate with; again and again, Recto
would not permit Rodrigo to complete a thought, to finish a sentence; again and again Rodrigo had to
plead for the elementary right to speak; Recto kept butting in. Never once, however, did Rodrigo lose
his patience. If he lost the argument, and that would seem to have been the verdict of the gallery which
kept cheering Recto, he won the sympathy of many who listened to the debate on the radio. He might
have engaged in sophistry, as Recto accused him of doing, but he was a gentleman every inch of the
Then Sen. Decoroso Rosales spoke up for those who would not make Rizal’s novels compulsory
reading in school. Those in favor of the Rizal bill would make those opposed to it appear as unpatriotic,
said the brother of an archbishop. This is unjust.
During the Japanese occupation, the senator recalled, he and others now opposing the Rizal bill fought
the enemy. Archbishop Rufino Santos, who is against the bill, was imprisoned for 10 months in Fort
Santiago by the Japanese. Meanwhile, some Filipinos collaborated with the Japanese. Now
collaborators would brand as anti-Filipino Archbishop Santos, Rosales and others for opposing their
measure. Only these collaborators, it would seem, love their country. They have the monopoly on
There was no answer to this, although it might have been pointed out that not all those favoring the bill
collaborated with the Japanese; there are patriots, too, behind the measure—patriots in Rosales’s sense
of the word. They fought the Japanese; they would make Filipino students read Rizal. They fought the
Japanese and now they are fighting the Church.
Rosales warned that rather than make students read Rizal’s novels, Catholic schools throughout the
country, numbering more than 600, would close.
Recto expressed scepticism.
“They are making too much profit which they can ill-afford to give up,” said the Batangueño.
Not for a long time has the Catholic Church, or the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines, been
subjected to such an attack. There was an anti-clerical tradition among Filipino leaders early in the
century; many considered themselves Catholics but had no use for priests. A footnote in the Derbyshire
translation of Noli Me Tangere tells us of a Fray Antonio Piernavieja, O.S.A., who was taken prisoner
by the insurgents of Cavite and made “bishop” of their camp. “Having taken advantage of his position
to collect and forward to the Spanish authorities in Manila information concerning the insurgents’
preparations and plans, he was tied out in an open field and left to perish of hunger and thirst under the
tropical sun.” Filipino leaders became Masons; an “independent” church was founded. Eventually,
many returned to the Church. Anti-clericalism seemed to have died out—unlike in Italy where millions
of Catholics don’t listen to priests, vote Communist. Now, here are Catholic Filipinos speaking out
against the bishops and archbishops of the Church.
The Church could have been devious. It could have pretended to make students in its school read Rizal,
but quietly prevented them from doing it. Instead, it chose to be “straightforward.” It will not make
students read the books of one it considers impious and heretical, though he is the national hero. It just
won’t. The result: a crisis, not only of conscience for individual Catholics, but a political one for the
But should anyone, after all, be made to read a book no matter how detestable he may think it to be?
How could he think it detestable before reading it?