Today marks the 126th anniversary of the execution of our national hero, Jose Rizal, by Spanish colonial authorities.
Born to a wealthy illustrado Filipino family, Rizal could have enjoyed his privileged status in society by simply conforming to the status quo, where the Spanish insulares in the Philippines respected the local elite in exchange for their cooperation with Madrid’s colonial authorities in the islands.
That arrangement also meant the continuing maltreatment and exploitation of all not well-to-do Filipinos, whom the Spaniards derisively referred to as Indios.
Rizal utilized his writing skills to expose the plight of his people. He also wrote poetry in Spanish to prove that the Indios do not deserve the very low regard the Spaniards had for them.
In addition, Rizal was also a physician, a sportsman, a cosmopolitan gentleman, and quite a ladies’ man, too.
Rizal’s greatest legacies to Filipinos and the world were his two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. I first encountered the two novels as compulsory reading in high school.
Since almost all Filipinos of my youthful years were not familiar with Spanish, my classmates and I had to settle for the Tagalog versions of the novels, with some side references to English translations.
That was unfortunate for me and my classmates, because there is always something in great foreign-language literature that is lost in the process of translation.
Noli and Fili exposed the abuses committed by the friars of the Roman Catholic Church during the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines.
By reading Noli and Fili, my classmates and I learned about the acts of lasciviousness repeatedly committed, and the foul language employed, by nefarious characters like Padre Damaso, Padre Salvi and Padre Camorra.
We also found out about the wicked ways of other disdainful friars such as Padre Millon, Padre Sybila and Padre Irene. They were evil to the core.
These fictional villains wearing priestly robes were based on real Spanish friars during Rizal’s time, but whose real names have been changed by the great novelist.
The said friars, or the real clergy of Rizal’s time whom they were supposed to symbolize in the novels, abused their privileged position in Philippine society, which at that time espoused the union of Church and State.
They irresponsibly exercised both political and sectarian power during their time.
One important lesson taught by Noli and Fili to generations of Filipinos is the need to maintain the separation of Church and State, and not to be too trusting towards many priests, especially the ranking clergy.
That early, Rizal saw the need for the separation of Church and State in the Philippines.
It was only a few years after Rizal’s execution that the separation of Church and State became a legal doctrine in the Philippines, during the advent of American constitutional government in the islands.
The compulsory teaching and reading of Noli and Fili in public and private high schools in the Philippines is mandated by Republic Act 1425, approved on June 12, 1956.
Its principal sponsors were Senators Jose P. Laurel and Claro M. Recto, both icons in the field of legislation of their time. Laurel and Recto defended their bill against politicians identified with the country’s Catholic Church.
Church opposition to the Noli and Fili law was expected, because Rizal’s novels will undoubtedly encourage Filipinos to think more critically of the Church, particularly its doctrines and its officials.
Moreover, the Church and its allies saw Noli and Fili as threats to the status quo enjoyed by the Church over the vast majority of the Filipino people, i.e., the subservience and docility of the Catholic faithful to the Filipino priests.
With the enactment of R.A. 1425, many Filipinos started seeing priests more critically, and even began learning that there were many Padre Damasos and his kind among the clergy.
Naturally, Church officialdom, even if in the hands of Filipinos, was embarrassed.
Despite R.A. 1425, modern day Filipino friars still meddle in politics.
Also, a number of them have been reported in the media as having been involved in sex abuse and physical violence.
The clergy were at the peak of their power and influence in the government during the administrations of Presidents Corazon Aquino and her son Noynoy. Friars interfered with state policies and appointments to high positions in the government.
Many of today’s Padre Damasos found themselves out of power and influence during the no-nonsense term of President Rodrigo Duterte.
That is why the friars openly supported the presidential run of Leni Robredo in the May 2022 elections.
The Padre Damasos believed that the superficial and gullible Robredo can easily be threatened with spiritual damnation if she did not kowtow to Church officials and their political agenda.
Rizal was right. The Church should not be allowed to meddle in politics.