Christianity : A cross a nation has had to bear, Part 2
The Artist Abroad

Christianity : A cross a nation has had to bear, Part 2

/ 10:04 AM March 29, 2021
First Mass, Carlos V. Francisco

First Mass, Carlos V. Francisco

NEW YORK—On June 12, 1956, Republic Act No. 1425, popularly known as the Rizal Law, was enacted, obligating all educational institutions in the country to offer courses on Rizal. Special emphasis was laid on his writings, particularly the Noli and the Fili—popular shorthand for the two incendiary novels.

The hostility the Church still felt towards Rizal was palpable in its fierce opposition to the law’s passage. Its main sponsor, Senator Claro M. Recto, was depicted as being a Communist—red-tagged in today’s parlance—and anti-Catholic. The arguments marshalled against the law ranged from the absurd—the novels were no longer relevant—to the ridiculous: reading Rizal’s writings could damn you to eternal hellfire. In the terminology of the time, the novels were an occasion of sin, to be avoided at all costs. Such was the medieval mindset and confidence of the institutional church in the steadfastness of its followers.


Church stalwarts held rallies and symposia against the bill, while such groups as Veteranos de la Revolucion (Spirit of 1896), Alagad ni Rizal, the Freemasons, and the Knights of Rizal lobbied in its favor. Catholic schools, all in the private sector, threatened to shut their doors should the bill pass; it was an empty threat, as the schools, being businesses as well, were quite profitable.

The good senator would not be deterred, declaring: “The people who would eliminate the books of Rizal from the schools would blot out from our minds the memory of the national hero. This is not a fight against Recto but a fight against Rizal,”  adding that the clerics were attempting to suppress his memory, in effect killing him once more.

A compromise was struck, so that the final version of the bill specified that only college or university students could read the unexpurgated versions of the novels. Today, the books are read in high schools as well. The country remains solidly Catholic.

In more than half a century since, the institutional church has hardly shown any bent towards a more inclusive and progressive stance towards a host of important issues.

When the AIDS crisis was at its height, those who were infected were assailed as being sinners by the holier-than-thou church hierarchy. At the turn of this century, doing research for an article on the AIDS situation in Manila for a now defunct New York magazine, I found out that the use of condoms—a cheap and effective way of preventing the spread of the disease,–was seen as morally repulsive, its role in HIV prevention undercut. I wrote then that “the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in a pastoral letter on AIDS, issued in 1993, called for a recognition of ‘the moral dimension of the disease’ and urged Filipinos ‘to take a sharply negative view of the condom-distribution approach to the problem.’ Condoms condone ‘sexual permissiveness,’ said the bishops, who also claimed that AIDS is transmitted mainly ‘through promiscuous sexual behavior.’ But what frightened the good bishops most was the link between condoms and family planning. They worried that the ‘acceptability of condom use’ for HIV prevention would lead to its widespread role in contraception.”

As for family planning, it finally became official government policy in 2012, overcoming more than a decade-long fight against it by the Catholic poo-bahs. There continues to be unwavering opposition to family planning, which is simplistically equated with abortion, completely ignoring the fact that family planning reduces rather than increases instances of abortion. The Episcopal Commission on the Laity of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines stated, “When society opens its doors to welcome artificial contraception, abortion, divorce, legalized same sex union, it opens the minds of people to a particular mindset that problems can only be resolved through termination of relationships, terminations of person.” (Only two Catholic nations do not allow for divorce: the Vatican and the Philippines.)


And of course the Church has until recently done nothing concerning the sexual abuse within its ranks, pretending that it didn’t exist, or simply transferring the offending cleric to another posting.

And now the disappointing, though not surprising, ruling from the Vatican, with the Pope’s imprimatur, that priests are prohibited from blessing same-sex unions but that should such blessings be dispensed, these are not valid. The ruling was a blow to gay Catholics who believed the Church was becoming more welcoming under the current patriarch, completely understandable, given the previous two public statements from Pope Francis.

In July of 2013, when asked about gay couples, Francis replied, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” In the same interview, he reiterated the traditional position of the Church regarding women, that they could not be priests. Then late last year, in a recently released documentary, Francesco, he referred to gay people as “children of God.” He further noted that “a civil union law” needed to be created so gays would be covered. Subsequently, the Vatican, while not walking back the pope’s comments, explained that the church doctrine remained unchanged.


Apart from frustrating queer Catholic couples, this relapse was decried by the Parish Priests Initiative, founded in 2006 and based in Vienna. Headed by Father Helmut Schueller, the Initiative is a rebellious group, in favor of  priests marrying and women becoming priests. Should the latter become a reality, it could very well lead to a woman heading the Roman Catholic Church—a Mama rather than a Papa. Signaling its defiance  of the prohibition, the Initiative announced, “We will—in solidarity with so many—not reject any loving couple in the future who ask to celebrate God’s blessing, which they experience every day, also in a worship service.” It will continue to give communion to Protestants and divorced Catholics who remarry.

There are reasons to celebrate Christianity in the Philippines, but they are to be found in the many men and women, religious and lay and most often working in and with grass-roots groups, who try to live up to the teachings of Christ and display compassion and love for their fellow human beings. I’ve met and known many. To me, they are the real church, a constant rebuke to the judgmental, constricted character and damnable history of the institution they belong to, that for the most part has been un-Christian.

Even after two millennia the Church still is mired in the Old Testament, the dark side, so to speak. It may pay obeisance to the starkly different perspectives of the New Testament—that God’s mercy and love are infinite, that the divine is present in every person, and every person is loved unconditionally—but that is mere lip service. The God they claim to serve is in fact shaped in their image, a brow perpetually furrowed, darkened by anger, a deity of fear—and fearful that its earthly power be undermined by a more democratic and inclusive theology.  And so the currency of the institutional realm remains crime and punishment.

Who are they to judge? Copyright L.H. Francia 2021

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TAGS: Christianity in the Philippines, Philippine Catholic Church
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