It’s about time that somebody of national stature had the balls to criticize the Catholic Church, as President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has done.
I had criticized Duterte vehemently in my columns before the elections because I not only disagreed with but detested his declared disregard for human life, even if such life is that of a suspected criminal. But I support him totally in his criticisms of the Catholic Church, that it has been one of the most hypocritical institutions in the country.
The election itself demonstrated that ours, after all, really isn’t a Christian nation, and that the Church has failed in instilling one of its most important teachings – reverence for life – among its faithful. If the Church were just even barely successful in doing so, Duterte wouldn’t have won the presidency with his declared plan to kill criminals where they stand without due process. (Whether this rhetoric will turn out to be just his brilliant political and propaganda strategy or he really believes that adopting such a policy may work on a national scale, we will have to wait and see.)
While the Church has failed to instill its prime teaching about the value of human life among its members, it has been extremely successful in serving the Philippine oligarchy since the Spanish era, allowing them to sleep soundly at night with the thought that with their huge donations and display of obeisance to the Church, they have VIP entrance passes to the Kingdom of Heaven in the next life.
Indeed, the Church for most Filipinos is really the Deity’s embassy in this land, where the masses apply for visas to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Catholic Church’s history has been in service of conquerors. Las Islas de las Filipinas had not been as attractive as Mexico, Peru and other Latin American countries for the Spanish crown to send troops to, and expend its dwindling funds.
The colony had become notorious for its typhoons, as a 17th century priest described it: “These occur very often and we suffer so much, that even after experiencing them, it is difficult to believe these can happen.” And the most important disincentive for a full-blown Spanish colonization, gold – the main reason why the conquistadores and adventurers invaded Latin America – could not be found here.
There wasn’t even the weakest rumor of an El Dorado, the City of Gold, and agricultural exploitation through the encomienda system wasn’t too profitable (before the advent of the sugar industry). The Spanish Crown naturally found it difficult to justify the deployment of troops in this god-forsaken colony, and only the most adventurous (or desperate) such as the Basques dared to travel to this farthest outpost of the Empire.
Less than 2,000 troops
One estimate is that at the height of the Spanish rule in the mid-18th century, there were fewer than 5,000 Spaniards (half of whom were clergy) all over the archipelago and less than 2,000 troops, were concentrated in Manila. Such a small military presence here was the reason why Spain couldn’t really wage war to conquer the Muslims in the South, and, really, why Filipino revolutionaries could have easily defeated them if the US had not intervened.
So how did Spain manage to control the indio population with such small military presence? First was through the cooptation of the ruling elites, who were given the nice title of gobernadorcillos.
And second, Spanish rule was so easily imposed because the Catholic Church and its missionaries managed to convert the indios with their unsophisticated tribal, mostly animistic, religions into Christianity and to convince them their obeisance to the Spanish Crown was a requirement of the faith.
Why were the indios so easily converted? As was the case all over the world where the West colonized the native population, they thought the Spaniards’ superior technology – their armor and muskets, as well as the unbelievable huge galleons that arrived in Manila – was an indication of Christianity’s superiority. Or perhaps, the friars’ promise of a wonderful, magical place that awaited them when they die was more attractive than the indios’ vague notions of an afterlife in their animistic tribal religions.
It was also during this time that the various Catholic orders were competing among each other to proselytize in the Philippines, to convert enough indios or forcibly recruit them to join them in proselytizing people in what was then known to be the largest pagan nation that needed to be brought to Christ: China
What stood as a very fitting symbol for what the Church really was in that period were the Spanish-era churches. Visit one church and you’d wonder: Why are they so massive, and built like fortresses?
One reason they were made that way was to convince the churchgoing indios who lived in nipa huts that such gargantuan structures were inhabited by divine beings, i.e., Jesus Christ, (the Goddess) Virgin Mary, and the other lesser gods, the saints.
The Church as a fortress
The other reason is that those churches were, in fact, built as fortresses – the “Keep” – in that word’s usage in the Lord of the Rings, which refers to the strongest part of a castle that acts as a final refuge. Such Hispanic churches’ doors were huge and nearly impregnable; the windows were placed so high up on the walls, like those in European medieval castles.
They were, of course, military installations run by the clergy and the Spanish guardia civil. The faithful would escape to take shelter in them in the early periods of Spanish colonization when Muslim pirates would occasionally raid the towns. It was also the keep for the Spaniards and their local lackeys to escape into, in cases of the indios’ revolt.
One thing about these churches that hasn’t been studied in detail: How were they built? Were the indios forced to provide manual labor upon pain of death, and their families? The strength of these churches has also been due to the fact that egg whites were mixed with lime to create the strong mortar that has lasted for a century. How many indios were deprived of their protein requirements because the Spanish required them to surrender so many eggs?
Think about it: In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the exploitive hacendero and landlord, as well as political bossism systems were at their height in the entire archipelago, and when the oligarchs started to entrench themselves here, had the Catholic Church as an institution spoken against such exploitation? Has it ever been at the forefront of social reform movements?
The Church’s power over the Filipino mind has been such that other than the University of the Philippines, its educational institutions such as the Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle University and the University of Santo Tomas, have been molding the minds of the elite for decades – teaching them the most sophisticated ways to justify their classes’ exploitation of the peasants and working class. It is certainly not coincidental that the Ateneo has been one of biggest fans of the hacendero-cacique rule of Benigno Aquino 3rd.
Of course, there were a few brave priests, such as Fr. Jose Decena, who in the early 1970s exposed the horrors of the cicada system in Negros sugar plantations. There were also those converted into the Latin American type of liberation theology who were easily recruited into the Communist Party, such as Duterte’s adviser Jun Evasco and the NDF’s chief negotiator, Luis Jalandoni.
But on the whole, the Catholic hierarchy, together with parish priests and the elites, made up a single ruling class as they did in medieval Europe. The Church helped justify and even conceal the landlord class’s exploitation of the peasants, and kept them in tow with threats of fire and brimstone if they challenged the status quo. The landlord class, on the other hand, donated lands and gold to the Church, and provided it with its armed protection.
In our history, there has only been one major critique of the Church that electrified the nation: That by Rizal through his Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Since then, there has neither been a writer nor a leader who ever dared to cross the Church as defiantly as Rizal did. If Duterte’s tirades against the Church are authentic, I’m certainly all for him in that struggle.