IN his oft-cited but rarely examined satirical sketch ‘Fray Botod’—literally ‘Friar Big Belly’—the eccentric Ilonggo journalist, orator, and propagandist Graciano López Jaena (1856-1896) vividly portrays a Spanish cleric so utterly dissipated and depraved that he exists solely to satisfy his carnal appetites. Written in Spanish in 1874, Jaena’s salacious anti-clerical portrait of corrupt, immoral, cruelty is a satire for our times.
Fray Botod has a noxious and brutal personality: he is physically violent to Filipinos, a glutton, a liar, a cheat and a ‘worse usurer than a Jewish money-lender’. Although a foundling in his native Aragon, and raised by a rustic muleteer, he now enjoys the respect and authority of a king, such is the deference that Filipinos accord to priests. In Fray Botod’s room inside the priests’ convento the walls are hung with massive, “more or less obscene” paintings of Biblical and religious scenes that all feature nude or semi-nude young women—among them a Susannah being seduced by the Elders, David’s concubines being raped by Absalom, and the stripped, captive and forlorn Christian virgins of the Filipino artist Felix Hidalgo. Naked angels and Igorot fertility idols also decorate the room, and among the devotional books lying on his bedside table are scattered pornographic libritos.
In this room, where the air hangs heavy with the sensuous fragrance of spices, the fat friar enjoys his regular afternoon siesta. Sated by a huge lunch and sprayed with perfume, he wallows amidst tasseled silk covers and luxurious pillows spread on a beautiful bed of carved kamagong wood, his every whim indulged by a bevy of nubile native girls whom López Jaena calls ‘canding-canding’. Fray Botod’s pretence is that he is educating the girls and teaching them the catechism, writes López Jaena, but his true intent is just sensual pleasure. As he reclines in drowsy comfort the canding-canding massage, caress, and groom him, tickle his blubbery stomach and whisper in his ear fantastic tales of the underworld, enchantments, witches and fairies. They also please him in other ways “that I know, but will not say” the narrator archly confides.
The handmaiden to oppression, José Rizal believed, was ignorance. Endeavoring to explain Filipino religiosity in an essay written in 1884, Rizal set his tone with a quotation from Cesar Cantu’s Historia Universal: ‘The common man…saw mystery in everything; and because of his ignorance, he deceived either himself or encouraged the impostures of others.” The fervent piety of the Filipino masses, Rizal elaborated, was rooted not in deep understanding, reflection and knowledge but in ignorance.
For Rizal, Filipino religious devotion was rooted in superstition, indoctrination, and blind acceptance. It dulled the people’s minds and perpetuated their enslavement. Worse still, combined with a desperate desire to atone for guilt and to placate a deity whom the priests portrayed as vengeful and merciless, religious devotion made people passive to tyranny.
Rizal’s argument was driven by his own ideal of Christian religiosity as a reasoned and reflective faithfulness. Catholicism, he wrote, professed many beliefs and aspirations that were good and decent, but in the Philippines the friars had debased its ‘holy doctrine.’
The ignorant and unthinking masses, in Rizal’s somewhat patrician view, also merited a share of the blame for the degeneration of the faith into dogmatism, ritual and superstition because they never directly questioned friar teachings. It never occurred to anyone, he regretted, “to inquire about the origin of God or His purpose”. Ordinary Filipinos were simple and gullible in their religiosity, unable to distinguish between truth and deception. Novenas and prayers were parroted in Latin or Spanish, obsessively recited by sleepy or distracted minds that understood little of their meaning.
Rizal conceded that the blame for the mental indolence of the masses rested largely with the friars and the dire education system. But the masses themselves, he evidently believed, were also culpable, for they suffered from an acute inability to think independently and rationally. Quite often, he lamented,” ‘their intelligence cannot grasp the true meaning of Christian doctrines” and so ‘they kneel down instead of inquiring and examining their beliefs.”
Whether propagandists such as Rizal were writing from a politically reformist or separatist stance with regard to Spanish colonialism, the main thrust of their critique was consistent: clerical rule, or ‘monastic supremacy’, was keeping the Philippines mired in backwardness, poverty and ignorance.
Graciano López Jaena grasped an even more basic condition. “The conflict between friars and Filipinos,” he wrote, was not fundamentally about religion or nationalism. It was “a struggle for life, for survival; one side defending exploitation, the other fighting for their right to lead a modern life, to lead a free life, to lead a democratic life.”