Santo Papa Don’t Preach

On a stone triumphal arch in Asia’s oldest university, where my father went to school, hangs a plaque to the Filipino revolutionary José Rizal. Attending lectures there some years ago, I had a chance to witness this exquisite irony: José Rizal—the novelist who villainized Franciscan priests, the freethinker excommunicated by the Roman Church, the filibustero sent to death by Spanish inquisitors—cherished now as the national hero of Asia’s largest Catholic population. This, the same Rizal who was the enemy of the Church whose friars helped to plunder and to pounce upon the Filipino people. Much ink has been spilled in the long debate over whether or not, in the days before he faced the Spaniards’ muskets, the condemned Rizal recanted the vicious anti-clericalism that made him infamous in the empire. I side personally with not—if only since to accept his capitulation would be to castrate and to renounce the very spirit of the Philippine resistance.

In some regards, the history of the Philippine republic is its own renunciation. The Revolution lasted hardly two embattled years before devolving (or rather, being hijacked) into a proxy site of the Spanish-American War; thereupon the islands were less a liberated colony than a trophy prize of Yanqui imperialism. Then came the American-backed dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, squandering the islands’ wealth and collaborating in the U.S. reconquista of Southeast Asia. It is charming that Rizal, the enfant terrible of the Jesuits, should now stand watch on the archway of a university named for Thomas Aquinas; but I would like to think there is some link between Rizal’s old alma mater and that other Saint Thomas: the first skeptic and doubter in Christendom. After all, it was none else but Rizal who said—his immortal soul be damned—that “[a]ll the brilliant and subtle arguments of Your Reverence…cannot convince me that the Catholic Church is endowed with infallibility.”

"Sabulong" by Dante Hipolito

Well, call me old-fashioned, but I was a bit put off by the Philippines’ downright fawning on the arrival of His Infallibility, Mr Jorge Bergoglio. It is sinister enough for a country that can hardly order its own affairs to lavish millions on the visit of a foreign sovereign; yet there is something especially unsavory to see a postcolonial people grovel by the feet of former oppressors. “We’re waiting for Pope Francis so we can be blessed somehow. Even with just a wave, that’s OK for us”—does anyone else find this supremely self-abasing? Call me callous, but I was not moved by the sight of six million Filipinos braving piously the pitiless rain to see the papal mass: it seemed to me instead to be a rather opiated flock, gathering to prove their eternal serfdom to their European masters.

Historical memory is not the only thing insulted. “The pope is a human saint,” said one eager believer: “when we see him our problems go away.” One need not share in my mistrust of the miraculous to doubt the efficacy of papal visitation as a national panacea. What has His Holiness achieved to end the islands’ institutional corruption or structural inequities? Perhaps a decent sermon or two—but if we required a frocked and collared holy man to preach on problems we already knew, we are in a sorry state indeed. As it happens, Mr Bergoglio is the leader and the spokesman of an institution bent maniacally to keep the best remedy for poverty—reproductive rights—from those who need it most.

(As I write, the Filipino Church is still fuming over their failure to block the passage of the controversial Reproductive Health law, which ought really not to be controversial at all. It is also the institution whose pristine buildings stand erect among the decrepit and decaying shantytowns of Manila.)

So what we have is an ancient institution, one that profited from the plundering of the Philippines, come back to plunge the islands further into misery and disrepair. And here again is the Dear Leader, proclaiming that “one cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.” As if this were not bad enough, Mr Bergoglio has had the audacity to call the emancipation of homosexuality “ideological colonization,” a rather precious affirmation of backward rationality. When was the last time a Spanish-speaking holy man told the Filipinos what they can and cannot do or say? And here I thought the expulsion of European clerics was the whole point of the Revolution.


Perhaps the biggest and most insulting irony of all is that the record-breaking papal mass took place in a park consecrated to the memory of José Rizal, a man who stood against the hierarchies and dogmata of the Church that sold him out. I hope the presence in his monument of the novels Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo (the teaching of which in Filipino schools was opposed by the Catholic bureaucracy) supplied an ample contretemps to whatever dreary homily His Holiness delivered. But the best rebuttal to the Church’s relevance may have come from a waifish twelve-year-old girl, pondering her past career as a premature street beggar: “Why is God allowing such things to happen, even if it is not the fault of the children?”

“She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer,” the pope readily confessed.

Ithaca, 2015.

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