Rizal course 1956: Reproductive health 2011

By Elizabeth Angsioco

‘‘The church always wins,” said Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales. This statement speaks volumes about how powerful the Catholic hierarchy regards itself to be. History, however, proves this statement as UNTRUE.

In 1956, Catholic bishops vehemently opposed the passage of Senate Bill 438: “An Act to Include in the Curricula of All Public and Private Schools, Colleges and Universities Courses on the Life, Works, and Writings of Jose Rizal, particularly his Novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Authorizing the Printing, and Distribution Thereof…” authored by Senators Jose B. Laurel Sr., and Claro M. Recto. This was approved by the House and Senate on 17 May 1956, and signed into law as Republic Act 1425 by then President Ramon Magsaysay on 12 June of the same year. The Catholic hierarchy LOST.

This piece is inspired by a tweet from Dean Jorge Bocobo with a link ( to a very interesting May 1956 article by Teodoro M. Locsin entitled “The Church under attack.” Anthropologist Michael Tan in 2009 also wrote an informative column based on “The Controversial Rizal Bill,” an article from the December 1956 issue of Rizaliana magazine. Both articles carried accounts of how the Catholic Church miserably lost in its fight against the “Rizal bill.”

Reading these left me dumbfounded but inspired. I was amazed at the striking similarities between the struggles for the Rizal and RH bills. They have one common enemy: the Catholic hierarchy, which, after 55 years, has not budged an inch. It uses the same tactics, the same arguments.

Like reproductive health, the Rizal bill was quite controversial too. It polarized Congress. The protagonists were some of the most illustrious names in Philippine politics. At the Senate, defending the bill besides Laurel and Recto were Senators Lorenzo Tanada, Quintin Paredes, and Domocao Alonto. Those fiercely opposed were Senators Francisco Rodrigo (who ran and won as a Catholic candidate), Decoroso Rosales (brother of the then Archbishop, and perhaps was related to the present Archbishop Rosales) and Mariano Cuenco.

At the House of Representatives, identified players were Cebu Representatives Pedro Lopez and Ramon Durano, and Pampanga Representative Emilio Cortez. Lopez favored the Rizal bill while the positions of the last two were unclear. They were mentioned because their passionate debate ended in a fist fight.

Like in the RH bill, personalities and organizations were likewise divided. Then Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson and General Emilio Aguinaldo stood for the Rizal bill, with groups like College Editors’ Guild, the Knights of Rizal, Women Writers of the Vernacular, Philippine Public School Teachers’ Association, and Philippine Veterans Legion.

Oppositors were the Catholic Action of the Philippines, Holy Name Society of the Philippines, Legion of Mary, Knights of Columbus, and Daughters of Isabela which were obviously closely allied with the church.

The parallelism does not end there.

The bishops issued a pastoral letter against the Rizal bill as they recently did on RH. The bishops said that Rizal’s works violated Catholic canon law and accused Rizal of having attacked various Church dogmas and practices. All these sound very familiar 55 years after. Only, now the bishops rant against the RH bill.

In 1956, Bacolod City Bishop Manuel Yap threatened to campaign against politicians favoring the Rizal bill in the following elections. Haven’t we heard the exact same threat from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines against pro-RH politicians?

Mayor Lacson called those against the Rizal bill “bigoted and intolerant.” He also walked out of mass when the pastoral letter was about to be read. Now, we hear the same words hurled against the CBCP and walk outs from Sunday masses are getting common.

General Aguinaldo was equally passionate. He attacked Filipino priests, saying that the influence of the Spanish friars was still present and insisted on the separation of church and state. Isn’t this similar to Carlos Celdran’s “Damaso” protest and the call for the church to stop meddling in politics?

In Congress, Cebu Representative Lopez also hit the hierarchy for its temerity to impose on a Congressional committee what books should be banned in schools. I can almost hear anti-RH groups’ familiar line in committee hearings that only natural family planning should be allowed by law and the rest should be illegal.

Senator Laurel walked out from a hearing in protest of “filibustering” by those against the Rizal bill. While RH champions have not walked out, filibustering and endless questioning are delaying tactics used by opposing lawmakers like Roilo Golez and Karlo Nograles.

Senator Rosales said the church would rather close down its more than 600 schools than allow Catholic students to read Rizal. Senator Recto doubted they would do this because of the huge profits church got from the schools. Recto also countered that the schools would be nationalized if closed down. Such threats made by politicians on behalf of bishops sound quite similar with how anti-RH lawmakers “represent” the CBCP in Congress now.

Senator Rodrigo, in going against the Rizal bill said that “the purpose of this bill was to put President Magsaysay in a very tight spot.” He asserted that whatever Magsaysay would do, he would displease some groups. Using a popular president is a tactic we’ve also seen. Representative Anthony Golez in one RH Committee hearing said that President Aquino should be careful in his positioning because he might be impeached due to RH.

Rodrigo also said that a Catholic could get permission to read Rizal’s books if the church thought that doing so would not shake one’s faith. This sounds eerily similar to the “no prescription, no condom” ordinance of Barangay Ayala Alabang!

These happened 55 years ago, yet the tactics and arguments used by the Catholic hierarchy remain. The only difference is the bishops now employ these against the RH bill.

The bishops lost in 1956. Given the present context where citizens openly speak up against the church and demand accountability from legislators, where more lawmakers are openly championing the bill and media continues to cover the issue. The CBCP may be facing another DEFEAT.

Rizal course 1956: Reproductive Health 2011,” is republished with permission from Elizabeth Angsioco