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Why Did the Catholic Church Staunchly Oppose the Rizal Law? 

Thankfully, reason won in the protracted battle between the State and the Church. 
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Can you imagine what school would be like if it didn’t teach anything about Jose Rizal and his novels? That’s exactly what would have happened if the Catholic Church triumphed over Senator Claro M. Recto more than 60 years ago.

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What is the Rizal Law?

In 1955, the good statesman Senator Claro M. Recto proposed that all schools in the Philippines teach students about the life and works of Jose Rizal. In 1956, the bill was passed and is now known as Republic Act 1425, or Rizal Law. The official title of the law is much longer: 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, and for Other Purposes.

Because of that law, “Rizal” is a required subject in most colleges in the Philippines. 

The Catholic Church Against Rizal Law and Senator Claro M. Recto

When the Catholic Church in the Philippines found out about Recto’s bill, it mobilized its forces to prevent the bill from becoming law. Ironically, almost 70 years after the publication of Noli Me Tangere, the Church still viewed Rizal’s novels as blasphemous. The Catholic Church of 120 years ago used the same influence in preventing the novels to be read by Filipinos. 

No less than Manila Archbishop Rufino Santos penned an impassioned pastoral letter protesting the bill. It was read in all masses in the country, much to the ire of then Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, who allegedly walked out of the mass when he heard the pastoral letter being read. Lacson was one of the most vocal supporters of the Rizal Bill.

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In his pastoral letter, Archbishop Santos argued that the compulsory reading of the original versions of Rizal’s novels would negatively affect students.

Those who opposed the Rizal Bill painted Recto as communist and anti-Catholic. According to Abinales and Amoroso (2005), the Church feared the bill would violate freedom of conscience and religion.

Mobilizing Church Groups Against Recto and the Rizal Bill

A coalescence of religious groups within the church rallied to block the passage of the bill in the Senate.

Among the most active groups that opposed the Rizal Bill were the Catholic Action of the Philippines, the Knights of Columbus, the Congregation of the Mission, and the Catholic Teachers Guild. 

The Catholic Church urged its faithful to write to lawmakers to make their opposition to the bill known. Catholic groups organized symposiums on why it should not become law.

In one of these symposiums, Fr. Jesus Cavanna allegedly argued the novels would misrepresent current conditions in the church. Cavanna was the author of the book, Rizal's Unfading Glory: A Documentary History of the Conversion of Dr. José Rizal, published in 1956 after the passage of the Rizal Law. The book details Jose Rizal’s conversion to Catholicism.

Catholic Schools Opposed the Rizal Law, Threatened to Close Down

It was not only church groups and clergy who vehemently opposed the Rizal Bill. Catholic schools around the country banded together in opposition to the Rizal Bill. 

It came to a point when a number of Catholic schools threatened to close down if the Rizal Bill became law. Senator Recto responded by saying the government would simply take over the administration of these schools if they closed, and nationalize them. 

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“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,” Recto said. 

Compromise Between the Catholic Church and the Sponsors of the Rizal Bill

The Rizal Bill only became the Rizal Law after a compromise between the Catholic Church and the legislators was reached. 

The legislators, especially Recto, agreed to the condition of watering down the morally offensive parts of Rizal’s novels before they were taught to schools. They called it the expurgated versions. Further, it was agreed that only colleges and universities would teach these materials to their students. 

The Rizal Law was enacted on June 12, 1956, coinciding with the Philippines’ Independence Day.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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