Column: Rizal in the Catholic Encyclopedia

“Rizal, hidden in plain sight.” Published on June 4, 2013.

The first Catholic Encyclopedia was published about a hundred years ago; preserved inside this monumental work, like fossil in amber, is an unlikely and dated entry on Jose Rizal. Make that “carbon-dated.” The errors and emphases of this 1912 entry allow us a close, specific look at a particular era, when Catholic Americans in the Philippines had all but rationalized the national hero as one of their own.

The encyclopedia was a milestone in Catholic apologetics; it remains a favorite of many. The first edition in particular, published in 16 volumes (including index) between 1905 and 1914, has its online fans; two versions of this landmark reference available online are worth noting. The New Advent is a lovingly crowdsourced version started by Kevin Knight; the Original Catholic Encyclopedia is a massive scan done by the valiant apologists at Catholic Answers.

The five-man board of New York-based editors (and they were all men) introduced their ambitious undertaking in a vigorous prospectus: “The Catholic Encyclopedia, as its name implies, proposes to give its readers full and authoritative information on the entire cycle of Catholic interests, action and doctrine.” But the encyclopedia was also small-c catholic: “On the other hand, it is not exclusively a church Encyclopedia, nor is it limited to the ecclesiastical sciences and the doings of churchmen. It records all that Catholics have done, not only in behalf of charity and morals, but also for the intellectual and artistic development of mankind. It chronicles what Catholic artists, educators, poets, scientists and men of action have achieved in their several provinces. In this respect it differs from most other Catholic Encyclopedias.”

It must have been this breadth of scope that led the editors to assign almost an entire printed page to Jose Mercado Rizal: “Filipino hero, physician, poet, novelist, and sculptor; b. at Calamba, Province of La Laguna, Luzon, 19 June, 1861; d. at Manila, 30 December, 1896.”

The entry was one of seven Philippine-related subjects written by Philip M. Finegan, an American Jesuit identified in the list of contributors as affiliated with the “College of the Ateneo, Manila: Philippine Islands.” (In his seven years in the Philippines, Finegan was also associated with the Bilibid State Prison and with the Manila Observatory.) The famous Observatory was another subject of Finegan’s; his other entries were on the archdiocese of Manila and its first archbishop, the Diocese of Zamboanga, an early Jesuit missionary and, not least, the Philippine Islands.

As a Jesuit based at the Ateneo, Finegan must have absorbed what may have been the institutional view of Ateneo’s most famous graduate at the time, in particular the supposed conversion popularized by the Spanish Jesuit Pablo Pastells.

Finegan wrote: “Rizal had given up the practice of his religion long years before. But now he gladly welcomed the ministrations of the Jesuit Fathers, his former professors, and he wrote a retraction of his errors and of Masonry in particular. On the morning of his execution he assisted at two Masses with great fervour, received Holy Communion and was married to an Irish half-caste girl from Hong-Kong with whom he had cohabited in Dapitan. Almost the last words he spoke were to the Jesuit who accompanied him: ‘My great pride, Father, has brought me here.’”

Trinidad Pardo de Tavera has—to my mind—convincingly debunked Pastells’ claims, especially the one repeated in Wenceslao Retana’s influential but misleading biography: the conversation no one else heard, which paints Rizal as the classic (and therefore easy-to-dismiss) stereotype, the mesticillo who had exceeded his grasp. At the time Finegan wrote on Rizal, however, Pardo de Tavera’s arguments had not yet been committed to writing.

Finegan’s entry contains crucial errors. Here is one that Americanizes the public esteem for Rizal. “30 December, the day of his execution, has been made a national holiday by the American Government and $50,000 appropriated for a monument to his memory; a new province, adjacent to Manila, is called Rizal; the two centavo postage stamp and two peso bill—the denominations in most common use—bear his picture.” But in fact, Rizal’s day of execution had been commemorated since 1897; at about the same time the American military forces in the Philippines were plotting against Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president declared Dec. 30, 1898 a holiday. And most of the money for the monument was raised through public subscription.

Another error rewrites Philippine history. “The year of his death was a year of great uprising in the Islands and feeling ran high. Whatever may be said about his sentence, its fulfillment was a political mistake.” This seems like astute political analysis, except for the absence of that-which-must-not-be-named. The “year of great uprising” was in fact the beginning of the Philippine Revolution, which transformed into the War against the Americans.

Not least, another error repeats the revolution-vs-reform fallacy. “Rizal, it is said, did not favour separation from Spain, nor the expulsion of the friars. Nor did he wish to accomplish his ends—reforms in the Government—by revolutionary methods, but by the education of his countrymen and their formation to habits of industry.” But in the context of Rizal’s own time, and in the view of Pastells himself, there was no difference between revolutionary or reformist. Rizal, simply put, was a filibustero, a subversive.

It would take another generation of Jesuit scholars to bring the Rizal story fully up to date.

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