Column: Rizal as Catholic

Published on December 30, 2014.

The mature form of Rizal’s thinking on the Catholic religion can be found in his correspondence with a former Jesuit teacher. Written in his Dapitan exile between September 1892 and the middle of 1893, the five letters addressed to Fr. Pablo Pastells, SJ, are Rizal’s attempt to examine “what little has been left to me by the shipwreck of faith”—that last phrase an allusion to a remark from yet another Jesuit mentor.

What exactly was left? Not enough by the standards of his day; a surprisingly robust amount, by today’s measure. He was no longer a practicing Catholic, but remained very much a cultural one. (I believe this is why he ridiculed the notion, repeated by Pastells in one letter, that he had become a Protestant. Part of this cultural Catholicism was precisely the religion’s embrace of reason. To appropriate a quote from a third Jesuit writing two generations after Rizal: Catholicism “was a reasonable faith.”)

The following excerpts (from Dr. Robert Yoder’s excellent online resource, now maintained by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) paint a vivid picture:

He was no atheist. He believed in God, as the absolute, the infinite. “We call Him God, but this only recalls the Latin Deus, the Greek Zeus at most. What is He? I would attribute to him all the beautiful and holy qualities that my mind can conceive in infinite degree, if the fear of my ignorance did not restrain me. Someone has said that each man forms his God according to his image and likeness … Notwithstanding, I dare to believe Him infinitely wise, powerful, good. My idea of the infinite is imperfect and confused on seeing His wonderful works, the order that prevails among them, their magnificence and overwhelming extent, and the goodness that shines in everything.”

As that last passage tells us, he also believed in creation as revelation. “I believe in Revelation, but in that living revelation of Nature that surrounds us everywhere, in that mighty voice, eternal, incessant, incorruptible, clear, distinct, universal like the Being from which it emanates, in that revelation that speaks to us and penetrates into us from the time we are born until we die. What books can reveal to us better the goodness of God, His love, His providence, His eternity, His glory, His wisdom? Coeli enarrant gloriam Domini et opera manum ejus anuntiat firmamentum. [‘The heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord and the firmament announces the work of his hands.’] What more Bible and what more Gospel does mankind want?”

He also believed in a special place in human history for the Catholic Church, but could not agree that it was infallible. “It is a more perfect institution than the rest, but human in the end, with the defects, the errors, and the vicissitudes proper to the works of men. It is wiser, more skillfully conducted than many other religions as the direct heir of the political sciences, religions, and arts of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It has its foundation in the heart of the people, in the imagination of the multitude, and in the affection of woman; but like all religions it has its obscure points that are clothed with the name of mysteries …”

He believed in tradition—not in a sacred one, but in something closer to an ancient literary legacy. (This was something his nation-in-the-making lacked, and which he sought to fill.) “But I do not mean by this that I completely disregard what the sacred books, religious precepts, and religious dogmas have to say. On the contrary, these books are, in the final analysis, the insights of men and whole generations put down in writing, the knowledge of the past on which the future is built. Most of these religious precepts are condensations or formulations of the precepts of the natural law; as such, they are for me God’s word.”

Above all, he believed in reason, and the good works, the civilizing touches, the dynamic transformations, that are the fruits of reason. “Therefore in the light of the knowledge of the past and present, I weigh things, try to determine their causes and the finality of their activity, and strive to follow the direction they take. I see in everyone an inborn desire to know; I see the world outside full of colors, qualities and incentives that nourish this desire; I see misery as the chastisement of ignorance, well-being as the prize of knowledge. And I come to the conclusion from my humble reasoning that the Creator desires man to perfect himself by growing in knowledge. Reflecting on the mysterious sentiment of sympathy, its dynamism and transformations, I become aware of the impulse that commands us to love one another, and I take as God’s word the religious command that everyone must love the neighbor as himself.”

Rizal never lived into the 20th century, where many millions of people were systematically slaughtered in battlefield and concentration camp, in gulag and commune, all in the name of reason. His paean to reason has all the innocence, the un-ironic faith in progress and the light of knowledge, of the 19th.

Throughout his life, Rizal was assailed by dark thoughts: ominous dreams, mysterious partings, anticipations of death. I find it poignant that he never invested his idea of religion with those forbidding darknesses—which we can categorize as the sense of sin, or the inevitability of suffering—without which the reason for religion disappears. The hero’s mature idea of religion was like Christmas (his favorite season of the year) without need for Lent.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion, Readings in Rizal

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