IN RESPONSE to the Bacolod diocese’s hanging up a streamer urging voters to reject those candidates for the Senate whom it referred to as “Team Patay” (The Death Team) for voting for the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10354), or the RH bill, a text message supposedly from a group called Buklod ng Malayang Pilipino (Unity of Free Filipinos) has accused five priests of the diocese of siring children.
Padre Damaso is widely and mistakenly assumed to be the arch-villain of Jose Rizal’s Noli me Tangere. But only when the debate on the Reproductive Health bill reached its weirdest heights in 2010 — one would think that everyone, even the Church, could agree on the need to provide people reproductive health information — was the name Damaso thrust into the consciousness of those Filipinos unfamiliar with the novels of Rizal and their characters.
The name was frequently mentioned in the mid-1950s when the bill mandating the inclusion of the works of Rizal in high school and college curricula was being debated — and vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church. Since the Rizal bill passed into law, it’s been generally assumed that the Philippine world the novels of Rizal reproduced was fairly close to the reality in his time, and that priests like Damaso did exist, and probably still do.
The renewed notoriety of Padre Damaso in 2010 was mostly the doing of Intramuros tour guide Carlos Celdran, who, to protest the Catholic Church’s opposition to the RH bill, held up a placard with the word “Damaso” on it during an ecumenical service at the Manila Cathedral.
But for the title of Most Evil Priest in the Noli, Damaso had at least one rival, the sinister, scheming and violent Padre Salvi, who attempted to have Crisostomo Ibarra killed, and who very likely raped Maria Clara. For most Filipinos who have heard the name, however, Damaso was the quintessential friar — a “Father” twice over, being both priest and biological father to the modest, unassuming, obedient and loyal woman who’s been assumed to be, again mistakenly, Rizal’s model Filipina.
Maria Clara being illegitimate as well as too weak to have a mind of her own, she could hardly have been Rizal’s ideal. Rather was she the symbol of the bastard culture that was the perverse product of the encounter between native culture and alien greed. That the latter was represented by a priest speaks volumes about Rizal’s insight into the role of the institutional Church in putting in place the victim culture exemplified by Maria Clara’s rape.
On the literal level, Padre Damaso’s fatherhood, Rizal was also saying, was not only contrary to the Church’s own proclaimed values. It was also the prime indicator of how badly damaged, damaging and hypocritical the Church had been, demanding among the faithful compliance with the highest moral standards while its own priests violate them with impunity.
At the core of the current, practically world-wide anger over pedophiliac and other erring priests is both outrage over that hypocrisy and what amounts to a double standard of morality. But there is also discontent over the Church’s centuries-old state of denial over the realities of human sexuality evident in the tradition of priestly celibacy and the focus on abstinence as the solution for everything from spacing births to avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS.
The Church has certainly had its share of priest-Lotharios and even popes. Among the latter and the most notorious was Alexander VI, who, it is true, is tagged an anti-Pope in Church history, but who nevertheless demonstrated in his time not only the hunger for the pleasures of the flesh whose reality the Church has been trying to deny for centuries, but also the lust for the temporal power that for a very long time led popes to build armies and forge political alliances.
In the Philippines, even the most devout will concede knowledge of this priest or that’s cohabitation, if not fatherhood. It’s the stuff of gossip in many communities, although it doesn’t stop the faithful from hearing mass from the same priest every Sunday. After all, as certain bishops proclaim, he has very likely “repented, and even reformed.”
But the tepid Church response to priestly indiscretion, as well as that of the faithful, is still proof positive not only of priestly power and status, but also of the compartmentalization in certain Catholic lives that allows the devout to steal and murder and rob from Monday to Saturday, while reserving Sundays for the observance of even the most fanatical devotion.
Some of the most devout Catholics have also been the most devout murderers and torturers. Nearly every crook and killer, human rights violator, kidnapper and rapist, jueteng and drug lord, was once a child celebrating his or her first communion, who as an adult still crosses him/herself when passing a Church, and goes to mass every Sunday.
But there are priests and priests as there are Catholics and Catholics, among whom there has been no lack of devotion to both Church and justice, to Catholicism and compassion, to change, even to revolution and all the other human virtues. To this category belong the priests, and not a few nuns as well, who gave their lives in defense of the poor and powerless during the martial law regime.
It was they rather than the bishops in their palaces who braved bullets and bayonets, torture and murder to defend the human person. In the remote communities today where State violence rules, they continue fighting, no matter the cost to their lives and fortunes, for the rights of the voiceless, for principled peace based on social justice, and for a better world. Unlike those modern day Damasos and Salvis whose claims to humanity are limited to admitting their moral weakness and the fathering of children, they are among the true fathers of this nation and its people.