MOST Filipinos who’ve gone to high school or who’re in college know who the “Damaso” in Carlos Celdran’s streamer was, because of Republic Act 1425, the Rizal Law, which requires the teaching of the life and works of Jose Rizal in all Philippine schools, colleges and universities.

Intramuros tour guide Celdran held up his streamer during a mass at the Manila Cathedral while shouting that the Church should keep out of politics. The Catholic Church has ratcheted up its opposition to any reproductive health bill in response to the support for whatever means of family planning couples prefer that President Benigno Aquino III expressed during his US visit. Church spokespersons have threatened to call for civil disobedience among the faithful and at one point suggested that Mr. Aquino could be excommunicated for indirectly supporting abortion.

In none of the versions of the RH bill that have been proposed is abortion listed among the legitimate means of contraception, abortion being illegal, though nevertheless performed in the back alleys of this Catholic land by midwives armed with wire hangers. But the Church argues that all artificial methods of contraception are abortifacient, and that, therefore, the use of such means (e.g., condoms) is a sin in furtherance of “a culture of death.”

The inability of poor parents to care for their children, and the toll on women’s lives and welfare of perennial pregnancies, are even more contributory to such a culture. The evidence is in practically every intersection where children beg for coins and even sell themselves, and in the Philippines’ having one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in Asia. But the Church will not be moved. Historically it has encouraged large families, and Church doctrine says the faithful must heed Church teachings rather than their own judgment in most matters.

What have these to do with “Damaso”? Damaso, or Padre Damaso to be more precise, was the Franciscan friar in Rizal’s Noli me Tangere (Touch Me Not), who, in addition to fathering Maria Clara by raping her mother Dona Pia, also persecuted the enlightened father of Crisostomo Ibarra and refused him burial in the Catholic cemetery of his hometown. He also had Ibarra excommunicated and declared a subversive, forcing him to leave the country.

Maria Clara’s rapist, the sinister Padre Salvi, comes close, but Padre Damaso is the arch-villain of the Noli, who’s symbolic of the greed, arrogance of power, brutality and hypocrisy of friar rule. There are still Padre Damasos all over the world, among them those who abuse children. It’s safe to say the Philippines still has its fair share of his reincarnations.

The unexpurgated versions of the Noli and its sequel El Filibusterismo (Subversion) are required reading today in Philippine colleges and universities, while the expurgated versions are allowed in high school. But in keeping with its devotion to protecting the faithful from the facts, in the 1950s the Catholic Church opposed RA 1425, and threatened to close down all its schools if the bill passed.

The bill’s sponsors, Senators Claro M. Recto and Jose P. Laurel, called its bluff. They knew that the hierarchy could not turn its back on the huge profits the Church made from the operations of its Philippine schools, which, among other factors, had made the Manila archdiocese one of the wealthiest in the world.

The bill passed despite the opposition of the Church and its surrogates in both houses of Congress, but the life and works of Rizal were, and probably still are, taught in certain Catholic schools with a great deal of historical and literary revisionism, among others being the claim that Rizal died a Catholic, having repudiated free masonry before he was executed for writing the Noli and the Fili and supposedly contributing to the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution.

Flinging the word “Damaso” on the faces of the eminences of the Catholic Church just about sums up current outrage over the Church’s opposition to artificial means of family planning that has been a major factor in the high population growth rate of 2.2 percent per year, which if it continues will double the current population to 200 million within 50 years. But the insult won’t necessarily lead to the passage of any of the six RH bills now in the House.

Some of those who oppose the passage of an RH law argue that family planning is an imperialist plot to keep the populations of poor countries down so they can’t raise the numbers to rebel. It may very well be. But as imperialist plots go it’s not been very successful, the evidence being the high birth rate — which has failed, anyway, to provide the 100,000 guerillas needed to overthrow the neo-colonial order.

What the high birth rate does instead is wreak havoc on women’s health, and bring children into this vale of tears so they can die early. Most Filipinos know this, which is why, despite Catholic doctrine, they favor a government policy to curb the country’s scandalously high population growth. The surveys on the subject may show support for such a policy, but the politicians have to be convinced that not only is it in their interest to support an RH law, the power of the Church to bend the state to its will also passed into the age of Legaspi over a hundred years ago.

This has nothing to do with faith, and everything to do with the fact that the Church has no business interfering with governance and politics in behalf of causes that in the Philippine context are not only obscurantist but also anti-human. It can and must raise its voice in concert with that of the faithful who’re fighting injustice, mass misery, ignorance and the many other ills Filipino flesh is heir to if it is to be relevant in a world entirely different from what the evil Damaso knew. But in the making of a state policy on reproductive health it must keep its counsel and hold its tongue, unless it wants the laity to remember its padres’ many sins and the churches to empty.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *