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Passion For Reason
The intense debate on the Rizal Law

By Raul Pangalangan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:35:00 12/31/2010

Filed Under: Jose Rizal, Laws, Legislation

SOME COLLEGE students may not be aware of it, but the Rizal course they are taking is actually required by law?and wow, these kids couldn?t have imagined how much debate that law generated in its time. The Rizal Law was passed in June 1956.

The language of the law itself already shows the signs of controversy: ?Section 1. Courses in the life, works and writings of Jose Rizal ? shall be [taught] in all schools ? public or private, Provided, That in collegiate courses, the original or unexpurgated editions of the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo or their English translation shall be used as basic texts.?

Read the rest of Section 1: Students may be ?exempt[ed] for reasons of religious belief stated in a sworn statement, from the requirement [to read the unexpurgated editions] but not from taking the course [itself].?

Section 2 is actually rather cryptic: ?It shall be obligatory on all schools, colleges and universities to keep in their libraries ? copies of the original and unexpurgated editions of the [Noli and Fili] or their translations in English ? shall be included in the list of approved books for required reading in all public or private schools ?.?

Now let us ask ourselves: Why this obsession with the ?original or unexpurgated editions?? What might otherwise be purged in the non-original editions? And why allow the original version only for college students? Why insulate high school students from the unexpurgated edition and restrict them to the innocuous version?

And why fine-tune further to allow the equivalent of a ?conscientious objector? status vis--vis the reading of a novel? Can you imagine that? Conscientious objectors usually object to going to war! How does reading a novel imperil one?s religious belief, on the same plane as risking life and limb in combat for an unjust cause?

Finally about the mysterious Section 2. Does it mean that schools would subvert the law simply by not stocking Rizal?s novels in their library shelves?

The debate over the Rizal bill was a showdown between the secular nationalists led by the two senators from Batangas, Claro M. Recto and Jose P. Laurel, and those who felt that Rizal?s writings undermined the Catholic Church, consisting of Francisco Rodrigo, Mariano J. Cuenco and Decoroso Rosales. The law aimed to revive patriotism by promoting the teachings of the national hero.

Quoting from Cuenco?s speech on the floor: Rizal ?attack[ed] dogmas, beliefs and practices of the Church. The assertion that Rizal limited himself to castigating undeserving priests and refrained from criticizing, ridiculing or putting in doubt dogmas of the Catholic Church, is absolutely gratuitous and misleading.?

Cuenco then proceeded to quote verbatim passages where Rizal heaped ?scorn? upon Catholic teaching on miracles, the sacraments, indulgences, the veneration of images. An example: ?Rizal [says] that the idea of Purgatory ?does not exist in the Old Testament or in the Gospels; that neither Moses nor Christ made the slightest mention of it; and that the early Christians did not believe in Purgatory.??

I?m no expert on religion and can?t tell who is right but, as a constitutional law teacher, I?m most troubled by Cuenco?s next argument: ?majority of the Members of this Chamber, if not all [including] our good friend, the gentleman from Sulu? believe in Purgatory. So much for the separation of Church and State.

The first irony for me personally is that I first studied the ?Noli? and ?Fili? in high school in my Filipino class, but read it in English since I read faster that way. Just imagine: The masterpieces by the national hero, written in Spanish, read in English and taught in Filipino?and all this to promote Filipino nationalism.

The second is that during the voting in Congress, the initial fence-sitters who eventually voted for the Rizal Law typically would: one, affirm their nationalism and admiration for Rizal; two, claim to be faithful to the Church and to their Catholic constituents; and three, say that the bill was a worthy compromise because it grants religious exemptions and limits the unexpurgated version to the college level. In other words, these were the saving clauses, so to speak, both politically (as in face-saving) and constitutionally.

The third is that the Rizal Law prevailed despite the pragmatic counter-offer that it was possible to advance nationalism without Rizal?s anti-clerical baggage, through edited anthologies of Rizal and of other heroes too. In other words, there were practical reasons to drop it altogether, but the principled reason for keeping it won the day. The Rizal Law was a political triumph of secular nationalism.

Finally, perhaps what really won the day was Jose Rizal the symbol. Not a single critic of the Rizal Law (at least based on the Congressional Records) dared impugn Rizal?s bona fides as a patriot. The demonization of Rizal would have to wait for the revisionist historians of the 1960s who would disparage him as the bourgeois compromiser. That was the state of the debate when I myself enrolled for the Rizal course in the late 1970s, and I?m glad to see that Rizal has weathered the herd thinking of that season with his stature undiminished.

I close the year with Rizal?s own words: ?[W]hile we see our own countrymen in private life ? hear roaring the voice of conscience [yet] in public life keep silent, to make a chorus with him who abuses to mock the abused; while we see them ? praising the most iniquitous deeds with forced smiles, begging with their eyes for a portion of the booty, why give them freedom? ? Why independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow??

(Comments to passionforreason@gmail. com)

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