PH church history and ‘subversive memory’ | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

PH church history and ‘subversive memory’

As Filipinos begin a year-long commemoration of the coming of Christianity to the Philippines 500 years ago, it behooves us to get familiar with what are not commonly read in history books. It is not enough to know, as we did in school, that the Spaniards came with the sword and the cross.

There is much to know about how colonial history unfolded and how Christianity was implanted, making the Philippines the only country in Asia with a majority Christian population. But these historical facts were written by the conquistadores. The stories of and about the vanquished or the colonized are not included in official history. Or they remain in the archives, there to gather dust for centuries.


After Benedictine Sr. Mary John Mananzan got a grant to do research on the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines from the people’s perspective, she set off for the Archivo General de Indias, the Valladolid archives, and the national library in Spain, as well as the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico.

The result was Mananzan’s fifth book, “Sha-dows of Light: Philippine Church History Under Spain, A People’s Perspective,” published in 2016.


A former prioress, Mananzan is a known feminist theologian. She is cochair of the Office of Women and Gender Concerns of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines. A much-sought-after speaker on issues related to women, gender, theology, and history, Mananzan is in the forefront of the feminist movement in the Philippines.

I sat down with Mananzan to pick her brain.

What can this book add to our understanding of our Catholic faith as introduced by the Spanish colonizers?

It will help us understand why we have what Jesuit Fr. Jaime Bulatao calls “split-level Christianity.” Why we are steeped in the kumpare [patronage] system, the lusot [getting away with it] mentality, our colonial mentality, and our chronic failure in being a church of the poor. It will help us appreciate the efforts of the early missionaries in spite of the mistakes and abuses of both the secular and religious authorities at that time.

What can Filipino missionaries in foreign lands learn from our experience?

We should have a profound respect for the culture of the people and not demonize it. These days, we should not do direct conversion or proselytize but just share the person of Christ and his teachings without too much dogmatic and moralistic preaching.

Why the title? What do you mean by “people’s perspective”?


“Shadows of Light”—the light is Christianity and the shadows are the negative aspects of Christianity introduced in the context of colonization. “A people’s perspective” because I tried to see the events from the point of view of the colonized rather than from the colonizer. So I included the resistance of the people to conversion in many parts of the islands. I discussed the oppressive policies like forced labor, discrimination of the native clergy, domestication of the mujer indigena [the native women]. I discussed the injustice of the colonization itself and the abuses of the religious orders, such as land-grabbing and persecution of the babaylans [the priestesses and healers].

Is the subject of history ever final?

History is not a photo of a reality, but a choice of what one considers significant. Many things happen at any given time in history. Men most often focus on wars and conflicts. Their heroes are, of course, soldiers, warriors, etc. Women would include culture, the daily lives of people, etc. The colonial masters would focus on their victories. People dwell on their oppression, sufferings, and the injustices.

You saved the best for the last chapter: the topic of mujer indigena, the native woman, her status in pre-Spanish society, during and after. Will the negative imprints of history on Filipino women dissipate?It is already happening. We insist that our feminism is not a copy of the West’s but is the recalling of our dangerous, subversive memory of our original equality. We have to acknowledge the gains that have been made by our women’s movement, the awakening of gender consciousness as shown by our many laws favoring women. We have to acknowledge the militancy and effectiveness of our women’s organizations in championing the causes of women, the victims of rape or human trafficking, etc. We still have a long way to go, but we have gone quite far, I think.

What is it about our indigenous pagan heritage as Filipino women that we must take back, own, appreciate, and live out?

We have to take back our original gender equality, which stems from the lack or absence of the concept of a virginity cult among our foreparents, which therefore made them treat boys and girls equally and not overprotect the girls. Dignity cannot be equated with virginity. We have to take back our status as spiritual leaders of our communities, like the babaylans, the main religious practitioners mediating our relationship with the spirit world. We have to take back our foremothers’ active role not only in the home, but also in society and in commerce.

Should it worry the church if Filipino women try to go back to our roots?

No, the church should, in fact, work on getting rid of its patriarchal values and structures. It will then become a more compassionate, more Christ-like church. And maybe by reclaiming what we have lost, we will contribute to the de-patriarchalizing of our church. In the book, I noted with emphasis that the Filipino woman has somehow retained the subversive, dangerous memory of her original equality.

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