Tuesday, January 29, 2013


In the first essay I have stated some of the reasons for coming up with a series regarding some of the dark myths about the Catholic Church. After some reflections, I’ve decided to direct what would hopefully be a series of reflections towards two main aims, as a response to the question as to why we need to get to the bottom of things with respect to this topic. The fundamental thing is to answer the question: what really happened? The first aim is apologetic, as could almost be directly deduced.  We hope that, in the process of getting down to the historical bottom of things, we would be able to unmask all of these myths and black legends, and thus be able to defend the Church.

But there is another motive for these series, which I believe is even more important, something to which we should be more attuned. It is my hope that with this series of essays, we may come in touch with the reality of the Church in the journey that she has made all throughout the two millennia of her existence. To get to know her history from the shadows that the perpetrators of these legends (either by malicious intent or through ignorance of the truth) is one important motive of this study. I would have to admit that this isn’t a normal arrangement in learning about the history of the Church, though learning it from this point of view is interesting nonetheless.

Thus getting to know what really happened, we may come to understand and learn to love the Church even more. This in my opinion are two important attitudes of any respectable Church historian: understanding and love for the Church.

Trying to understand is crucial. It is not for the student of history to judge history, because the historian is on one hand a mere student, no matter how many doctorates he may have accomplished. History, as the wise saying goes, is the teacher of life, and as the Lord himself would say, no student is greater than his master. History is best learned by trying to understand what really happened; by comprehending historical fact, always keeping in mind the historical context in which it took place. Deplorable is that easy mistake to judge an historical event from our present and modern way of thinking. to learn from the mistakes of the past is one thing; to judge the past with the present is another. And besides, to impart judgment isn’t the task of the historian; neither is it our task here. To get to know the historical context, how life was, how people thought during a particular time in history, and to see a particular issue within its proper context (for example, the Spanish Inquisition within the time of the Spanish Reconquista) form part of the methodology that I will use in these essays.

Another concerns the pursuit of the truth, an important part of which includes the acceptance of the fact that Christians have erred at one point or the other. Far from my mind is to come up with a white legend of the Church, which is a reaction to the black legends but from the opposite extreme. If the black legends try to caricaturize certain episodes in Church history, blowing things out of proportion, white legends idealize things, exaggerating facts in the bid to present a pristine and triumphalist image. One criteria that we would have to consider in the historical science is based on the fundamental doctrinal truth that while the Church is holy and immaculate, the spotless Bride of Christ, nevertheless in her bosom saints and sinners have lived together. The Church is not a mere human institution; it has its human element, otherwise there’s no sense of talking about the history of the Church. But one must not forget that she is of divine institution: she has that x-factor, so to speak, which could not have been received from this world. From this we would appreciate the fact that the Church is a mystery, living paradox: holy, yet composed of sinners; walking through history, yet escaping the clutches of time.

The study of the Church’s progress in history cannot be merely explained from a materialist, nor plainly political point of view, though they are helpful in allowing us to understand why things get to happen as they do. Without the essential element of divine providence, one could never understand the history of the Church. Reducing everything to mere politics, human interest and chance, the history of the Catholic Church would be incomprehensible, if one fact is left out: that it is part of the history of salvation, wherein God enters in conversation with man, and continually offers him salvation. It is a history of the evils men may commit, but more importantly it is also a history of grace and sanctity (which results when the offer of grace is accepted by man).

Only in getting to know the truth about the Catholic Church in its reality, deep within God’s loving plan of salvation, could one be actually led into a deeper love for the Church. It is only through this love—love is the deep appreciation of the goodness of the truth—that one can easily defend the Church. One can only defend with passion that which he loves.

With this, I would state that among the topics which I hope to discuss are the following: starting from the early Church, to the time of Constantine, the Middle Ages, the Inquisition, the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the pacification of the Philippines, Galileo, the Spanish friars during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines, and the silence of Pius XII. There may be other matters that I could think of in the future, but for the moment the present list is already quite ambitious in itself. 

Monday, January 28, 2013


The idea came to me during these last day of the long weekend we’ve just been enjoying, thanks to the celebration of the feast of Thomas Aquinas, a great philosopher and saint, which all Spanish universities—ecclesiastical or otherwise—honor by proclaiming it to be a no-class day. The reason for this traditional practice is based on the fact that this great medieval thinker has meant so much to the genesis and development of the university establishment (which properly has its roots in the Christian Middle Ages, though some say that Plato founded the first university, or at least something like it).

Anyway, the fact is these days Catholic bashing is becoming quite the thing, also in predominantly Catholic Philippines. The blows come used to come from some pretty radical Christian fundamentalists, the Iglesia de Cristo (who are not strictly Christians by the way; modern-day Arrians,  they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, which is a fundamental Christian doctrine) people who call themselves free-thinkers and those who feel the particular calling to go against any established institution, ecclesiastical or otherwise. But lately more people have stepped into the circle: people who have an axe to grind against the Church because of her solid stance against the RH bill, no converted into a law. The long exodus of this bill into being approved as a law in Philippines has resulted—among other things—in a fearsome, violent and dirty word-war, in which both sides (Church on one hand and the advocates of the bill and hangers-on in the other) are both to blame.

In the midst of the battle, characterized at times by hits below the belt, one of the choice weapons hurled against the Church were what we might properly call black legends. Understood within the word-war between Church and her opponents in the arena of public debate, these legends are basically taken from certain moments of bi-millenary Catholic history, accusations of the Church’s failure to be faithful to her mission to simply be Christian. These may include the horrors of the Inquisition and the unjust trial of Galileo.

The Black Legend, in a strict sense, refers to a style of historical writing or propaganda that demonizes the Conquistadores and in particular the Spanish Empire in a politically motivated attempt to incite animosity against Spain”; this definition was taken from what has become the most common reference source after the dictionary these days: Wikipedia (do people still consult the dictionary these days? Just wondering). Within the historical context in which these leyendas negras were born, Spain was a world power, and a catholic one at that. Perpetrators of black legends were generally the protestant nations of Europe. These legends were spawned in the hope of discrediting Spain, and hitting it where it mattered most: it’s identity as a catholic nation (not much of it now it isn’t).

Because of the largely catholic content that it contains, the black legend has extended itself to include other topics that do not properly refer to the Spanish empire, but are nevertheless Catholic. They range from the early persecutions of Christians in the second to the fourth centuries, the role of Constantine in shaping Christian role, down to the Inquisition to the Galileo case; the latest black legend to have been spread is about the famous silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust in World War II.

Nowadays, these are topics that still serve to discredit the Church. They are good missiles that are hurled now and then in the sphere of public debate to undermine the credibility of the Church’s voice and the legitimacy of her presence in the square of public opinion. But like all weapons, they are fatal. Weapons are already dangerous enough in the hands of trained men; in the hands of ignorant fools, weapons are made even more so, because they can also turn on their own handler (at least that’s one ignorant fool less for the world). The same is true with black legends.

Whenever people let by phrases in their arguments like “the dark Middle Ages” or “it’s the Inquisition all over again” or “like what the Church did with Galileo”, I begin to suspect how much they know about those things in the first place. One such example is the statement of Philippine senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who in 2011 said that Galileo was tortured by the Church for his beliefs. I could hear crickets chirping in the background.

Anyway, returning to the idea that I had, which I was raving about at the start, why not get straight to the facts? It’s not about exonerating churchmen from whatever wrong they might have done throughout the centuries (I’m sure there’s more than a bagful of that), but I believe it’s unfair to tag the Church with mistakes that she hadn’t committed in the first place.
Historical misconception and black legends are born not only because of ill will, but also due to oversimplification, as Fr. Gil Cañete, one of Palo’s most brilliant thinkers, had pointed out recently. A budding historian, I think it’s just right and just that I contribute to the education of others by studying these questions myself.

As such, I’ve been thinking of providing some points which may hope to clarify some of the things that public opinion may have left in the dark. What role did Constantine have in the Church after it went out of the catacombs? Was the Church really living in the catacombs during its infant stage? Is it really possible to talk about a medieval renaissance? Was the Inquisition really that cruel? What was at the bottom of the Galileo affair, and what part did the Church really have in it? These are merely some of the questions that I hope to answer in the following days and weeks, aided primarily by José Carlos Martín de la Hoz, renowned historian, who precisely wrote a book entitled Historia y leyendas de la Iglesia.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


As a weekend treat I decided to watch Les Miserables and see what all the fuss was all about. I was planning to watch it on the big screen but I’m sure the Spanish subtitles would ruin it for me, and so I had it through more unorthodox means (I’m sure don Javier Sesé would not approve, though I perfectly get his point that great movies ought to be seen in their original form, never through pirated copies. But some copies are as good as the original. I’m digressing).

The film adaptation of the musical was simply powerful. Everything was well-done, from the costumes, the cinematography, to the acting an the singing, and down to the meaning behind the movie. With this, I think I had just stated how one could judge the quality of a movie. It’s like a good glass of wine: you start evaluating it from that which is most evident (color, scent, taste, aftertaste). A good movie, like good wine, is certainly something to be enjoyed, starting from that which immediately appeals to the senses: the costumes, the colors, the shots (which are some important cinematographic elements), and then the acting, and finally, very much like an  aftertaste, the sense of it all. Some people like to watch movies that make them think less. The more senseless it is, the better (which is not bad if you’re not in the mood to think much, like, say, after an exam or after some really arduous intellectual exercise. For times like these, a good martial arts movie is recommendable: you don’t understand much of the dialogues, but the fight sequences simply rock). But a good movie always make you think afterwards; a really good movie makes you want to write down what you think of it.
I never knew that Sacha Baron Cohen, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman could sing well. Eddie Redmayne was a revelation; I saw him in Pillars of the Earth and I never suspected that he could sing really well. Russell Crow gave me the sensation that I was hearing him sing from the shower (no offense). Helena Bonham Carter was as she always was: superb (the other day I was watching the movie in which she first appeared, Room with a view, [1985] which is delectable). Colm Wilkinson gave a good performance as the Bishop who pardoned Jean Valjean and ushered him into a new life.

Aside from these things, the merit of the production is also in the message that it conveyed. The  1998 movie version (which starred Liam Neeson and the unforgettable Goeffrey Rush) was good enough in giving out the message about forgiveness and salvation, but this recent version of Victor Hugo´s masterpiece was even more powerful in its rendition on the message.

I think that the power of the production lies as well in its message: the power of forgiveness, on that is based on the discovery of the person’s worth, a discovery that is only possible if such a discovery is based on love. Basically, as the scene of Valjean inside the church (soon after the theft of the Bishop’s silver and his forgiveness by the same), we could say that forgiveness consists in telling one that he has a soul to be saved. “He told me that I had a soul”, Valjean says in his monologue. The realization of the fact that there is more to me than flesh and blood, that I am valued also because of that touch of the divine that I have within me, is one powerful reason why I, as a person, need to open myself to the power of forgiveness. It is only in forgiving and in the experience of being forgiven that the gates of salvation are held wide open for us.

For Valjean, at least, this is what happens. The Bishop was instrumental in Valjean being able to see the loving face of God. The perception of God is another theme in this movie.  This is perceived in the personal story of Fantine and of Javert. Javert, a man hardened by the his experience of life, and who would be invoking God in his mission to promote hard justice in his police work, saw God as pure justice (something which would remind me of another figure, historical this time: Martin Luther). In a similar way, touched by misfortune and the exploitative cruelty of the reality of her life, Fantine would sing “I dreamed that God would be forgiving”. These were the words which actually made tears roll down my cheeks (yes, there were times that the screen blurred up a bit for me when I watched the movie), and made me think. Hard times, bad experiences would have a hand in making us come up with a blurred image of God, but most of the time, men are at fault in discrediting God before others. We may be sometimes at fault, because, in coming up with a God fashioned out of our own narrow and vengeful image and likeness, we rob people of the chance to approach the doors of salvation. The tears of Fantine (who later discovers that God was forgiving after all, thanks to the selfless love of Valjean) and the hardness of Javert (who could not believe that forgiveness was possible, even when it was offered to him) bring home to us a lesson: one cannot call himself a child of God if he does not know how to forgive, nor ask for forgiveness. As he lay dying, Valjean’s last words were these: “forgive me of my trespasses, and bring me to your glory”. God cannot be separated from the fact that he forgives. When a person forgives, he shows himself a worthy child of his Father in heaven. God is a God who forgives!

And because God forgives, he saves. Salvation is another great theme. It is shown in how the forgiveness shown by the Bishop to Valjean opens something up in the latter: the door to change. When evil enters a person’s heart, it closes it. Bitterness takes up residence in it, later to be joined by despair of ever being saved. But forgiveness opens the heart that has been immersed in evil and despair (provided that the heart lets itself be touched), and sets it on the first step to salvation: change. This transformation has love as its touchstone, and this is not surprising, because the prime motor of forgiveness is love itself. When Valjean finds himself forgiven, he finds himself capable of loving others as well. In doing so, he becomes instrumental in their own salvation. In this work of salvation, the figure of the Bishop is key. This was one thing I appreciated in the production. Aren’t we just tired of seeing the Church and her pastors in a bad light? Here we see a man of God actually being a man of God, somebody who touches hearts, opening them, and allowing the grace of God enter them. Here is a man of God—a bishop—who preaches forgiveness while not afraid of condemning the evil of sin, sin which is something better left behind:  “There’s a bed to rest till morning, rest from pain, and rest from wrong”, the Bishop says, inviting the escaped parolee to accept what this servant of God had to share.

Finally, this salvation is one that leads to freedom. The last scene is just stunning, because of the significance that it houses. After a life of trying to counter hatred with love, and with the generous sacrifice that it entails, Valjean finally dies, realizing that in loving, one sees the face of God. We are led to realize that love is the first step towards the ultimate freedom that we hope to get in the end. We realize that the ultimate freedom is the freedom to love, a freedom that only God can give. This is a freedom that matures in heaven, in God’s embrace. Chains and the threats of evil cannot imperil this freedom based on love, and so in the end, one has the sensation that Valjean, in his struggle to love and be loved, was free all along. This love that comes from God and shines in the midst of the darkness of this life, as it is enshrined in the heart that has experienced divine pardon—and forgives in return—will see the dawn of a day that never ends, as the words of the final song suggests: “Even the darkest night will end when the sun will rise”. Love will always allow us to look on with eyes filled with hope to the ultimate accomplishment of this freedom.

Forgiveness. Salvation. Freedom. Hope. Love. Like a good glass of wine, these are the things that made me left thinking deep, and have left me with a good hangover. Not only has the movie brought out the best in me as a writer at this point (it has allowed me to express myself in more than 1,500 words), but it has also helped me enter deeply in conversation with God, one who always makes us remember the truth that once was spoken: “to love and love a person is to see the face of God”.