The day the Catholic Church almost died

The day the Catholic Church almost died

The story of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, otherwise known as the Philippine Independent Church, also known as the Aglipayan church, is intertwined with the war of independence against Spain and the subsequent war of resistance against the United States of America.

A rebellion of the Filipino clergy against the Vatican at the turn of the 20th century triggered the birth of the independent church and threatened the very existence of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philipppines.

(Source: University of Michigan Digital Library)

The principal reason for this schism was hatred of the friars, which was also the primary cause of the Philippine revolution. When friars were captured by the Filipino rebels they were killed. The first three priests secured by Aguinaldo in his first battle were roasted on bamboo spits, smeared with oil and burned, and minced to pieces. Not a nice, civilized, or Christian thing for the natives to do, remarked an observer, but what deep-rooted hatred it displayed. (Percy Grant, 72)

Archbishop Bernardino Nozaleda of Manila, the titular head of the Philippine Roman Catholic church supported the friars and kept them in the parishes with the approval of the Pope, despite the persistent demand for their expulsion. The native Filipino clergy led by Fathers Gregorio Aglipay, Isidoro Perez, Panciano Manuel, Jose Evangelista, and Adriano Garces, actively agitated for the replacement of the friars by secular priests. Father Gregorio Aglipay also participated actively in the Philippine revolution and ultimately became the head of the schismatic church.

Archbishop Nozaleda did not show any sympathy for the plight of the people and the Filipino clergy in particular. When the 1896 Philippine revolution broke out, Nozaleda demanded that the Spanish authorities exterminate the Filipino rebels by “fire, sword, and wholesale executions. (Foreman, 365). But Governor General Ramon Blanco hesitated to take the offensive until reinforcement from the home government arrived. For his inaction, Blanco was replaced by Camilo G. de Polavieja through the intercession of Nozaleda.

The inclination of Nozaleda to use drastic means towards the Filipino natives was also exhibited in the incarceration and eventual execution of Dr. Jose Rizal. While in prison, Rizal was quoted as saying that if Archbishop Nozaleda’s sane view had been taken and Noli Me Tangere not preached against, he would not have been in prison, and perhaps the rebellion would never have occurred (Craig, 239).

However, when news came that Admiral Dewey’s fleet was sailing to Manila in May 1898, Nozaleda and the worried Governor General Basilio Agustin made a desperate and urgent appeal to the Filipino people to help the Spaniards drive the Americans out of the Islands. The Filipinos were told that the Americans would take away their liberties and enslave them; that this Protestant nation would destroy their churches and uproot Christianity. However, the Filipinos wavered because the false promises of the peace pact of Biac-na-Bato were still fresh in the Filipinos’ memory (Briggs, 71).

In desperation, Nozaleda sent an emissary to the rebel camp in Cavite to convince the Filipinos to take sides with the Spaniards with promises of reforms and positions for Filipino leaders in a proposed Spanish-sponsored autonomous government. The emissary was Father Gregorio Aglipay. But instead of convincing the rebels to join ranks with the Spaniards against the Americans, Father Aglipay became a strong adherent of the revolution and Aguinaldo eventually commissioned him as the First Chaplain and Vicar General of the Philippine Revolutionary Army. For his involvement in the revolution, Father Aglipay was excommunicated by an ecclessiastical tribunal that Archbishop Nozaleda convened in April 29, 1899.

The second phase of the Philippine revolution was marked by a succession of victories against the Spanish army by the better armed and organized Filipino army whose number rose to 30,000 men by end of June, 1898. With admiral Dewey in control of the bay and assisting Aguinaldo, the Filipino army took 9,000 Spanish prisoners and raised the Filipino flag in practically all towns and cities outside of Manila – Luzon, the Visayas and parts of Mindanao. The hated friars were taken prisoners and the property of the Catholic church – rich farm lands, church buildings and convents were confiscated by the Filipino government and used by the Filipino army. Several captured friars were even made household servants to the military and civilian officials of the Malolos government.

During the brief period of Filipino administration of the islands after the declaration of independence in June 1898 up to the capture of Aguinaldo in March 1901, the Filipino clergy was mandated to take over the parishes and fill the spiritual needs of the populace while the blessing of the Vatican was being secured. Aguinaldo designated Isabelo delos Reyes to this important mission – to intercede with the Pope for the appointment of Filipinos bishops. However, the papal delegate disdained the idea saying, “Not if all the friars are beheaded will Rome appoint Filipinos as bishops.“(Laubach[2], 71-72)

So, Isabelo de los Reyes returned to the Philippines in 1901, burning with indignation and determined to start a separate independent church.

After the fall of Manila to the Americans in August 13, 1898, Nozaleda fled to Shanghai and remained there until the Treaty of Paris was signed in December 10, 1898. During the treaty negotiations, the Vatican sent Bishop Placido L. Chapelle of New Orleans to Paris who adeptly maneuvered and lobbied to obtain concessions favorable to the Catholic church. The Americans, who did not want to antagonize the Pope, spared the Church from decimation by inserting Article VIII into the treaty which provided for the protection of Church properties and rights. The role of the Catholic church in the treaty negotiation is better described by Laubach, viz:

“Suddenly the friars abandoned the game of seeking Aglipay’s support and loudly announced themselves as pro American – for they had won a bigger game in Europe. Spain had signed the Treaty of Paris with the United States (December 10, 1898). It had been a defeat for Spain, but it was a victory of the friars, who outwitted the American Government. Archbishop Chapelle of New Orleans was present at the negotiations. He insisted that the United States should purchase the Islands for $20,000,000 while President McKinley insisted by cable that the United States should secure her title by conquest. The church having more at stake, persisted longer – and won. Technically therefore, the Philippines were purchased instead of being conquered and they were not purchased with a clear title. For article VIII says about the church property (which as already stated now constituted one tenth of the improved property of the Philippines), ‘The… cession… cannot in any respect impair the property rights.. of… ecclesiastical… bodies.’…” (Laubach, 130-131)

Upon his return to Manila, Archbishop Nozaleda suddenly announced that he was now pro-American.

As Aguinaldo’s loose alliance with the Americans against Spain turned into a war between the two former allies, Father Aglipay continued to serve the Filipino army in the war of resistance against the Americans. He helped recruit Ilocano guerrillas and persistently harassed American garrisons in the Ilocos region. Even after Aguinaldo’s capture in March, 1901, Father Aglipay continued the fight until he saw the hopelessness of the cause. He surrendered to the Americans in May 1898, took the oath of allegiance to the United States and returned to his calling in the Catholic Church, hoping for forgiveness from the Pope.

Meanwhile, de los Reyes made good his plan by establishing a church in July, 1901 and appointed Father Aglipay as its head. Father Aglipay publicly refused the appointment and disowned the movement. He and several other Filipino members of the clergy continued to fight for the removal of the friars from the parishes. However, Nozaleda and the newly arrived papal delegate, Bishop Chapelle, who was tasked by the Pope to resolve the complaints of the native clergy, sided with the friars.

Felipe Calderon mentioned two incidents that revealed the bias of the church hierarchy in favor of the friars and the religious corporations, as follows:

“We had, together with the apostolic delegate (Bishop Chapelle), organized a reception in one of the houses of the Calzada de San Miguel. I being a member of the committee on arrangements for that function. The house was sumptuously decorated and illuminated; among the decorations there were several transparencies with the name of Filipino bishops ad prominent Filipino priests, and on the front of the house there anchored between the lights the names of Burgos, Gomez, and Zamora. This reception was attended by large crowds among them the Archbishop of Manila (Nozaleda) and the provincials of nearly all the religious corporations, some of whom, by the way, carried big rattan canes, although they had come to a peaceful reception. After the reception, a group of residents of Tondo asked the Delegate to listen to an address of welcome to be pronounced by a young lady on behalf of the residents mentioned. Almost at the very beginning of the address, reference was made to the animosity of the Filipinos against the religious corporations, whereupon Mr. Chapelle told the young lady to stop. The people present became very excited, and shortly afterwards, without my knowing how it started, shouts of ‘Away with the friars!’ and ‘Death to Nozaleda!’ resounded throughout the room, to such an extent that General Otis, who was among the crowd, began to calm everybody. This was not all: when Mr. Nozaleda left the place, a number of people pursued him and several stones struck his carriage. The other incident occurred at a meeting of Filipino priests held at the residence of the Delegate, Mr. Chapelle, at which meeting the priests requested that their legitimate rights be recognized and that with regard to the matter of the parish priests, the common canonical law govern in the Philippine Islands, and not special laws by virtue of which the parishes in the Philippines are administered by members of the regular clergy. Mr. Chapelle disbanded the meeting in a manner anything but prudent and informed those present that he could not tolerate that such requests be made. In view of all these things and of the attitude of the apostolic delegate, who showed marked preference for the religious corporations, great excitement prevailed, not only among the Filipino clergy, but among the other Catholics, who saw that a break between the Delegate and the Archbishop on one side and the people and the clergy on the other was imminent.” (,KalawT[2], 632-633)

U.S. President Roosevelt, in an effort to diffuse the tense atmosphere of discontent, sent Governor General William Howard Taft to Vatican to negotiate with the Pope for the resolution of two thorny issues, namely: the purchase of the friar lands, and the removal of the friars from the parishes. The first issue was accomplished after paying a very handsome price, in the words of Felipe Calderon, “a large amount of money has left the Philippine islands and gone into the treasury of the religious corporations instead of remaining in the possession and being expended for the benefit of the Apostolic Catholic Roman Church” (KalawT[2], 635). But the second, the expulsion of the friars, was not successfully resolved. The Pope refused to remove the friars from the parishes. (Laubach, 140)

With the dismal news of Taft’s failure to secure the eviction of the friars, Father Aglipay saw it as a clear demonstration of the discrimination against the native priests and the futility of the struggle of the Filipino clergy. Accordingly, in a bold decision in October 17, 1902, Father Aglipay broke off with Rome and accepted the position of Obispo Maximo of the new church. His move created a stampede of priests and the faithful to the new church bringing with them the control of Catholic church properties.  Here is how an observer saw it:

“The excitement rose higher than it had been when Aglipay said his first mass. There was a landslide into the schismatic church. In Ilocos Norte only three priests remained true to Rome. All the Filipino priests on the Island of Panay, sixty in number, left the Catholic Church. The poor, the oppressed, and the radical, clamored for freedom. In general, the more the communities had been touched by unrest, the greater was the number of those who broke from Rome. Indeed Aglipay and his fellow bishops were swamped. The movement was one of the people even more than of the priests. In no case did a priest go into the new movement without the support of his congregation. In many instances parts of congregations broke away from the priest who refused to go with them. The new church was embarrassed for want of priests and bishops.” (Laubach, 144)

Unable to stave off the exodus of the faithful, Archbishop Nozaleda asked the government to intervene and “… demanded … that the churches be restored to their bishops by armed interference of the constabulary” (Barrows, 10). But the American-colonial government required the matter to take its way in the courts. And so the Aglipayan church retained possession of the Catholic Church properties under a policy of peaceable possession enunciated by Governor General Taft, which allowed the property to remain with the possessor, i.e., the Aglipayan Church, until the courts have decided on whose favor the properties should go.

The Aglipayan Church, was widely received all over the islands and enjoyed its highest mark in 1904. Riding on the crest of nationalism, the new church immediately gained adherents especially among the masses. One author describes the dramatic spread of the new church in this manner:

“A Filipino priest, Father Serrondo, at Pandacan, Manila, made some insulting references to Bishop Aglipay. When Father Serrondo came out of church he was assaulted by a mob of women. They tore his cassock in shreds, rolled him in the dirt, and let him go, glad to escape with his life. Members of the congregation sent for the new Archbishop Aglipay to come and say mass in the Pandacan church. This he did before a vast crowd. Two hundred irate women took their bedding and cooking utensils and slept in the churchyard to prevent the regular priest from again entering the building. Other churches invited Aglipay to use their building and the city was in a furor.”(Laubach, 142)

Before the exodus to the new church, there were about six or seven million Roman Catholics. After the religious upheaval only about one million remained with the Catholic Church. The newly arrived American Protestant missionaries, who thought of using the Aglipayan Church as a stepping stone, provided the new church with Protestant Bibles. The direction of the new Church was separation from the Vatican, thus:

“The schismatic church therefore bent its energies to inducing Filipino priests to abandon Rome. The great majority of priests hesitated for a time. Then they were almost stampeded into revolt by the arrival of a new Apostolic delegate to the Philippines, Monsignor Guidi, as successor of Archbishop Chapelle of New Orleans. These papal delegates were always making false steps. This time the blunder was to publish an encyclical letter written by the Pope to the Filipinos. It was published on December 2nd. There was an immediate upheaval. Filipinos saw in the letter a clear intention on the part of the papacy to fasten the friars upon them forever. It was condemned by every native priest in the Islands. Monsignor Guidi sought to placate the Filipinos by replacing former Spanish prelates with American bishops, but in the present excitement this made matters worse. Aglipay expressed the general feeling when he said: ‘We resent the sending of French, Italian, Hottentot, American or any other friar-controlled priests to rule us.’ Aglipay declares, and Filipino priests commonly believe, that ‘Guidi deliberately changed the recently printed promise to appoint four Filipino bishops by appointing foreign bishops in their stead.”(Laubach, 144)

The Aglipayan Church initially maintained most of the Catholic rituals, sainted Dr. Jose Rizal, accepted the Protestant doctrines of a scripture-based teachings and did away with Mariolatry. Isabelo de los Reyes, who had been working on an idea about the religion of the Katipunan which revolved around the supreme being Bathala, also contributed his intellectual prowess and translated the Protestant Bible into Ilocano, in cooperation with the British Bible Society. He eventually rewrote the Protestant Bible, more likely with the help of Aglipay. He ascribed scientific explanations to many events in the Bible and finally produced a revised version which was published under the title Biblia Filipina. The Aglipayan Church was grooming itself to become like the Church of England.

However, in December 1906, the Aglipayan Church was struck by a big blow. The Supreme Court overturned the peaceable possession policy of Governor Taft that allowed the Aglipayans the possession of Catholic Church properties. The Court gave no credence to the contention of the Aglipayans that the church buildings truly belonged to the Filipino people who erected them with their own sweat and labor and financed them with money contributed by the native faithful. The court’s decision effectively restored the ownership of the church buildings to the Vatican, and ordered the Aglipayan hierarchy to return these to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Supreme Court decision deprived the Aglipayans of the possession of the church buildings and were forced to make do with makeshift structures of bamboo and nipa. The pathetic picture of Aglipayan faithful performing liturgical services in deplorable conditions brought widespread demoralization and led many priests and followers trekking back to the fold of the Catholic Church.

But Bishop Aglipay was unfazed and did not give up. To the surprise of the Roman Catholic Church, the Aglipayan church recovered and by the census of 1918 it had 1,417,466 members or 13.7 per cent of the entire population of the Islands. The Christian-influenced doctrines of the new Church were overhauled with the release on May 8, 1926 of a monograph entitledNovenary of the Motherland authored jointly by Gregorio Aglipay and Isabelo de los Reyes. The new teachings rejected the Catholic doctrines of divinity of Jesus, original sin, immaculate conception, the trion God, and heaven and hell. The Darwinian concept of the origin of man, together with subsequent anthropological findings were accepted in support of creation, while the principles of physics, more particulalry the indestructible properties of matter, of the transformation of gas, liquid and solid, were ascribed to the phenomena of physical death and resurrection. The teachings of Rizal, Bonifacio, the Katipunan and Mabini were incorporated in the novena and prescribed as regular daily prayer of the members. The Aglipayan Church was groomed to become the “scientific National Church” (Aglipay, 20).

One of the chief lessons which Rizal had learnt in Europe was that a priest-ridden nation is a nation bound over hand and foot to degeneration and decay, and many of his writings were directed against this unwholesome influence, which nowhere has had such pernicious effects as in the Philippines. (Younghusband, 129) Today, whatever the current state of the Aglipayan church is does not diminish its contribution to the growth and development of the purest of Filipino spirit and the noblest of aspirations – to be free and independent.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s