José Rizal’s political novel Noli Me Tangere examines how Spain’s colonization of the Philippines allowed the Catholic church to dominate and rule the region. Colonialism produced tensions that would, roughly a decade after Rizal’s novel was published, lead Filipino natives to revolt against Spain’s oppressive religious and governmental bodies in the Philippine Revolution. Through Ibarra, the book’s protagonist who returns to the Philippines after having spent seven years in Europe, Rizal shows the shocking extent to which the Catholic friars have commandeered the country’s politics and culture, manipulating the lives of Filipino citizens in an attempt to assert authority and influence. Thus, Rizal illustrates the Catholic priests’ corruption and their unchecked power, which doesn’t stem from actual religious zeal, but rather from a love of supremacy that colonization has enabled and encouraged.
The Spanish friars’ abuse of power is evident early in Noli Me Tangere. When Ibarra returns from seven years in Europe, he discovers that his father Don Rafael—who openly criticized the church and refused to go to confession—tangled with the friars in his hometown of San Diego. Because of his views about the church and his commitment to helping poor children attend secular schools, the friars slandered his name and did everything in their power to undermine his influence. He eventually died in prison because the church labeled him a “heretic and subversive.” To make matters worse, Ibarra finds out that the unbearable Father Dámaso ordered Don Rafael’s body to be exhumed from the Catholic cemetery. Dámaso justifies his actions by invoking his station as a priest, saying that when a friar exhumes a body, even a king can’t complain, let alone “impose punishment.” This means that Dámaso sees himself as even more powerful than the King of Spain and, more importantly, as exempt from all forms of punishment because he is a friar. His confidence shows how powerful he thinks he is: despite the fact that he dug up a dead body—a deeply irreverent thing to do—he feels no remorse, and even seems to think his actions were respectable and fair.
In addition to controlling the townspeople with threats of excommunication, punishment, and accusations of heresy, the friars clash with their own countrymen—Spanish people who had come to the islands as government workers or military personnel. This is apparent in the seemingly never-ending feud between Father Salví (Father Dámaso’s successor in San Diego) and the town’s military ensign. Father Salví knows that the ensign resents attending church services, so he spites the man by elongating his sermons or—Rizal later makes clear—making the ensign pay fees for missing church. Although the relationship between the ensign and Father Salví is certainly playful, it denotes the broader rivalry between the government and the church, a rivalry in which church figures wield religion as a means of leveraging their own power. In the same way that Father Dámaso believes he has the right to overrule even the King of Spain when it comes to religious matters, Salví clearly invests himself in his own authority as a man of God.
While Father Salví’s rivalry with the ensign is rather petty, the church seeks to prove its worth and power to the Spanish government by demonstrating its ability to solve problems and protect the country from danger. “Our power will last so long as it is believed,” one priest says, insinuating that to maintain power, they must only appear legitimate. As such, the church needs to manufacture tangible and manageable enemies, as well as false threats from which they can protect the public. This is why Father Salví organizes an attack on the military barracks, frames Ibarra as its ringleader, and then warns the ensign of what’s coming; the presence of threat and Salví’s help in staving it off makes him seem useful and frames Ibarra ( a man who stands for education rather than religion, and who has challenged the friars in the past) as heretical and dangerous. Of course, the fact that all of this is based on Father Salví’s lie indicates Rizal’s belief that the friarocracy is an illegitimate and suspect way of governing a nation and its people.
Money is another realm in which Rizal shows religion to be corrupted, as the clergy often conflate piety with riches. By selling indulgences, for example, the friars promote the idea that salvation can be purchased. The nuns keep a ledger of indulgences that they balance like a checkbook, and their attitude is so practical that it seems to lose sight of genuine spirituality. Furthermore, the church financially manipulates people to keep them in a state of subservience and debt. For example, the chief sexton falsely accuses Crispín (who is studying to be a sexton) of stealing money from the church. Because of this, Crispín must work extra hours, and since the amount of money he earns each week is significantly less than the supposed sum he stole, he will be indebted to the church for a long time. In this way, the church authorities keep less powerful members in a perpetual state of subordination.
Considering the friars’ unmitigated control over government officials, townspeople, and lowly church members, it’s clear that Rizal is highly skeptical of allowing religious institutions to have so much influence over a community and its governing body. The scholar and translator Harold Augenbraum—who wrote an introduction to Noli Me Tangere—outlines this concern when he explains that the early colonizers of the Philippines approached the notion of power and control by asking themselves whether they “were meant to rule or to guide, to govern as tyrant or as father.” It is clear that Rizal thinks the Spanish decided to use religion as a way to “rule” and to “govern as tyrant,” a decision that led to a divided and unequal country.
Colonialism, Religion, and Power ThemeTracker
Colonialism, Religion, and Power Quotes in Noli Me Tangere
In addition, Don Rafael was an honest man, more just than many men who go to confession. He held himself up to a rigorous moral standard and when the unpleasantness began he often said to me: “Señor Guevara, do you think God pardons a crime, a murder, for example, solely because one tells it to a priest, who is, in the end, a man, and who has the duty to keep it to himself, and who is afraid of burning in hell, which is an act of attrition, who is a coward, and certainly without shame? I have another conception of God,” he would say, “to me one does not correct one wrong by committing another, nor is one pardoned by useless weeping or by giving alms to the church.” He gave this example: “If I kill the head of a family, if I make a woman into a destitute widow and happy children into helpless orphans, will I have satisfied eternal justice if I let them hang me, or confide my secret to someone who has to keep it to himself, or give alms to the priests, who need it the least, or buy myself a papal pardon, or weep night and day? And what about the widow and children? My conscience tells me I should replace as much as possible the person I have murdered and dedicate myself completely and for my whole life to the welfare of the family whose misfortune I have created. And even then, even then, who will replace the love of a husband and father?”
To be a heretic anywhere is a great disgrace, especially at that time, when the mayor made a great show of his religious devotion and prayed in the church with his servants and said the rosary in a great loud voice, perhaps so that everyone could hear him and pray with him. But to be a subversive is worse than being a heretic and killing three tax collectors who know how to read, write, and sign their names. Everyone deserted him. His papers and books were confiscated. They accused him of subscribing to the Overseas Mail, of reading the Madrid newspapers, of having sent you to German Switzerland, of having been in possession of letters and a portrait of a condemned priest, and who knows what else! They found accusations in everything, even of his wearing a peninsular-style shirt. If he had been anyone other than your father, he would have been set free almost immediately, especially since a doctor had attributed the death of the unfortunate tax collector to a blockage. But because of his wealth, his confidence in justice, and his hatred of anything that was not legal or just, they ruined him.
That he was at peace with God was beyond question, and almost dogmatic. There is no reason to be at odds with God when one is at peace on earth, when one has never communicated with God, nor has ever lent him money. He never prayed to God, even when he was in the direst of straits. He was rich, and his gold prayed for him. For masses and alms, God had created powerful, supercilious priests. For novenas and rosaries, God in his infinite goodwill had created the poor, for the benefit of the rich, in fact, since for one peso poor people would recite the sixteen mysteries and read all the holy books, including the Hebrew bible, if one increased the payment. If in a time of great need one required the intervention of heaven and could not find at hand even a Chinese red candle, he would direct himself to the saints to whom he devoted himself, promising them many things in order to obligate them to him and to end up convincing them of the goodwill of his desires.
Pure, simple faith is as different from fanaticism as flames from smoke, as music from cacophony. Imbeciles, like deaf people, confuse the two. Between you and me, we can admit that the idea of purgatory is a good one, holy and rational. It maintains the connection between those who were and those who are, and obliges one to lead a purer form of life. The bad part is when people abuse it.
But the poor and indigent, who barely earn enough to sustain life and who must bribe bureaucrats, clerks, and soldiers to leave them in peace, they do not sleep with the tranquility described by courtly poets who have never felt the loving hand of poverty. The poor are sad and pensive. Tonight, if they have prayed a little, they have made many requests, with pain in their eyes and tears in their hearts. They have no novenas, nor do they know the jaculatory prayers or the verses or the oremus the friars have composed to prevent them from developing their own ideas or their own emotions, nor do they understand them. They pray in the language of their misery. […] You who blessed the poor, and you, shadows in torment, will the simple prayer of the poor make you happy […]? Or do you long for tapers placed before bloody images of Christ or small-mouthed Virgins with glass eyes, or with a priest’s mechanical droning of the mass in Latin? And you, your religion created for a suffering multitude, have you forgotten your mission of consoling the oppressed in their misery, and humbling the hubris of power, and now render promises only to the rich, those who can pay?
“You write in hieroglyphics? But why?” the young man asked, finding it hard to believe his eyes and ears.
“So that no one will understand what I’m writing.”
Ibarra looked him up and down, wondering if indeed the old man was crazy. He gave the book a quick examination to see if he was lying and saw well-drawn animals, circles, semicircles, flowers, feet, hands, arms, and other things.
“But why are you writing if you don’t want anyone to read it?”
“Because I’m not writing for this generation, I’m writing for the ages. If they could read these, I would burn my books, my life’s work. On the other hand, the generation that can decipher these characters will be an educated generation. It will understand me and say, ‘In the nights of our grandparents, not everyone was asleep.’ Mystery and these curious characters will save my work from the ignorance of men, just as mystery and strange rites have saved many truths from the destructive priest class.”
“Because sane people,” he went on with a bitter irony, “will think you are crazy, too. People believe that madness is when you don’t think as they do, which is why they take me for a madman. And I’m grateful for that, because, well, the day on which they restore my reason is the day they deprive me of the small bit of freedom I’ve purchased at the price of a reputation as a sane person. And who knows if they are right? I neither think nor live according to their laws. My principles, my ideals, are different. Among them the mayor enjoys a reputation as a sane individual, since he has not learned anything more than how to serve chocolate and suffer Father Dámaso’s ill humor.”
“The government, the government,” muttered the philosopher, lifting his eyes to the ceiling, “for all its enthusiastic desire to increase the benefit of this and the mother country, for all the generous spirit of the Catholic Monarchs that some functionary or other remembers and repeats to himself, the government neither sees, nor hears, nor judges any more than the priest or the mayor wants it to see, or to hear or to judge. The government is convinced that it relies on them, that if it maintains itself it is because of them, that if it lives, it is because they allow it to live, and the day it falters, it will fall like a puppet without a stick. The government is terrified of raising its hand against the people and the people of the forces of government. […]
“Believing in chance is the same as believing in miracles. Both situations presuppose that God does not know the future. What is chance? An event no one has foreseen. What is a miracle? A contradiction, an undermining of natural laws. Lack of foresight and contradiction in the intelligence that governs the world machine means two great imperfections.”
“Who are you?” Ibarra asked him with a certain anxiety. “Are you a scholar?”
“I have had to believe a great deal in God because I have lost my belief in men,” the boatman answered, evading the question.
Ibarra thought he understood this fugitive young man. He rejected man’s justice, refused the right of man to judge his peers, protested against the force and superiority of certain classes over others.
“But, gentlemen,” the mayor interrupted. “What can we do? What can the town do? Whatever happens, the friars are always right!”
“They are always right because we always let them be right,” Don Filipo answered with impatience, emphasizing the word “always.” “Let us be in the right for a change and then let’s talk!”
The mayor scratched his head and, looking at the ceiling, replied sourly, “Ay, the heat of blood! It seems like we don’t even know what country we’re in; we don’t even know our own countrymen. The friars are rich and united, and we are divided and poor. Sure, try to defend him and you’ll see how everyone will abandon you to your task.”
“Sure,” Don Filipo exclaimed bitterly, “it will always happen if you think that way, while fear and restraint are synonymous. Everyone pays more attention to something bad rather than to a needed good thing. Suddenly it’s all fear and lack of trust. Everyone thinks about himself, and no one about other people. That’s why we’re so weak!”
The servants all had to call them by their new titles and, as a result as well, the fringes, the layers of rice powder, the ribbons, and the lace all increased in quantity. She looked with increasing disfavor than ever before on her poor, less fortunate countrywomen, whose husbands were of a different category from her own. Every day she felt more dignified and elevated and, following this path at the end of a year she began to think of herself of divine origin.
Nevertheless, these sublime thoughts did not keep her from getting older and more ridiculous every day. Every time Captain Tiago ran into her and remembered that he had courted her in vain, he would right away send a peso to the church for a mass of thanksgiving. Despite this, Captain Tiago had great respect for her husband and his title “Specialist in All Types of Diseases” and he would listen attentively to the few sentences his stuttering permitted him to utter successfully. For this reason, and because he didn’t visit absolutely everyone like other doctors did, Captain Tiago chose him to attend his daughter.
A man who, like me, has spent his youth and maturity working for his own future and for that of his children, a man who has been at the beck and call of his superiors, who has carried out difficult tasks conscientiously, who has suffered his whole life in peace and in the possibility of tranquility, when this man, whose blood has been made cold by time, renounces at the brink of the grave his entire past and his entire future, it’s because he’s made the mature judgment that peacefulness neither exists nor is the supreme good. Why would I live out such miserable days in a foreign land? I had two sons and one daughter, a home, a fortune. I benefited from respect and esteem. But now I’m like a tree shorn of its limbs, a wandering fugitive, hunted like a wild animal in the forest, and everything that goes along with it. And why? Because a man undid my daughter, because her brothers demanded this man make restitution, and because the man’s station was above everyone else’s, with the title of God’s minister.
The San Diego cockpit is no different from the ones one finds in other towns, but for a few chance occurrences. It consists of three parts: the first, or the entrance, is a large rectangle, some twenty meters long and fourteen wide. On one side is a door, which is usually guarded by a woman charged with collecting the sa pintú, or the entry fee. From this contribution, which everyone puts in, the government is entitled to one part, several hundred thousand pesos a year. They say that with this money, through which vice pays for its own freedom, they erect magnificent schools, build bridges and sidewalks, and establish awards to encourage agriculture and commerce…Blessed be the vice that produces such good results!
It’s a poor doctor, señor, who only seeks to treat the symptoms and choke them off without attempting to root out the cause of that malady, or when he learns what it is, is afraid of attacking it. The Civil Guard has no more objective than the suppression of crime by terror and force, an objective met or accomplished only by chance. And one must bear in mind that society can only be harsh with individuals when it has furnished the means necessary for their moral perfectibility. In our country, since there is no society, since the people and the government do not form a unified structure, the latter must be more lenient, not only because more leniency is needed, but because the individual, neglected and abandoned by the state, has less responsibility when he has been afforded less enlightenment.
Perhaps they need [the Civil Guard] more in Spain, but not in the Philippines. Our customs, our mode of being, which they are always invoking when they want to deny us our rights, they forget completely when there is something they want to impose on us.
You’re right, Elías, but man is a creature of circumstance. I was blind then, disgusted, what did I know! Now misfortune has ripped off my blinders. Solitude and the misery of prison have shown me. Now I see the horrible cancer gnawing at this society, rotting its flesh, almost begging for a violent extirpation. They opened my eyes, they made me see the sores and forced me to become a criminal! And so, just what they wanted, I will be a subversive, but a true subversive. I will call together all the downtrodden people, everyone who feels a heart beating in his breast, those who sent you to me…No, I won’t be a criminal, you aren’t a criminal when you fight for your country, just the opposite!