July 2, 1938
WHEN President Quezon vetoed the bitterly contested religious instruction bill after its passage at the last session of the National Assembly, he did not put an end to the most violently discussed issue of the day.
That the fight would go on to a finish became evident last week when the Metropolitan Archbishop and the Suffragan Bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Cebu published a pastoral letter which replied to President Quezon’s memorable speech in Cebu on the occasion of the inauguration of the city’s capitol, in the course of which the chief executive advanced some of his reasons for vetoing the religious instruction bill.
To all, the pastoral said, “the future of Religion is of vital interest, particularly to those who will have to render an account of the souls committed to their care.” Hence it bemoaned the irreligion of the youth of today.
Mostly blamed for youth’s lack of religion by the ecclesiastical dignitaries is the present system of public education “based as it is on religious neutrality.”
Appeal to leaders
After saying that “the question of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the [religious instruction] bill” is “a question upon which only the supreme court can pass a final and decisive verdict,” the letter expressed the hope “that our leaders, ever devoted to the common good and incapable of remaining indifferent to the interests of our future citizens, will bear down all difficulties, and in the near future a measure will result which, without in the least infringing upon either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution, but by adapting the Constitution to the will of the people, and not the will of the people to the Constitution, will provide them with the desired efficacious religious instruction.”
Promptly, Catholic circles in Manila hailed the letter as a clear, firm, and accurate expression of the Catholic attitude toward the religious instruction issue. The Philippine Commonweal, official organ of Catholic Action in the Philippines, issued a special supplement containing the entire letter.
The President’s answer
A source of joy to many good Catholics, the pastoral letter was no less a source of irritation and disappointment to one bill-vetoing Catholic. Stung to the quick, President Quezon fumed in Malacañan, penned a statement which threatened to overshadow the Mayon eruption.
The President said:
“I am amazed at the boldness of the Metropolitan Archbishop and Suffragan bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Cebu in taking up at an episcopal conference a matter concerning the constitutional duties and prerogatives of the officials and branches of the government of the Commonwealth.
“I had so far ignored charges made to the effect that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines had instigated and was behind the movement for the enactment of the bill regarding religious instruction in the Philippines. But the pastoral letter is incontrovertible evidence that we did face at the last session of the legislature, and we do face now, one of the most menacing evils that can confront the government and people of the Philippines, namely, the interference of the Church in the affairs of the State.”
“Blind to lessons of history”
“It seems that the Archbishop and bishops who have written this pastoral letter are blind to the lessons of history including our own during the Spanish regime. Being myself a Catholic, I am no less interested in preserving the independence of the church from the state than I am in preserving the independence of the government from the church.
“It should be unnecessary to remind the ecclesiastical authorities in the Philippines that the separation of church and state in this country is a reality and not a mere theory, and that as far as our people are concerned, it is forever settled that this separation shall be maintained as one of the cardinal tenets of our government. They should realize, therefore, that any attempts on their part to interfere with matters that are within the province of the government will not be tolerated.
“On matters purely ecclesiastical, the Catholic bishops may speak for the Filipino Catholics; but when it comes to expressing the will of the Filipino people as a political entity on any matter concerning legislation or governmental measures, the Catholic bishops, some of whom are not Filipinos, are assuming too much when they pretend to speak for our people as they do in the pastoral letter when they say that the majority of the Filipino people are demanding the enactment of the bill which I have vetoed. The fact that the majority of the National Assembly voted for the said bill does not necessarily prove that the majority of the people are for it. It only proves that the majority of the members of the National Assembly were for the bill.
“If I were inclined to interfere in the affairs of the church, as the Catholic bishops are attempting to do with the affairs of the state, I would tell the Archbishop and the bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Cebu that it is their lack of Sunday schools and catechists to teach the Catholic religion that is mainly responsible for the deplorable ignorance of their own religion that is found amongst the Catholic youth.”
“A very unfair campaign has been launched against the government, making it appear that we are not complying with the provisions of the constitution regarding optional teaching of religious instruction. The truth is the opposite, as evidenced by the fact that while the enrolment in classes in religious instruction during the academic year…1932-1933 was only 29,996, this had increased to 187,089 in the academic year 1937-1938. During this last school year, in the 817 schools where religious instruction was given, more than one-half of the children enrolled in said schools received religious instruction.
“Moreover, if the desire is to have hours exclusively devoted to religious instruction in the public schools, so that the regular school activities may not interfere with said instruction, I am placing Saturdays and Sundays at the disposal of all the ministers of all religions existing in the Philippines. On Saturdays and Sundays, the public schools are not being used for school purposes and, therefore, they may be used for religious instruction if it is so requested. What is prohibited in the existing legislation and by the constitution, and which, therefore, I may not allow is that any hour needed for public school proper be devoted to religious instruction.”
The Quezon blast produced a small counterblast. Speaking from the pulpit of the Manila Sampaloc church, Saturday, young Rev. Dr. Gregorio Villaceran defended the Catholic church and the signers of the pastoral. Clergymen, he retorted, have as much right as other citizens to deliberate on government matters, especially if those matters happen to affect the church most directly and vitally. The separation of church and state, he stressed, does not prohibit ecclesiastical authorities from exercising their constitutional rights.
Interviewed in Cebu, Archbishop Reyes disclaimed any intention to challenge or provoke the President. “In my name and in those of the bishops of the Cebu archdiocese,” he was quoted as saying, “I reiterate my respect for the government and those entrusted with its administration.” However, “with regard to the presidential veto, the bishops respect it, but within that respect they honestly believe there is nothing which would prevent them from entertaining any opinion and publicly expressing that opinion which under a democratic regime such as ours they have the right to do. It is hardly just to deny the bishops a right which is accorded to any other citizen of the land.”
Defense of chief executive
President Quezon boarded a Japanese freighter bound post-haste for Kobe shortly after issuing his philippic; but pending his return, Assemblymen Gregorio Perfecto and Eugenio Perez, both uncompromising opponents of the religious instruction bill, are preparing a resolution which they plan to introduce in the special session in the latter part of next month, endorsing the chief executive’s stand.
Meanwhile, “fighting” Rev. Samuel W. Stagg, Protestant pastor, defended the chief executive in a radio speech over KZIB, and at the same time accused the Catholic hierarchy of being “the sworn enemy of all democracy.” He lauded the President for his “great courage in taking issues with the hierarchy in defense of the hard-won liberties of the Filipino people.”