RH raging debates sound like Noli-Fili bill dispute | Inquirer News

RH raging debates sound like Noli-Fili bill dispute

The raging controversy on the reproductive health and divorce bills recalls a similar period in the 1950s when religion was at the heart of a debate on the so-called “Noli-Fili” bill that proposed the teaching of the national hero’s two famous novels.

In 1956, Senator Jose P. Laurel sponsored a bill that sought to inculcate Jose Rizal’s heroism by requiring the compulsory reading of the “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” for collegiate students. The books, published when Rizal was in European exile, exposed the conditions of Spanish colonial rule without sparing the widespread friar abuses it wrought.


Originally authored by Senator Claro M. Recto, the Noli-Fili bill sparked an acrimonious debate in the Senate that revolved on the separation of church and state issue, with the Batangas senator single-handedly defending the measure against his colleagues aligned with the powerful Catholic Church.

Recto’s adversaries were Senators Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo, Jesus Cuenco and Decoroso Rosales. The last two were brothers of Visayan monsignors who were later ordained cardinals.


Recto attacked the “most numerous church” whose hierarchy’s vigorous opposition to the bill would have the effect of covering up dark spots in the country’s colonial occupation. The religious bloc had described Rizal’s novels as “belonging to the past,” “harmful” and painting a “false picture of the country’s condition.”

The sectarian critics of the bill, led by Papal Nuncio Egmidio Vagnozzi, sought to depict Recto as a staunch enemy of the Church despite the assertion of University of the Philippines professor Emy Arcellana in her doctoral thesis that the senator was “a deeply religious man.”

Reacting to Vagnozzi’s strongly worded encyclical, Recto declared that it was “a clear attempt to interfere in  the exercise of government functions” that would in the near future lead to “the control of the state by a foreign diplomat.”

Bishop Manuel Yap stoked the controversy with his threat to “punish” legislators who supported the Rizal bill.

Recto quickly dismissed the bishop as “a modern-day Torquemada.” (Tomás de Torquemada was the Dominican friar who headed the Spanish Inquisition in 1483.)

As the debate continued to peak, Catholic schools warned of closing down if the bill is passed.

Recto countered: “They are making too much profit which they can ill-afford to give up.”


At the University of the Philippines, the Catholic bloc led by chaplain Fr. John Delaney led the charge against the liberal professors who viewed the bill’s passage as a step toward rectifying serious historical errors. The UP sectarians accused their liberal opponents of being “communists” and  “heretics” for daring to challenge church orthodoxy. Their adversaries included Professors Ricardo Pascual, Leopoldo Yabes, Tomas Fonacier, Agustin Rodolfo and Hernando Abaya.

Noli-Fili law

The Noli-Fili bill was finally passed on May 12, 1956 and more than a century later, continues to be part of the college curriculum.  But before its enactment Recto and Laurel yielded to their critics’ amendment that students be exempted from the course on grounds of religious objection to the Rizal novels. To this day, no recorded case of exemption has been found.

(The author writes occasional commentary for various publications.)

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TAGS: Divorce bill, El Filibusterismo, Jose Rizal, Legislation, Noli Me Tangere, Reproductive Health Bill, Rizal Bill, Social Issues
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