Quezon and the church
By Frederic S. Marquardt
August 19, 1954
The Bible was near his bed.
JOSE Rizal and Manuel L. Quezon were both born into the Catholic religion. Both were educated in church schools. Both spend many of their adult years outside the church. But that’s the end of the parallel religious experiences of the two leading Philippine heroes. While historians differ as to whether Rizal reasserted his faith in the church, there is no doubt that Manuel Quezon died a Catholic.
There was an altar in the room in which death came to Quezon at Saranac Lake on August 1, 1944. A frequently read Bible was near his bed. Quezon took almost daily communion from his personal chaplain, the Rev. Pacifico J. Ortiz, S.J., during his long illness. He and the members of his family said the rosary together every night.
Quezon’s was no death bed conversion, or more accurately reconversion. For the last 14 years of his life he was a practicing Catholic. But for the previous 25 years he had nothing to do with the church. It was during this earlier period that he was married in a civil ceremony in Hong Kong, later repeating the vows before a priest almost an afterthought. During his break with the church he was the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the Philippines, an order generally regarded as anti-clerical. The Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite Masons in Washington, D.C., elected him to the 33rd degree, highest honor in Masonry. Caballero and Concepcion, in their biography on Quezon, date this event as October 23, 1929.
Less than a year later Quezon was back in the Catholic fold. Time, the American newsmagazine, reported in its issue of December 9, 1935: “Catholic-born Manuel Quezon retracted Masonry on his 52nd birthday, 1930, aboard the s.s. Empress of Japan, in the presence of Most Rev. Michael J. O’Doherty, Archbishop of Manila. Two years later he demitted (i.e. resigned) from his lodge.”
In his autobiography, The Good Fight, Quezon was amazingly sketchy about his religious experiences. It should be noted, of course, that the book was unfinished at the time of Quezon’s death, and was published posthumously after his friends and relatives had done some work on the manuscript. He was a sick man when he dictated the book, and he had no opportunity to put it in final shape. As the head of a government in exile, he was taking a high-level part in the struggle that would leave scars on his country for years to come. There was little time for reflection or research. Still, Quezon did indicate in his book one of the events that may have led him away from the church.
Describing his part in the Philippine Revolution, Quezon told how he came down with a bad case of malaria while serving on General Mascardo’s staff. The illness probably occurred in 1900, although the date is not definitely established. “I spent a month in the house of Cabesang Doro’s friend in Navotas”, wrote Quezon, undoubtedly referring to the town in Rizal province. “This old man had amassed so much money from the fishing business that he had been able to send his son to be educated in Europe. While convalescing at his house, I read books which left in my mind some doubt as to the certainty of the existence of hell as taught by my friar teachers—doubts which in after years contributed to my leaving for a long time the Catholic faith and joining the Masonic Order. I returned to the old church after my children had grown up.”
The foregoing pithy reference doesn’t throw much light on Quezon’s religious experience, but it is all he chose to include in his autobiography.
I have been able to find no published record of Quezon’s beliefs during the years when he was outside the church. However, I once examined an unpublished autobiography of the late Teodoro M. Kalaw, who had a distinguished career in Philippine politics during the first half of the American regime. In the manuscript (Chapter X) was a letter from Quezon to Kalaw. As nearly as I could ascertain, it must have bee written about 1915, when Quezon was representing the Philippines as resident commissioner in Washington. In the letter, written in Spanish, Quezon said:
“You know that I am a free thinker. I do not believe matrimony is an indissoluble tie, just as I do not see the necessity of any religion for any people and nation. Science should be, and has to be, the Religion of the future. This Religion will make the man of tomorrow more perfect, morally speaking, than the religious man of today, because the believer of our day is synonymous with the ignorant. To believe is ‘to see what we have not seen’; in other words to have faith in whatever hoaxes some people, who consider themselves semi-divine, preach and practice. Nevertheless, even when such are my honest convictions regarding divorce and religion, I still consider it very inopportune to pass the Divorce Law now.
“Because of the trouble between (Archbishop of Manila) Harty and the YMCA, Harty has written to American Catholics attacking our Government. For the first time the Catholics here are (word indecipherable) if it is good for Catholicism to have the American government in the Philippines. It is very convenient for us to let them ponder over this, while at the same time we show them what good Catholics we are. The Catholic vote may yet give us our independence.”
There seems to be an inconsistency in Quezon’s referring to himself as a “free thinker,” and then suggesting “we show them what good Catholics we are”. One can only surmise that Quezon was speaking ironically in the latter instance. As a matter of fact, Quezon was wrong if he thought the Catholic vote in the United States would bring about independence. Only a few years after this letter to Kalaw was written, the same Archbishop Harty sent a cablegram to the predominantly Catholic New York delegation in the House of Representatives urging he delegates to vote against immediate independence.
If Quezon didn’t write much about his experiences with the Catholic Church, he showed no reluctance in discussing them. On October 21, 1937, I made extensive notes of a press conference President Quezon had held the preceding Sunday in his study in Malacañan Palace. The conference lasted two hours. Originally called because the President wanted to discuss a forthcoming legislative message, the conference soon branched out into discussion of nearly everything under the sun, including religion. Other correspondents present were Walter Robb of the Chicago Daily News, Ray Cronin of The Associated Press, Dick Wilson of the United Press, Dave Boguslav, then editor of the Manila Tribune, now The Manila Times. I was associated editor of the Philippines Free Press, and correspondent for the International News Service.
I had always been curious about Quezon’s return to the church, and I kept the conversation on this subject as long as I could. The President was speaking “off the record”, so his statements were not published at the time. His story went like this, according to the notes made at the time and still in my possession.
“I first considered re-entering the church for the sake of my children. My wife was a very devout Catholic, and as the children grew older I knew they would wonder why she was so religious when I was apparently lacking in religion. And I was afraid they might, believing me to be more intelligent than their mother, follow in my footsteps without giving the question of religion serious thought.
“So I asked Father Villalonga, former head of the Jesuit Order in the Philippines, if he would give me some instruction in the Catholic religion.
“Father Villalonga, whom I had known for years, came out to see me and the first thing he wanted to do was say mass, I said to him, ‘Never mind the mass. Tell me why I should re-enter my faith.’
“He talked to me for a while, and then he sent me a book, saying it would instruct me in the Catholic religion. Well, I read the book, and one of the portions in it told about a good-for-nothing Spaniard who sailed from Spain for the Philippines. Before he left his home his mother gave him a Medal, bearing the likeness of the Virgin of the Rosary, and once a day this fellow would say a ‘Hail Mary’ to the Medal. The rest of the time he was the worst possible sort of a rake, committing all the crimes imaginable.
“When the boat he was on passed Mariveles, a storm came up and the man was shipwrecked. By dint of great effort, he managed to swim ashore to Cavite but he was so exhausted by the time he reached there that he fell down on the beach and died.
“The next day the people in Manila noticed that the Virgin of the Rosary in the chapel of the Dominican Church had dust on it. And do you know what the conclusion of the story was? That the Virgin in Manila, made of wood, had walked all the way to Cavite to help this sinful man into Heaven, merely because he had said one ‘Hail Mary’ a day!
“When I read that story, and considered that the Catholic Church expected grown-up, intelligent men to believe it, I decided that I had better stay outside the church.
“So I did nothing until once, when I was returning to Manila from the United States, I found myself on board the same boat with Archbishop Michael J. O’Doherty. I was chatting with the Archbishop one day when he asked me why I did not return to the church, pointing out that my children were growing up and that I owed it to them, if for no other reason, to again become a practicing Catholic.
“I said to the Archbishop, ‘I personally would like to return to the church. But I can’t join an organization which expects me to believe that a wooden image walked all the way from Manila to Cavite to help a sinner get into Heaven.’ Then I told him the entire story which I had read in the book.
“The Archbishop laughed and said, ‘Well, I don’t believe that story either, but I’m still a member of the church. It wasn’t long before he convinced me that I could rejoin the church without insulting my own intelligence. As I recall it, he said a mass on that occasion.”
I was anxious to find out Quezon’s attitude toward Masonry. So I pressed him on this subject. His statement, also taken from my notes of October 21, 1937, follows:
“I didn’t actually resign from the Masonic order until several months later, and I never denounced Masonry. There is a formal form which those returning to the church from the Masonic lodge are supposed to sign, but I refused to sign it. Instead, I wrote the Archbishop a personal note saying that I understood that I could not be readmitted to the Catholic Church so long as I remained a Mason for that reason I was resigning from Masonry.”
The “personal note” from Quezon to Archbishop O’Doherty is included in Sol Gwekoh’s Quezon, His Life and Career. The original was in Spanish, says Gwekoh, and was witnessed by Mrs. Quezon. It was dated August 18, 1930, which is one day off from the 52nd birthday mentioned in Times’s account. Since he was crossing the Pacific at the time, it is possible that Quezon was confused by the International Date Line.
In the document cited by Gwekoh, this statement is attributed to Quezon: “I abandon Masonry and I abandon it forever, not only because this is a condition sine qua non for a Catholic, but because the religious beliefs that I now sincerely profess, are in direct opposition to certain Masonic theories. I shall never again belong to any society condemned by the church. I deplore with all my heart having spent the best years of my life in complete forgetfulness of my God and outside His church.”
Not long after the press conference at which President Quezon spoke so freely of his religious experiences, I asked him if he would authorize publication of the facts that led to his readmission to the church. I pointed out the doubts that always arose regarding Rizal’s religious beliefs, and suggested that Quezon prevent all speculation in his own case by writing an article for the 1937 Christmas issue of the FREE PRESS, repeating what he had told us at the press conference.
The President thought about my request, then turned it down. It is only now, 10 years after his death, that I fell free to publish this personal version of Manuel Quezon’s religious beliefs. In his note to me, dated November 18, 1937, President Quezon said:
“I have been thinking over the question you submitted to me yesterday and I have come to the conclusion that it would not be proper for me at this time to write such an article. It is of no concern to the public what my religion is and why I belong to that church. The separation of church and state is fundamental constitutional mandate and people may suspect some ulterior motive in my writing such article.
‘Therefore I will not write the article you’ve suggested.”
The important thing about President Quezon’s letter, it seems to me, was his concern over the separation of church and state. The issue of religious education in the public schools was a live one. Only a veto by President Quezon prevented the enactment of a law that would have permitted religious education in the schools during regular time.
Despite the President’s veto, the bishops of Cebu announced their intention to continue the fight for religious education in the public schools. President Quezon then made a blistering statement ending all speculation as to where he stood on the question of separation of church and state.
“It should be unnecessary to remind the ecclesiastical authorities in the Philippines”, said Quezon, “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 will 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 government will not be tolerated. If the said ecclesiastical authorities desire to have the government respect their rights and afford them every kind of protection in the free exercise of their religion, they must not only abide by the laws and lawful orders of the government, but they must also acknowledge and respect the principle of the separation of church and state.”
If President Quezon’s message to the bishops was the highlight of his intensely religious period, his letter to Teodoro Kalaw was a similar highlight of his years as a free-thinker. When he was almost literally at war with the church, he advised Kalaw against any breakdown in the sanctity of marriage. And when he had again become a practicing Catholic, he warned a congregation of bishops to keep their hands off political affairs. Both events illustrate the essential balance that is a requisite of true statesmanship.