The power of religious orders remained one of the great constants, over the centuries, of Spanish colonial rule. Even in the late nineteenth century, the friars of the Augustinian, Dominican, and Franciscan orders conducted many of the executive and control functions of government on the local level. They were responsible for education and health measures, kept the census and tax records, reported on the character and behavior of individual villagers, supervised the selection of local police and town officers, and were responsible for maintaining public morals and reporting incidences of sedition to the authorities. Contrary to the principles of the church, they allegedly used information gained in confession to pinpoint troublemakers. Given the minuscule number of Spanish living outside the capital even in the nineteenth century, the friars were regarded as indispensable instruments of Spanish rule that contemporary critics labeled a “friarocracy” (frialocracia).
Controversies over visitation and secularization were persistent themes in Philippine church history. Visitation involved the authority of the bishops of the church hierarchy to inspect and discipline the religious orders, a principle laid down in church law and practiced in most of the Catholic world. The friars were successful in resisting the efforts of the archbishop of Manila to impose visitation; consequently, they operated without formal supervision except that of their own provincials or regional superiors. Secularization meant the replacement of the friars, who came exclusively from Spain, with Filipino priests ordained by the local bishop. This movement, again, was successfully resisted, as friars through the centuries kept up the argument, often couched in crude racial terms, that Filipino priests were too poorly qualified to take on parish duties. Although church policy dictated that parishes of countries converted to Christianity be relinquished by the religious orders to indigenous diocesan priests, in 1870 only 181 out of 792 parishes in the islands had Filipino priests. The national and racial dimensions of secularization meant that the issue became linked with broader demands for political reform.
The economic position of the orders was secured by their extensive landholdings, which generally had been donated to them for the support of their churches, schools, and other establishments. Given the general lack of interest on the part of Spanish colonials–clustered in Manila and dependent on the galleon trade–in developing agriculture, the religious orders had become by the eighteenth century the largest landholders in the islands, with their estates concentrated in the Central Luzon region. Land rents–paid often by Chinese mestizo inquilinos, who planted cash crops for export–provided them with the sort of income that enabled many friars to live like princes in palatial establishments.
Central to the friars’ dominant position was their monopoly of education at all levels and thus their control over cultural and intellectual life. In 1863 the Spanish government decreed that a system of free public primary education be established in the islands, which could have been interpreted as a threat to this monopoly. By 1867 there were 593 primary schools enrolling 138,990 students; by 1877 the numbers had grown to 1,608 schools and 177,113 students; and in 1898 there were 2,150 schools and over 200,000 students out of a total population of approximately 6 million. The friars, however, were given the responsibility of supervising the system both on the local and the national levels. The Jesuits were given control of the teacher-training colleges. Except for the Jesuits, the religious orders were strongly opposed to the teaching of modern foreign languages, including Spanish, and scientific and technical subjects to the indios (literally, Indians; the Spanish term for Filipinos). In 1898 the University of Santo Tomás taught essentially the same courses that it did in 1611, when it was founded by the Dominicans, twenty-one years before Galileo was brought before the Inquisition for publishing the idea that the earth revolved around the sun.
The friarocracy seems to have had more than its share of personal irregularities, and the priestly vow of chastity often was honored in the breach. In the eyes of educated Filipino priests and laymen, however, most inexcusable was the friars’ open attitude of contempt toward the people. By the late nineteenth century, their attitude was one of blatant racism. In the words of one friar, responding to the challenge of the ilustrados, “the only liberty the Indians want is the liberty of savages. Leave them to their cock-fighting and their indolence, and they will thank you more than if you load them down with old and new rights.”
Apolinario de la Cruz, a Tagalog (see Glossary) who led the 1839-41 Cofradía de San José revolt, embodied the religious aspirations and disappointments of the Filipinos. A pious individual who sought to enter a religious order, he made repeated applications that were turned down by the racially conscious friars, and he was left with no alternative but to become a humble lay brother performing menial tasks at a charitable institution in Manila. While serving in that capacity, he started the cofradía (confraternity or brotherhood), a society to promote Roman Catholic devotion among Filipinos. From 1839 to 1840, Brother Apolinario sent representatives to his native Tayabas, south of Laguna de Bay, to recruit members, and the movement rapidly spread as cells were established throughout the southern Tagalog area. Originally, it was apparently neither anti-Spanish nor nativist in religious orientation, although native elements were prevalent among its provincial followers. Yet its emphasis on secrecy, the strong bond of loyalty its members felt for Brother Apolinario, and, above all, the fact that it barred Spanish and mestizos from membership aroused the suspicions of the authorities. The cofradía was banned by the authorities in 1840.
In the autumn of 1841 Brother Apolinario left Manila and gathered his followers, then numbering several thousands armed with rifles and bolos (heavy, single-bladed knives), at bases in the villages around the town of Tayabas; as a spiritual leader, he preached that God would deliver the Tagalog people from slavery. Although the rebel force, aided by Negrito hill tribesmen, was able to defeat a detachment led by the provincial governor in late October, a much larger Spanish force composed of soldiers from Pampanga Province–the elite of the Philippine military establishment and traditional enemies of the Tagalogs–took the cofradía camp at Alitao after a great slaughter on November 1, 1841.
The insurrection effectively ended with the betrayal and capture of Brother Apolinario. He was executed on November 5, 1841. Survivors of the movement became remontados (those who go back into the mountains), leaving their villages to live on the slopes of the volcanic Mount San Cristobal and Mount Banahao, within sight of Alitao. These mountains, where no friar ventured, became folk religious centers, places of pilgrimage for lowland peasants, and the birthplace of religious communities known as colorums.