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Confession, Conversion, and Reciprocity in Early Tagalog Colonial Society

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 June 2009

Vicente L. Rafael
University of Hawaii at Manoa


If one were a Tagalog convert to Christianity in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century, one would have probably been compelled to go to confession at least once a year. Confronting the Spanish priest, one would be subjected to his anxious probing in the vernacular as he proceeded through a checklist of possible transgressions against each of the Ten Commandments. Such checklists in the local language, called confessionarios, were common throughout the colonial period. Compiled by missionaries skilled in the Tagalog, they were designed to serve as mnemonic devices to aid Spanish clerics in eliciting the confessions of their native flock.

The Limited Power of the Clergy
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 1987

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Benedict Anderson, Dominick LaCapra, James Siegel, and David Wyatt have been exceedingly helpful in the writing of this essay. I have elsewhere registered my own utang na loob to them. The research and writing were made possible by grants from the Social Science Research Council and the Cornell Southeast Asia Program. I am also grateful to Michael Cullinane for providing me with a forum for the discussion of an earlier draft of this article at the Southeast Asian Summer Institute (SEASI) at the University of Michigan, August 1984.

1 See Phelan, John, The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses, 1565–1700 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959), 6567Google Scholar.

2 See Rafael, Vicente L., “Contracting Christianity: Conversions and Translations in Early Tagalog Colonial Society” (Ph.Ddiss., Cornell University, 1984), 107–31Google Scholar, for a more thorough discussion of the procedures of accounting and the internalization of guilt with regard to confessional discourse.

3 Totanes, Fray Sebastian, Manual tagalog para auxilio a los religiosos de esta provincia de S. Gregoriao Magno de Descalzos de N.S. Padre S. Francisco de Philipinas (Sampaloc: Convento de Nuestra Senora de Loreto, 1745), 133–37Google Scholar.

4 Catholic theology regards Christ Himself as the source and author of all the sacraments; they were codified into a set of seven distinct rituals by the Council of Trent. Their crucial importance lies in their function of bringing God's gift to bear on the convert. Sacraments are signs valued for their capacity to make transparent the source of all gifts. Their power is such that in accordance with the Thomistic formulation, “they effect what they signify; they are signs that cause what they signify and cause by signifying” (Amado, A. M., “Sacraments of the Church,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), IV, 808Google Scholar). In their ritual performance, sacraments are thus the codes which constitute their own utterance so that the articulation of each sacrament brings with it the articulation of the entire history of Christianity.

5 The combined effects of Spanish racism, royal legislation, and the absence of adequate institutions for training natives for the priesthood made it impossible for a native clergy to emerge prior to the second half of the eighteenth century. See de la Costa, Horacio, S. J., , “The Development of the Native Clergy in the Philippines,” in Studies in Philippine Church History, Anderson, Gerald, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), 65104Google Scholar.

6 The record of the conflicts and their resolutions between Spanish ecclesiastical and civil authorities with regard to such things as the collection of tribute, the solicitation of native submission, and the extraction of corvée labor from the natives testifies to persistent attempts to instill the primacy of evangelization in the spread and consolidation of Spanish rule in the Philippines. See Actas del Primer Sinodo de Manila (1582–86),” Philippiana Sacra, 4:12 (0912, 1969), 425537Google Scholar; Schumacher, John, S. J., , “The Manila Synodal Tradition: A Brief History,” Philippine Studies, 27 (1979), 285348Google Scholar. The ideological supremacy of evangelization received, of course, its most explicit expression in the institution of the patronato real (i.e., the royal patronage of the Church in the Indies). See Costa, , “Development of Native Clergy,” 6971Google Scholar.

7 Phelan, , Hispanization, 5051Google Scholar; Schumacher, , “Manila Synodal Tradition,” 309Google Scholar; Rafael, , “Contracting Christianity,” 1557Google Scholar. For Tagalog, the exemplary arte was that of de San José, Fray Francisco Blancas, Arte de la lengua tagala (Bataan: por Tomas Pinpin, 1610)Google Scholar; while the most significant vocabularios were that of de San Buenaventura, Fray Pedro, Vocabulario de la lengua tagala (Pila: por Tomas Pinpin, 1613)Google Scholar and the two volume compilation of de Noceda, Fray Juan and Lucar, Fray Pedro San, Vocabulario de la lengua tagala (Manila, 1754; 3d ed., Manila: Imprenta de Ramirez y Giraudier, 1860)Google Scholar.

8 Gramática de la lengua castellana, González-Llubera, Ig., ed. and intro. (London: Oxford University Press, 1926)Google Scholar, first published in Salamanca in 1492.

9 See Norena, Carlos, Studies in Spanish Renaissance Thought (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975), 189–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See, for example, the accounts of de Bobadilla, Diego, S. J., , “Relation of the Philippine Islands, 1640,” in The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Blair, Emma and Robertson, Alexander, eds. (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co., 19031909), XLIV, 295ff.Google Scholar; Chirino, Pedro, S. J., , Relation de las Islas Filipinos (Rome: n.p., 1604)Google Scholar; Velarde, Pedro Murillo, “Jesuit Missions in the Seventeenth Century,” in Philippine Islands, Blair, and Robertson, , eds., XLIV, 32ffGoogle Scholar. Using far less military force than they did in the New World (and meeting with much less resistance from the natives as well), the Spaniards succeeded in converting over half a million people in the islands while retaining less than 300 missionaries by the first half of the seventeenth century. Whatever reluctance existed on the part of the lowland, non-Islamised populace seems to have been overcome rapidly. This was particularly true among the Tagalogs. See Phelan, , Hispanization, 89, 56Google Scholar.

11 Totanes, , Manual, 3637Google Scholar.

12 Ibid., 50–51.

13 See, for example, the devotional texts of de Santa Ana, Fray Alonso, Explication de la doctrina Christiana en la lengua tagala (Manila, 1672; Manila: Imprenta de los Amigos del Pais, 1853), 112Google Scholar; de Herrera, Fray Pedro, Meditaciones cun manga mahal na Pagninilay na sadya sa Sanctong Pag Eexercicios (Manila, 1645; Manila: La Imprenta de la Compania de IHS, 1762), folio 8Google Scholar; de San José, Fray Francisco Blancas, Librong Pinagpapalamnan yto nang aasalin nang taoung Christiana …. 3d ed. (Manila: n.p., 1662), 282–83; 370Google Scholar. For a more thorough listing of other devotional texts popular in the seventeenth century, see Rafael, , “Contracting Christianity,” ch. 3Google Scholar.

14 Kaut, Charles, “Utang na Loob: A System of Contractual Obligations among the Tagalogs,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 17:3 (1969), 256–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Hollnsteiner, Mary, “Reciprocity in the Lowland Philippines,” in Four Readings in Filipino Values, Lynch, Frank, S. J., , and de Guzman III, Alfonso, eds. (Quezon City: Institute of Philippine Culture, 1979), 6992Google Scholar.

16 Ileto, Reynaldo, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840–1940 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979), 1128Google Scholar.

17 Ibid., 331.

18 Serrano-Laktaw, Pedro, Diccionario tagalog-hispano, pt. 2 (Manila: Imprenta de Santos y Bernal, 1914)Google Scholar.

19 Ibid., 333.

20 We read, for example, the following exhortation to the native convert in Totanes's Manual:

116. S/he must straighten his/her sentences, open his/her loob, arrange his/her words, relate all of his/her sins, their number, their extent, their gravity; and if it were to be compared to walking [the telling of sins] should take to the middle road rather than fork out in various directions; tell and relate everything so that the Lord God might know what is in your loob (p. 82).

21 Hollnsteiner, , “Reciprocity,” 7576Google Scholar; Kaut, , “Utang na Loob,” 262Google Scholar.

22 Hollnsteiner, , “Reciprocity,” 76Google Scholar.

23 Ibid., 74.

24 This would not be surprising given the nature of Tagalog sociopolitical structure on the eve of Spanish colonization. Living in coastal village settlements called barangays, the Tagalogs did not have anything approaching a centralized state apparatus. Instead, they were led by village chieftains called datu; the chieftain's position was the result of a series of reciprocal ties that he (only men could be datu) could cultivate among the people in the village rather than of the sanction of any outside realm. As such, no institution of kingship, supravillage confederation, elaborate legal code, or organized system of worship adhered to the Tagalogs prior to the arrival of Spain in the Philippines. See Scott, William Henry's brilliant essay, “Filipino Class Structure in the Sixteenth Century”, in his Cracks in the Parchment Curtain and Other Essays in Philippine History (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1982), 96126Google Scholar.

25 Hollnsteiner, , “Reciprocity,” 78Google Scholar.

26 Velarde, Murillo, “Jesuit Missions,” in Philippine Islands, Blair, and Robertson, , eds., XLIV, 30Google Scholar.

27 de San José, Blancas, Librong, 242–43Google Scholar.

28 Lumbera, Bienvenido, “Poetry of the Early Tagalogs,” Philippine Studies, 16(1968), 223–30Google Scholar, has an extended discussion of the prosodic features of the Tagalog bogtong.

29 de San José, Blancas, Librong, 245–47Google Scholar.

30 Ibid., 251.

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