Meriting a banner headline in one paper and front-page coverage in others was the conviction by a lower court of cultural gadfly, creative tour guide and reproductive health champion Carlos Celdran.
Deemed guilty of “offending religious feelings,” Celdran faces up to a year in prison if the sentence is upheld, though he said his lawyers are preparing an appeal.
The case stems from the “special appearance” in 2010 of Celdran, dressed in a costume that made him look like Jose Rizal, during an ecumenical rite at the Manila Cathedral. Celdran was then protesting what he deemed as the undue interference of the Catholic hierarchy in the then heated debates in Congress over the RH bill. The bill was recently signed into law.
Celdran has said that he was actually part of a pro-RH rally outside the cathedral when, seeking shelter from the rain, he entered the place of worship and saw it filled with bishops in all their finery. Moved perhaps by his participation in the protest, and maybe imbibing the spirit of Rizal, Celdran proceeded to march down the aisle and paused in front of the altar holding aloft a placard with a single word—or rather, name—“Damaso.”
It was just one word but it spoke volumes. “Damaso,” or Padre Damaso, is a character in the novel “Noli Me Tangere” by Jose Rizal. A portly, greedy and nefarious character who has since become a widely recognized symbol of clerical abuse, “Damaso” damns, and certainly the bishops, priests and laity present knew what Celdran meant and at whom his protest was targeted.
* * *
Celdran’s conviction ignited heated commentary, most prominently in social media, with the news becoming a “trending topic” locally.
The fate that awaits this prominent cultural worker has implications not just on the RH debate but also on freedom of speech and of expression. When religious sensibilities intersect with public speech and expression, where should the favor of the law fall? Is it really illegal to speak ill of any church personage or personages in or out of a church? If a parishioner finds the homily of the preacher offensive and walks out in the middle of Mass, is the act deemed offensive to religious sensitivities?
What of the relentless attacks on the Catholic Church and on its dogma waged by commentators in TV channels identified with certain sects? Whose right—to free speech and to religion—prevails?
The decision of Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. in Celdran’s case referred to, and indeed quoted liberally from, “People of the Philippines v. Baes,” a 1939 case in which a Catholic parish priest in Lumban, Laguna, sued a group belonging to the “Church of Christ” (Iglesia ni Kristo?) for passing through the church’s patio on their way to the cemetery to bury a member of their church. “Even in said case,” wrote lawyer and journalism teacher Marichu Lambino in her blog, “the justices, the fiscal, the lower courts, were all divided on what constitutes the offense [of ‘offending religious feelings’].”
To my mind, what Celdran was “attacking” was not the Catholic faith itself, nor even the bishops personally. His target was what he deemed the undue interference of the bishops in what was rightfully the domain of the state, which was legislation. His act of disrupting a religious service may have caused consternation and upset the equilibrium of celebrants and congregation. But did they feel their Catholicism attacked? Did it lead them to question their faith? Did it offend their morals?
* * *
Celdran has already apologized to the bishops for his rash action, and they have since publicly forgiven him, but they still pursued the case. As Celdran cheekily put it: “As far as they are concerned, I can go to heaven, but I have to go to jail first.”
This is all of a piece with the growing trend of intransigence and, may I say, arrogance of the Catholic leadership in the wake of social trends and political moves that are driving the Church to irrelevance.
Writing on the new book by American Catholic commentator Gary Wills (“Why Priests? A Failed Tradition”), New York Times columnist Frank Bruni quotes Wills on the dismaying tendency of Catholic authorities to resist any challenge to their authority.
“It can’t admit to error, the church hierarchy,” Bruni quotes Wills. “Any challenge to their prerogative is, in their eyes, a challenge to God. You can’t be any more arrogant than that.”
“We Catholics were taught not only that we must have priests but that they must be the right kind of priests,” Wills wrote in the book, which, says Bruni, argues that priests aren’t ultimately necessary. “What we were supposed to accept is that all priesthoods are invalid ones except the Roman Catholic.”
Comments Bruni: “That’s an awfully puffed-up position, and there’s a corresponding haughtiness in the fact that bishops can assign priests to parishes without any real obligation to get input or feedback from the parishioners those priests serve. This way of doing business in fact enabled church leaders to shuttle priests accused of molestation around, keeping them one step ahead of their crimes.
“It has also helped to turn many Catholics away from the church, while prompting others to regard its leaders as ornamental and somewhat irrelevant distractions. They cherish the essence and beauty of their religion. They just can’t abide the arrogance of many of its appointed caretakers.”
Can I just shout an “Amen!” to that? Or do I have to march down the aisle of the (currently closed) Manila Cathedral to get the attention of the bishops?