There’s the Rub

Damaso

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Of course I share the sentiments of most of the Tweeters, which are shock and outrage. That is on the jail sentence of Carlos Celdran for standing in front of the altar of the Manila Cathedral during a Mass dressed like Jose Rizal, shouting, and waving a placard that said “Damaso!” A Manila court gave him two months to a year of jail for it.

But I share even more the more nuanced sentiments of some of them. One said, “I like Celdran’s courageous act to fight for what he believes is right. But if we tolerate doing it inside the church, it isn’t all right at all.” Another said: “Celdran’s going to jail? He did disrupt a service in a church, he should be liable. However, imprisonment is too much.”

I said pretty much the same thing the first time I wrote about it. While I thought Celdran ought to be lauded for exposing how the Church had turned into the intrusive and oppressive power it was in times past, indeed for reminding us that we had a brilliant fellow by the name of Rizal who wrote the brilliant novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” I thought he also needed to be rapped for going overboard on it.

I have no problem with irreverence, I have no problem with outrageousness, I have no problem even with blasphemy and sacrilege. But I have a problem with violating other people’s rights.

The problem isn’t offending religious sensibilities. I have no problem with that, too, that is the natural, or professional, hazard of art. The problem is trampling over other people’s right to worship. Had Celdran mounted his protest outside the church—in the courtyard, even at the church’s very doorstep—I’d have no caveats with it. It would have been brilliant. Of course it would have offended the religious sensibilities of the more pious. In the same way that Mideo Cruz’s paintings that depicted revered Catholic images in a shocking way did. But it would have been perfectly defensible on grounds of freedom of expression, on grounds of artistic expression.

But interrupting a Mass to press the point is quite another matter. To begin with, the problem with a shotgun approach is that it hits not just its target, it hits everybody else within range of the scatter. Celdran’s act did not hit the people celebrating the Mass—it was a concelebration—it hit those attending it. It did not just hit the clergy, it hit the faithful. Why should the flock have to pay for the sins of their shepherd?

Far more importantly, it was a trespass on an act of worship. That’s what differentiates it from Mideo’s trespass, if indeed Mideo’s paintings were so. A painter is well within his rights to express how he sees the world, however it goes against the views of others, religious or otherwise. Even if the others constitute the majority. No one is within his rights to interrupt someone in his prayer, or while he is communing with his God, even if that someone constitutes the minority.

The first time I wrote about it was two years ago, and I asked what would happen if someone did something like this inside a mosque to protest the atrocities being done by the Abu Sayyaf to its victims. Not least the beheading of soldiers, not least the barbaric treatment of kidnapped men and women. Of course that worry has abated considerably with today’s peace process. But the point remains that you have to draw the line at violating places of worship, Islamic or Christian. You have to draw the line at messing around with rights, the right to worship chief of them. You have a right to your protest, other people have a right to their prayer.

But of course imprisonment, brief or long, is idiotic. Talk of going overboard, it is excessive, abusive, and oppressive. I join the others in railing against it, I join the others in demanding its remanding. It is also, not quite incidentally, completely counterproductive. It doesn’t draw attention to Celdran’s excess, it draws attention to the law’s excess. It does not correct a mistake, it foments an injustice.

There is in fact a parallel to this elsewhere in the world. Two years ago also, the punk group Pussy Riot stormed Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in the middle of a service and launched into a profanity-laden performance of their song, “A Punk’s Prayer.” It was a prayer for the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out.” Which remained unanswered: Vladimir Putin won the elections anyway, his third term, and came down hard on the group.

The members of Pussy Riot were given two years in a penal colony, their leader, Masha Alyokhina, specifically slapped with solitary confinement. The harshness of the punishment, a throwback to gulag days, which showed how little Putin had advanced from his KGB roots, stoked angry protests all over the world, from human rights organizations to musicians, from bishops to politicians. A documentary on their plight recently won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award in Sundance.

The point is simple: You inflict a punishment that’s worlds beyond the offense, the offense will be forgotten, the punishment will be remembered. Arguably, a couple of months to a year in jail is more benign than two years of solitary confinement in a penal colony. But even more arguably, a stern reprimand or censure, along with a call for an apology, is even more benign than imprisonment, however brief. At the very least, what Celdran did was a little more dignified than bursting into a church and shouting obscenities at the congregation, however it might sound musical to a punkista’s ear. And he’s not named, well, Pussy Riot.

At the very most, it’s more enlightened. Jailing Celdran just deepens the impression that the courts, and not just the Church, continue to be haunted by the ghosts of the past. The ghost, specifically, of a Fray called: Damaso.

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