Missing the forest as well as the trees | Inquirer Opinion
Publisher’s Note

Missing the forest as well as the trees

The debate about the protest by Carlos Celdran exposes fault lines in the way Filipinos think. The reactions have been most telling: Filipinos still love their churches and their courts, however much and often they had been let down in the past.

The subliminal text is this: We Filipinos prefer form to substance. We love institutions and care less what they stand for. We revere organized religion, but ask not about spirituality, transcendence and communion with all beings and their earth. We defer to courts and the Revised Penal Code, but ask not about justice, fairness and righteousness.


The law punishes “acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful,” and the leading “annotators” (or authoritative jurists, in the old tradition) tell us that the act “must [have been] directed at religious practice or dogma or ritual for the purpose of ridicule.” In other words, it isn’t enough that an act be offensive; it must have been offensive in a religious way. It isn’t enough that a person be offended; he must have been offended as a religious believer. This is captured best in Oscar Tan’s metaphor about bringing lechon to a mosque (Inquirer, Jan. 31, 2013).

Perhaps Judge Juan O. Bermejo Jr. should have considered that the Supreme Court has been rather lenient on this point and has looked the other way when confronted with an Iglesia ni Cristo program accused by Catholics of having profaned the Blessed Virgin and a tabloid accused by Muslim clerics of having incredibly claimed that pork was sacred to Islam.


It is easy to say that those were civil cases, the first for an order to stop the broadcast and the second for damages. But that only reminds us that since Celdran faces criminal charges, the judge had the additional burden to find “mens rea” or criminal intent, and show that Celdran had meant to offend religiously.

Political, not religious

But how can Celdran be irreligious when his intent was merely to be impolitic? In other words, what we have here is not religious speech. It is political to the core. His intent was to protest the clergy’s opposition to the then reproductive health bill. His explicit message was that the Church should keep its hands off secular politics and respect the constitutional wall of separation. His symbolism, the bowler hat and funereal suit, came from Jose Rizal, and Damaso is from Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” that all students are required by law to read.

The Catholic clergy  act like a political party when they disagree with officials elected by the people, and then ask to be protected like a religion when the people disagree disagreeably. They shouldn’t have their cake and eat it, too.

They have used the pulpit to lobby against the RH bill that they dislike, citing biblical and papal teachings. But when they preach to captive audiences during Sunday Mass, I know many churchgoers—myself included—who feel gravely offended at the intrusion into their contemplative space, however urbane and civilized the assault. Yet for me, the solution is merely to suffer the officious proselytizer, not to jail him.

Two strands

This brings us to the other approach, namely, constitutional law. There are two strands to the legal defenses for Celdran. The first is criminal law, to show how the “elements” of the crime are not present. It wasn’t “notoriously offensive” since the prosecution witnesses themselves initially thought it was innocuous at worst. It didn’t offend religious dogma, nor did it intrude into the sacrament of the Mass.


And surely, if the Catholic Church had been offended, then why has its highest officialdom deliberately stayed away from the case? After all, if on RH the clergy has positioned itself as the sole interpreter of what is religiously correct, shouldn’t the court take its bearings from them as the true interpreter of what is religiously offensive?

The second strand is constitutional law, for the court to strike down the specific provision because it privileges the religious over the secular. Professors Harry Roque and Florin Hilbay have compared this law to lese majeste (that punishes disrespect for the King as “God’s temporal embodiment,” says Hilbay) and which was thrown out by our courts during the American period.

It creates double standards that protect the religious but not the secular from those who disagree with them. If the shoe were on the other foot and, for instance, the Filipino Freethinkers felt affronted by a religious sect, can they file criminal cases against the sect? That is the double standard that offends two of the most important clauses in our Constitution. The Equal Protection clause ensures equal treatment to all and prevents the privileging of religious over secular belief. The Non-Establishment clause bars the use of governmental power to support religion, of allowing a church to rely upon the sword of Caesar to do its work.

‘Biyaheng langit’ via Bilibid

This dilemma is best captured by Celdran himself, author of the masterful Damaso meme, who summarizes the clergy’s position thus: “As far as they are concerned, I can go to heaven, but I have to go to jail first.” No penance needed but leave him to the mercy of his jailors.

Indeed, he has apologized and has been forgiven. The clergy’s official statement said: “While deeply disturbed by the incident, then Manila Archbishop Gaudencio B. Cardinal Rosales gave instructions for the Archdiocese to no longer pursue the case.” But, their spokesperson says, the court trial is for the state alone to decide. The timing is so way off. This is the strangest time suddenly to remind all of us about the separation of church and state, after a season when the clergy flexed its muscle to block the RH bill. But even worse, the clergy could wash its hands of the case because the law would allow individual believers to trigger off the process in its behalf. The wall of separation is kept intact through litigation by proxy. What’s the point of the admonition about keeping God and Caesar apart, when Caesar is only too willing to the bidding of God’s earthly centurions?

Finally, many commentators, before they defend Celdran, would first lament his irreverence. When it comes to freedom of speech, irreverence is irrelevant. Nice speech doesn’t need constitutional protection. Only offensive speech does. Chairman Mao said: “A revolution is not a dinner party … it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.” Given the deep injustices that the Damaso caper protested, including dark episodes in the Catholic Church’s own history, Celdran’s rant was far too genteel and civilized, and only exposes the gap between the worship that is performed in the temples and the transformative faith that we must live out in our lives.

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TAGS: Carlos Celdran, Catholic Church, opinion, Publisher’s Note, Raul C. Pangalangan, Religion
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