Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Carlos Celdran vs. The Catholic Church

There is a time and place for everything. To insist on that point: it is highly inappropriate to stir things up in the middle of a mass by using the religious service as a platform of protest against the Philippine Roman Catholic Church’s policy on the Reproductive Health Bill (RH). But that is what tour guide/performing artist/social activist Carlos Celdran did in September 2010 in the historic Manila Cathedral in front of the Catholic hierarchy. And yet, the unseemliness of his choice of locale should not diminish the import of his message.

Most of Celdran’s followers consider him to be a bold iconoclast who speaks truth to power. That was never more so the case than on September 30, 2010 when he let his feelings be known to a stunned group of religious officials. His public renouncing of the Church’s hardline stance against the RH bill was a cautionary demonstration that stemmed from the Roman Catholic Church’s historic tendency in the Philippines to exploit its spiritual authority by crossing the constitutional line that separates church and state. By reviving the name “Damaso” (the name of the duplicitous, arrogant priest in José Rizal’s cutting impeachment of a novel “Noli Me Tángere”) on a poster for all to see––and outfitted as Rizal himself––Celdran was sending a clear message to the church: stop interfering in politics and stop paralyzing Philippine society with your dogmatic, outdated principles.

As a result of his action, Celdran was charged and recently convicted according to Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code for “Offending Religious Feelings.” It is against the law in the Philippines for “offending”––a term that can be subjective and elliptical––what are called “religious feelings.” Celdran’s gambit could mean a sentence of more than a year in prison. The fact that Article 133 was codified into law in 1930 as a remnant of Spanish rule shows not only the obsolete frame of the act but also the neo-feudalistic, theocratic paradigm that the Philippine Catholic Church still operates on.

Just the Church’s opposition to the RH bill, based as it is on resolutions that are more appropriate to the Middle Ages than to the 21st century, inspires a picture of an institution engulfed in a maelstrom of its own making. The Church’s intense but misdirected gaze at the RH bill’s “anti-life legislation”––a bill by the way, that has the support of the majority of Filipinos––does nothing for the Church’s reputation as a champion of the disadvantaged or for its future prospects of bringing more devotees into the fold. The church is fighting what is a losing battle against history and against the mass, egalitarian way of thinking that will soon prevail in the fully participatory democracy that the Philippines is becoming.

If anything, we can read in the passing of the RH bill the slow decline of the power of the Catholic Church to sway public deliberations and dialogues exclusively in its favor and self-interest. In order to reverse this increasing vulnerability to forces that will soon be beyond its influence, the Catholic Church needs to reach out to Filipinos with a measure of respect for the separation of Church and State and prudently appreciate the social and demographic realities that inevitably arise out of the process of modernizing a nation. Cloaking itself in religious absolutism only widens the distance between the Church and society.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-religion. If I had the power to eliminate religious faith from the face of the earth I wouldn’t do it. This is where Bill Maher––an emphatic atheist along the lines of the late Christopher Hitchens––and I begin to part ways. As agnostic bordering on nonbelief as I am, it is the Mahers and Hitchens who see the faithful as paranoid sheep who thirst for easy, conclusive answers to complicated questions. Religion to card-carrying atheists is an autocratic, intolerant fairy tale of monumental proportions.

I want to give believers the respect they deserve. This however, does not mean I condone any devotee the right to impose their faith on others who do not share it, or rigidly on those who adopt a responsible position of reform. This is at the bottom of Carlos Celdran’s protest and conviction. It is spiritual faith misused and wholly incompatible with a free, modern society.


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