Books on The Philippines
Update No: 103 - (26/02/13)
A David and Goliath story
The Catholic Bishops of the Philippines have successfully prosecuted an
individual who chose to protest against the Church’s involvement in politics—and
specifically its vitriolic attack on those who supported the Reproductive Health
Bill recently passed by Congress. The Church won and the protestor is now in
jail. But who really won? The bishops may have won this particular fight but
they are certainly losing the war in the fight for the hearts and minds of the
If you do not live in the Philippines or do not follow events in the Philippines
then the name of Carlos Celdran probably means nothing to you. Until recently
few Filipinos had heard of him either but now he is becoming almost as
well-known as national hero Jose Rizal.
Celdran, born in 1972, makes his living as a tour guide and performing artist.
He is also a cultural activist Prior to recent events which catapulted his name
to the forefront (we will get to that in a minute) he was best known to the
general public as a media commentator on Philippine society and cultural
He is an acknowledged bisexual and an activist for HIV/AIDS awareness. He has
also been a fervent supporter of the push to pass the reproductive health bill…
and that is what has got him into trouble.
As we reported last month, Philippines lawmakers actually passed such a bill
after an earlier draft had languished in Congress for more than a decade.
Officially entitled the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of
2012 (RA10354), the law guarantees universal access to advice on methods of
contraception, fertility control, sexual education and maternal care. The law
also ensures that the poor will have free access to contraceptives. The law
guarantees public school students aged between 10 and 19 will have access to
‘age- and development-appropriate reproductive health education’ although
private schools will have the freedom to choose whether or not they teach this
From its outset, the Roman Catholic Church has vehemently denounced any such
legislation as a threat to morality; yet although some 85 per cent of Filipinos
profess to follow the Catholic faith, most support the bill and choose to ignore
the instructions of their church. It should be remembered that during the more
than 300 years of Spanish occupation of the Philippine Islands (or rather, the
island archipelago that the Spaniards named in honour of King Philip of Spain),
there was little to distinguish between church and government. Much like the
parishes of medieval England, local governance was in the hands of the friars.
Even today, the mindset of much of the clergy – and certainly of the senior
clergy – sees little distinction between church and state.
So when President Aquino resurrected the reproductive health bill as one of the
central planks of his poverty reduction program, the Catholic Church went into
overdrive railing against it claiming that contraception and abortion were one
and the same thing, that passage of the bill would lead to the moral decay of
the country and threatening with excommunication any member of the legislature
who supported the bill.
During the time of President Arroyo—who despite her moral bankruptcy in many
areas—always claimed to be a ‘good Catholic’, any move towards sex education at
the national level was confined to teaching the Catholic rhythm method approved
by the Church. USAID money given to the Philippines to support a sex education
program was, when she came to power, diverted to the church and allowed to be
administered by the bishops. We leave the reader to guess what happened! Arroyo
lacking a popular mandate from the people chose her mandate from the bishops and
the generals and gave both groups what they wanted. The rest of the country paid
the price. Even a popular clinic in Manila, run by the Anglican Church that was
providing birth control advice to poor communities, was shut down.
And while all this was happening, the population continued to grow at one of the
highest rates in the world—more than two per cent annually, infant malnutrition
continued to increase, as did the incidence of hunger among the general
population. According to United Nations statistics more than half the
pregnancies occurring in the Philippines are unwanted and one third of them lead
to abortions—despite its illegality.
Despite the desperation of much of the country, the bishops remained largely
silent throughout the Arroyo years.
But the Philippines has moved on. Television, the Internet and smartphones have
made sure of that. People, even the poor, are more media savvy than they were
even a decade ago. As has been the case in other countries, the Catholic Church
in the Philippines has been rocked by allegations of child sex abuse by priests
against children as young as three years old. In the period since Arroyo lost
power, there have been criminal prosecutions of clergy as well as civil
lawsuits. But as has proven to be the case elsewhere, for many years, the entire
matter of sexual abuse was swept under the carpet.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The Catholic Church in the Philippines—or rather the 99 active and 32 honorary
bishops that make up the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (what
passes for a governing body), remains among the most conservative and orthodox
in the world; the voice of liberal Catholics is seldom heard; certainly not
within the church corridors of power. Yet, it is precisely this liberal view
that appears to be held by the majority within the population. According to one
apposite quote that appeared recently in the local press:
“If the church can provide milk, diapers and rice, then go ahead, let’s make
more babies…. But there are just too many people now, too many homeless people,
and the church doesn’t help to feed them.”
The Catholic Church has lost the moral ascendancy among many Filipinos and at
the end of the day, in passing the law legislators appeared more fearful of
their constituents than they did of the Catholic Church.
So what has all this got to do with Carlos Celdran? Well it seems that Celdran
has made the ecclesiastical powers that be uncomfortable and they have
prosecuted him because of it. Back in September 2010 and dressed up as national
hero Rizal, Celdran entered Manila Cathedral during a meeting of the clergy
carrying a placard on which was written a single word Damaso. He also shouted a
slogan ‘Stop getting involved in politics.’
Believe it or not, the bishops laid criminal charges against him and a Manila
court has now found Celdran guilty of the crime of ‘offending religious
feelings.’ This crime is covered by Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code which
provides for imprisonment "upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious
worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts
notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful." Take note of the words
He has been sentenced to a prison term of not less than two months and 21 days
and not more than one year, one month and 11 days. Amnesty International has
declared him a Prisoner of Conscience.
But let us think on this further. By shouting a slogan ‘Stop getting involved in
politics’ in the presence of the Catholic bishops, has he offended their
religious feelings? His slogan was political not religious. Most people would
see this alleged crime as preposterous were it not so serious. Certainly,
Celdran’s behaviour could be seen as crass but does it warrant a criminal charge
and imprisonment. Besides have the bishops forgotten their Gospel teaching of
turning the other cheek?
Might it be something else? Celdran was dressed as Rizal and was wearing a
placard that carried the name of a character in Jose Rizal’s book Noli Me
tangere (Latin for ‘Don’t touch me’). Padre Damaso was a morally corrupt 19th
century priest and the Rizal book dealt with the abusive hold of the Spanish
friars over the Filipino population in the 19th century. Did Celdran touch a
collective raw nerve in the good bishops? Back in 1896 Rizal was executed,
officially for his support of an unsuccessful revolution against Spanish
domination, although most believe it was because of his anti-Catholic ideas and
writings. Was it this aspect of his peaceful process that offended religious
feelings and touched the rawest of nerves among the prelates?
And was his transgression’ notoriously offensive’?
Whatever interpretation you place on it, the action of the clergy in seeking
criminal charges and the upholding of those charges by a court known for its
partiality and the ability of those in the position to do so to ‘buy decisions’
has in fact shown the moral bankruptcy of the leaders of the Catholic Church who
cling to another age.
Despite his conviction, Celdran has won because singlehandedly he has shown the
contradiction between two conflicting constitutional rights—the right to
exercise freedom of speech and the right to exercise freedom of religion. To
many people, it appears that the bishops are ‘sore losers’ and have overstepped
Meanwhile, with elections approaching it seems the influence of the pulpit in
deciding the outcome may be a thing of the past.