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PHILIPPINES


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 80,574 77,076 71,400 43
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,080 1,020 1,050 135
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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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 Filipino people.

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 affairs.

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 subject.

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 ‘notoriously offensive’.

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 themselves.
Meanwhile, with elections approaching it seems the influence of the pulpit in deciding the outcome may be a thing of the past.
 

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