The word according to Carlos Celdran

Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - January 17, 2015 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - This interview with tour guide, performing artist, and activist Carlos Celdran took place in Intramuros as preparations for Pope Francis visit hit fever pitch. It was Tuesday at noon, and hundreds of police officers surrounded the Manila Cathedral while a convoy of cars rushed through what would be the Pope’s route. As we walked through this madness, Carlos suddenly stopped and took out his cellphone. “It’s the Popemobile!” he shouted, pointing to a white jeepney covered in cloth. He stepped from the sidewalk and onto the street to snap a photo. “It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said, laughing.

Carlos is just as irreverent as he was four years ago, when, inside the Manila Cathedral, just a few steps from where we were this Tuesday, he held up a sign that read, “Damaso!” (referring to the crooked priest in Jose Rizal’s novels). The incident got him arrested and charged with the crime of “offending religious feelings” — a crime that the Court of Appeals this month has affirmed, finding him guilty. He now faces two months and 21 days to one year in prison.

This is why, with the country engrossed with the papal visit, we found no better person to put on our cover than Mr. Celdran. The Pope comes to the Philippines at a time when religion and freedom of speech are front and center in public discussion, with the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France and the anti-Muslim protests in Europe. Carlos’ case brings these topics home.

SUPREME: Does the prospect of going to prison worry you?

CARLOS CELDRAN: It doesn’t worry me per se because it’s only two and a half months so there’s an end to it, unlike the Pussy Riot girls who had no end in sight. And I have friends who’d been to rehab way longer — and there’s no Jacuzzi and karaoke system in rehab. The only bummer part is that the Jacuzzi won’t be there when I get there. (Laughs.)

But it does worry me because it sets a terrible precedent. If you read the decision itself, the judge deemed it possible to jail anybody for anything that could be offensive. Just the fact that one person can be convicted for something that he says, period, sets a terrible precedent for people in the future.

The court decision calls what you did “notoriously offensive.” Are you saying that people should have the right to offend others?

Of course, offending anyone, including religion, is part of freedom of speech and part of human rights. There should be no such thing as, “There are limits to the freedom of expression.” If there are, then take out the word “freedom.” I know that there’s not supposed to be anarchy, and one’s expression should be tempered by his own choices, but it should not be the state to put me in jail. My case is, “People of the Philippines versus Carlos Celdran,” and that’s the horrible and scary precedent. The government should never put anybody in jail for what they say.

It’s a human right to express one’s self, but it’s also a human right to practice one’s religion. There’s a saying that your rights stop where others’ begin, and some people say that your speech got in their way. What do you say about this?

The big misinformation here is that I disrupted a Mass. That has been the constant misinformation since 2010, that I went there and interrupted people who were praying. I did not. It was a Bible sales rally, okay? It was an ecumenical meeting. It was not a ceremony at all; there was no Eucharist, no sermon, no homily, no priest. So in that sense, I did not interrupt anything holy.

Remember, I did not do this for fun. I did it with a very strong message — that the Church was using their pulpit as a political platform regarding the Reproductive Health Bill. Since they used the pulpit for something that was other than sacred, I also used it in that particular way.

Could you have made your point without being “notoriously offensive”?

When you’re trying to do something like reverse an institution that for centuries has been abusing its own power, there’s no such thing as the right place or the wrong place. Are people saying that Rosa Parks should not have gone to the back of the bus? Are they saying that the people of Stonewall should have waited for the Monday after before filing a case and rioting against the police? When you’re trying to change people, you have to bring the fight to them. By using the “proper” voice, and the “proper” venue, and the “proper” time, you’re already being appropriated by the institution you’re trying to change.

This brings to mind the Charlie Hebdo massacre — that intersection between free speech and religion.

Yes, and I don’t see how Filipinos can decry the Charlie Hebdo massacre and not worry about what the decision on my case is doing to threaten their own human rights. If the state puts me in jail for two and a half months, they can put others in jail as well. If you look at the decision, it’s not only about religion. There’s actually something in it that says that anybody that can take something as offensive, period, can put you in jail. 

Why do some institutions move to restrict speech?

Words and images have the capacity to make people think twice about things. But the fact that the Church was offended by one word that I said just shows that they should be questioning their own faith. Something as simple as “Damaso” shouldn’t get them rattled if the basis of their faith is completely unshakable.

After all you’ve been through, from the RH Bill campaign to your court battle, do you still consider yourself a Catholic?

Absolutely. Yeah. I’m Catholic in framework. If a plane’s crashing, I will pray to the Holy Mary. (Laughs.) I don’t know what atheists do when planes are crashing.

Did you grow up a Catholic?

Oh yeah, I went to San Agustin — the whole thing.

At what point did you begin to question your religion?

My relationship with religion has always been more of a spiritual one more than a dogmatic one. I already knew since I was in San Agustin Church that there were a lot of things wrong with what I was being taught. From the moment when Sister Emiliana told me that there was Adam and Eve, and Mrs. Mendoza, my science teacher, told me there was Darwin’s evolution of man — those two conflicts were enough to make me wonder. So ever since grade school, there’s always been a conflict between my religion and my logical side.

Have you found the middle ground between the two?

Yeah, spirituality. I’m a cafeteria Catholic and I’m proud of it. I think that modern, organized religions have very little to do with spirituality. A lot of stuff that’s in them are just rules created by old men based upon some book that was written by more old men. So, I focus on the spiritual — do unto others what you want others to do unto you, and let’s stop right there.

I think that Filipinos are the same. We’re logical, secular people. It’s just that the Catholic Church, using its abuse of Philippine politics, has deprived us of that logic and secularism. They use their public relations machinery in order to hostage votes against politicians.

Filipinos need to separate religion and spirituality more. I recently saw a post that said, “Pope Francis, make me pass my exam” — I love that. (Laughs.) It shows that we have Santa Claus mentality when it comes to religion. We think that religion is something that comes from outside of ourselves and not within ourselves. And that’s the difference between spirituality and religion. Religion imposes, spirituality inspires.

Do you think that Pope Francis inspires?

Yes. Now, whether people will listen to Pope Francis is a different question. The Philippine Church’s hierarchy and a lot of hierarchies around the world are really hardheaded and used to the privilege that they used to have. I just hope that the Pope’s messaging is strong.

What do you want to hear from him?

The Pope’s voice is the strongest voice; he is the lord of all lords in the Catholic Chrurch. Even if he says something as simple as, “Filipinos, stop eating so much MSG,” or, “Filipinos stop littering” — that would totally create a diametric change. If he gives us the same old message, like, “Respect the sacraments, pray the Rosary, stop using birth control,” that will be billions and billions of pesos gone to waste.

I want him to make us pagalitan. There’s hardly a translation. (Laughs.) I want him to sermon us — no, he needs to tear Filipinos a brand-new a**hole, and I say this with all the love in my heart. He needs to put a mirror to Filipinos and show us what’s wrong with us. Because if not, we’ll never change. Unless Pope Francis addresses the Filipino character, it might just be a pointless trip.

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Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

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