Padre Damaso

This was my column on the date indicated above.

I join the many, many Filipino people who are taking their hats off to Carlos Celdran for doing what was necessary last Thursday at the Manila Cathedral. It was theatrical, yes. It bordered on the heretical, yes. It was probably rude and disrespectful. But it brought home the message in a loud and clear way.

One does not have to be Machiavellian to understand that sometimes it is necessary to test the limits to prove a point. And to my mind, that was exactly what Celdran wanted to do: Prove a point. That point is that the Catholic Church in the Philippines has lost touch with the real issues of its flock. Worse, the bishops and the priests carry on their business—think and act like they are infallible, that they are beyond reproach. In short, like Padre Damaso in Rizal’s novels.

And ironically enough, that point was amplified even further by the Church’s knee jerk reaction to what Celdran did. The Church issued a statement that essentially sounded like it was written by, well, Padre Damaso, himself. The statement reeked of “how-dare-a-Tour-Guide-embarrass-us-in-public-he-must-be-punished” attitude in the process turning off the very few remaining people I know who actually empathized with the Church on the issue of whether what Celdran did was acceptable or not. It was an opportunity for the Church leaders to act big and magnanimous, to be forgiving, to turn the other cheek, smile and say even if through gritted teeth that they, in fact, put premium to the humility that they preach. But no, our bishops and priests allowed their hurt pride to get the better of them. They responded by huffing and turning their noses up!

I can understand why our bishops and priests are smarting. Up until last Thursday, nobody had dared engage the Church in such a direct way. Even in the most heated discussions, we do tiptoe around them and always behave with reverence. Even when they are wrong, or are being boorish. All that Catholic guilt has been milked and turned to an advantage by the Church. Well, Celdran last Thursday showed that Filipinos have had enough.

The Church insists that what Celdran did was a desecration of a religious ceremony held at a place of worship. Excuse me dear bishops and priests but who have been using the pulpit and the altar of our churches in the last many centuries to unilaterally attack others, critics in particular, and verbally massacre them in the middle of the mass? You censure Celdran for holding up a placard that says “Damaso” inside a church and for shouting his demand that the Church stop meddling in the affairs of the state and call him disrespectful of a religious ceremony while at the same time keep a blind eye and a deaf ear to priests who hostage the same religious ceremony for political purposes! This kind of selective denunciation only reinforces the general belief that the Church has indeed become irrelevant.

Those who continue to question or condemn what Celdran did last week are missing the point. Celdran was doing exactly what the Church has been doing all this time, which is to interfere with the workings of the state. So it was bastos (rude).

Well, let it not be said that those of us who have been advocating the passage of the reproductive health bill started the whole descent into the quagmire. Not that Celdran speaks for all of us; I also don’t represent any organization, by the way. But the lying, the intimidation, the blackmailing, the threats have been started by the princes of the church! Consider these:

It was Bishop Cruz who appeared on television last week threatening the government of mass action. I was aghast to hear the bishop making not-so-subtle threats about how civil disobedience against this government would be disastrous. He even went on to cite the many dangers. He said that the moment that they mount their protests, it won’t just be about the reproductive health bill anymore as the other interest groups with their own axes to grind against the President or his government would be riding on the protest.

Of course it is highly doubtful if the church can actually summon a large crowd for a protest. They can dupe students of Catholic schools into attending a religious ceremony and then label it as a mass action against reproductive health programs. Or they can easily get the powerful Catholic blocs—from the Opus Dei, to the Couples of Christ, to the various Catholic organizations to come to the aid of the church.

Using threats and intimidation has been reduced to a science by the church. What the heck would you call that threat about excommunicating the President? That’s not just a threat, that’s a direct challenge. It’s blatant blackmail! The furious backtracking of the bishops on the excommunication issue only made things worse; it only proved that not only are our bishops bullies, they are just like other bullies who whine publicly and plead being misunderstood when called to task for their acts.

So Celdran indulged in mass generalizations. Oh please, hasn’t the Church been doing that for as long as we can remember? All these efforts to lump contraception with abortion for example; all these mass condemnation of everyone who has been supporting reproductive health issues including contraception in this country, all these attempts to simplify the issue into right or wrong, all these efforts to demonize its critics—these are the handiwork of the Church.

Anyone who actually cares about the truth and about the reproductive health issue would have to get riled up too every time a priest takes the pulpit on Sundays to spin lies about the reproductive health bill. Quite a number don’t even bother about being logical, or being factual—they simply spew venom and sanctimoniousness.

Not that the faithful listens, anyway. Despite the threats, the intimidations, and the dirty tactics being employed by the Church, almost 90 percent of Filipinos support the reproductive health bill. Most couples in this country want to be responsible and do things right. The problem is that they don’t have access to services that would enable them to do it. This is why it is important for the government to provide them access to these reproductive health services.

Let me cite an example. In the grassy knoll beside the Philippine National Railway, which used to be the haven of squatters, there remains a motley of families and couples who continue to live in the area in the hope that they can put up structures once again if authorities get tired of policing the area. The place is very near my house. Last I looked, there were at least three pregnant women among the group—including the woman who gave birth four months ago and who sold her child for three thousand pesos. These people don’t have livelihoods, don’t have roofs over their heads, and live only from the mercy of strangers. These people don’t go to mass nor care about what the Church thinks. They are busy trying to survive. And yet they bring children into this world. These people obviously need access to contraception.

The Church insists that passing the reproductive health bill will promote immorality in this country. They close their eyes to bigger immoralities such as lying, threatening people, poverty, hunger, and children—lots and lots of children—who don’t get the love and the care they should get, not even from the Church.


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