Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I am Carlos

My January 13, 2015 column.



“Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) became a popular slogan and meme in the last few days as people around the world expressed solidarity with the 12 people who were murdered in an apparent terrorist attack on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo.  The slogan was meant to highlight the fact that intolerance knows no reason and has no place in the world.  By saying “I am Charlie,” people appealed for an end to intolerance, in effect, asserting that we can all become victims like the 12 people.
Of course a subsequent “I am not Charlie” meme also appeared in Twitter although it didn’t become viral.  From what I understand, those behind the meme also condemned the killing, but took exception to the way the magazine Charlie Hebdo ridiculed organized religion.  The magazine was notorious for provoking, even inciting extreme reactions, by publishing satirical cartoons that mocked organized religion and revered icons.  By saying “I am not Charlie” some people are saying intolerance cannot be fought by committing intolerance.  This poses a dilemma—whether condemning the murder but blaming the dead is ethically viable.  
There are parallels between the Paris incident and the case of local culture activist Carlos Celdran—and not just because Celdran and the newspaper shared the same name.  Celdran was arrested, tried, and subsequently sentenced to a jail term for expressing his disgust over the way the Catholic bishops have been interfering in the affairs of the state, particularly on the issue of Reproductive Health.  Celdran, wearing a bowler hat associated with the national hero, help up a placard that had the word “Damaso” written on it, in the middle of a religious ceremony at the Manila Cathedral.  He was charged with offending religious feelings under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code. He was found guilty by a lower court, a decision that was upheld by the Court of Appeals.  Celdran is bringing his case to the Supreme Court, but has pursued other means including writing to Pope Francis.  
There are those who insist that the continuing persecution of Celdran is a blatant form of suppression of freedom of expression.  On the other side of the argument are those who believe Celdran overstepped the bounds of freedom; like those who pushed the “I am not Charlie” meme, they believe that Celdran’s efforts at ridiculing the Church was also a form of intolerance. 
I do not think that what Celdran did at the Manila Cathedral constitutes intolerance; there were people who were present who testified that they were not offended and some even thought his “protest” was part of the proceedings.  Besides, it’s not as if the Catholic church in this country is a marginalized sector with no resources or means of asserting or defending itself—every church in this country has a pulpit, after all, where many priests pretty much have been hectoring people, often without logical or scientific basis, in the name of faith.
Even more important, Celdran apologized publicly, and even went to confession in the same church.  
I think Celdran’s case is an important side issue that is worth discussing as the country prepares for the visit of Pope Francis to the country this week.  This is a pope that has been preaching and practicing tolerance and has thrown open many doors for many marginalized causes, most of which were previously deemed unacceptable or even heretical by the country’s bishops.  
I view Celdran’s case as proof of the many institutional weaknesses of the Catholic church in the country.  Very often, our bishops do fail in the critical area of walking the talk, or living what they preach.  This is a church that makes a big to-do with charity, forgiveness, humility, and other supposed Christian values and yet fails to manifest the same values during critical times when the expression of these values would be truly meaningful.  In the case of Celdran, we’ve seen a series of embarrassing hand-washing reminiscent of Pontius Pilate, recently done by no less than Cardinal Antonio Tagle.  Cardinal Tagle last week reiterated that the Church had already forgiven Celdran and that the church did not file the case against him.  The facts of the case say otherwise—it was Monsignor Nestor Cerbo, Rector of the Manila Cathedral that filed a case against Celdran!  The state prosecutor hardly attended any of the hearings. 
I think forgiveness cannot be a passive act.  In this particular case, which involves the very institution that preaches “turning the other cheek” and at this very opportune time during the visit of a pope known for being a revolutionary, it behooves upon our bishops to match rhetoric with action.  There are many legal remedies that the Church can pursue to help free Celdran if it truly wants to show sincerity and magnanimity.

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