[Q and A] Celdran: 'I'm Catholic until it is taken away from me'

MANILA, Philippines – Carlos Celdran isn’t only willing to challenge institutions and ideas, but the law itself.

Celdran, an outspoken reproductive health advocate, was convicted of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code (or "offending religious feelings") after he disrupted an ecumenical service at Manila Cathedral by holding up a sign with the words “Damaso,” alluding to a villainous priest in the novel “Noli Me Tangere.”

Celdran believes that his guilty verdict and the jail sentence carried with it threatens his right to free speech and everyone else’s. He will be appealing the ruling and hopes he may overturn the article in the process. 

Read and watch Rappler’s interview with Celdran, in which he speaks about his defiance, the day he was arrested and his Catholic roots. 

RAPPLER: How do you feel now that you are at the center of a religious controversy?

CELDRAN: Calm, blood pressure’s low. It’s going to be a big fight so I guess I’m keeping myself calm and bracing for what’s ahead. It’s going to be a big legal battle so we have to figure out what our strategies are. 

RAPPLER: Are you prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court or would you prefer to keep it in (the Regional Trial Court)?

CELDRAN: I guess I would be prepared if my lawyers and if people think it’s the best thing to do. It is a very archaic law that actually jeopardizes Filipinos, period. It’s something that was never used for the past 80 years. And I think the last time somebody brought it up was in the 1930s or 1950s. It was all the way in the last century and it never hit trial. To have this archaic law from the Spanish times, this is a Spanish penal code law - Article 133. So basically, when you are talking about the times of "Damaso" there is nothing more literal than this law.

So this archaic law was brought to the front. And amazingly, it was brought to trial. And it actually convicted somebody, who unfortunately happened to be me. But having said that, whether it be an action that I did, whether it be anything that I say regarding the Catholic Church, or any other particular religion, this Article 133 jeopardizes every Filipino. It gives every Filipino the danger of being persecuted and prosecuted for even questioning the religion.

RAPPLER: How relevant is this in relation to the passage of the RH bill? How relevant is this to that original issue?

CELDRAN: It’s directly related because it is still about the issue of Church and State. The Church, the meddling that they did with the RH bill is a symbol that the Catholic Church is still trying to wield their power over the State. And this law that has been written shows that religion can wield power even [in the justice system].

Because... the judge, God bless him, he was just doing his job. But this law allows the prosecution of (the) Filipino. One can question the validity of the judge or whether the judge could have been a bit biased because he was Catholic or whether the judge was just basically doing his job. Whatever it is, this law gives precedent to persecute people for speaking up about religion. This is totally a freedom of speech and civil liberties issue.

RAPPLER: Do you see this as a legal issue or more like a case of the Catholic Church battling for legitimacy?

CELDRAN: One can see it as a bit of both. But more than anything, I see this as an opportunity for us to really closely look at our laws, (and) see what is archaic in there.

Obviously, we haven’t changed or updated our Constitution since the time of the Spanish. There’s still some leftover stuff in there that actually jeopardizes modern Philippine society. We just didn’t realize that people actually will pick it up from the dusty pages of the book and use it in the modern age. And they’re doing it now. So this is a time for us to reflect, look at our constitution, look at our penal codes and update [them]. And maybe we could even extend it further, as not just being the provisions of religious persecution but also economic freedoms, political freedoms, information freedoms. Maybe it’s time for us to really look at the laws of the Philippines.

This penal code needs to be removed, period. Whether I am released, whether I am pardoned, whether I serve my time in jail, whatever that must be. The fact that that law exists means that you, the person behind you and everybody else can be thrown in jail for a year, or perhaps more. Because it’s 6 years. They already lowered my term to one. I’ve been given the good stick. I could have been there for 6 years. All of you are under danger, especially with the cybercrime law. Anything you say about religion online can also endanger you.

RAPPLER: Even some liberal supporters of the RH bill have thought that this - the manner in which this protest was done – is offensive. What would you say to that?

CELDRAN: There’s a lot of disinformation out there about the offense. Because a lot of disinformation out there is spread by I guess media, who were not doing their research properly, and, or probably, the Catholic Church itself. It was not a mass.

RAPPLER: I understand it was an event thrown by church organizers.

CELDRAN: Organizers, laymen. Whoever wasn’t there, I guess, doesn’t really have the right to say what is offensive and what is not. It has to do with the word "Damaso." And where can the word "Damaso" be seen as offensive to a particular religion, especially since half of the Church at that day was Protestant. It was an ecumenical meeting between two religions to support the reading of the Bible.

There was no mass. It was laymen reading bible passengers and a few anti-RH passages. They were using this event to spread the anti-RH agenda as well. So it wasn’t a mass at all. No Eucharist was there. There were laymen on the stage along with posters.

But the disinformation going around makes it seem that I went in the middle of a homily and I interrupted. Basically it was kind of like a town hall meeting that I walked in(to). They did hold a mass but the mass was held two hours after I was arrested.

RAPPLER: What about people who would say that their freedom of speech (and expression) in their place of worship was impinged upon by your protest? 

CELDRAN: If it is an activity of worship, the Manila Cathedral is a public place. They can use that place to also push for the anti-RH agenda. They use that pulpit for politics as well. So, by them also using that, it essentially makes the Manila Cathedral -- which doesn’t pay taxes, which is open supposedly to the entire public -- just as much an open space as Plaza Miranda or anything else. And if we’re going to also be nitpicking things about freedom of speech, for them to say that, then what will stop them from being arrested for talking about other religions or by talking against a movie star?

Freedom of speech is totally absolute. It comes with responsibilities. That responsibility has to [be part of] a self-actualized society that actually knows the difference between what is right and wrong in this world. And there comes the responsibility. It had to come from the self. It can’t come from the State.

RAPPLER: How nervous are you about the possibility of going to jail?

CELDRAN: I’m calm about it. I’m defiant and I’ll be fighting it till the very end. I am envisioning a future without a jail term. That’s basically what I’m doing. But as you know, the universe unfolds as it should. Whatever I went though, the RH bill has become RH law. So at the end of the day, whatever I go though is worth every minute.

RAPPLER: Were you raised a Catholic and what are your beliefs now? 

CELDRAN: I was raised a Catholic, absolutely. Of course my faith was shaken. Of course my eyes have been opened about the flaws of my mother institution, which has been very disheartening.

As I tell people, if a plane is crashing and I’m in it, of course I’ll pray the Holy Mary, Mother of God. I’ll pray the Hail Mary. It’s part of my fabric, my framework already. What can I do? I pass by a church, I will genuflect and pray the cross. It’s just part of my wiring already. So being Catholic is something that I am until it is taken away from me.

RAPPLER: Would you do it again knowing what you [know] now? 

CELDRAN: Of course not. The RH bill is RH law. I never do anything twice, darling. Never look back.

RAPPLER: But if it was in that time before the RH bill was passed, would you have done this again?

CELDRAN: I have no regrets of what I did. Everything depends upon the circumstance. But if I felt it needed to be done, then of course it will. I would have done it again if I felt I needed to. But for now I don’t. So I’m not looking back.

RAPPLER:  Is there any last message, or words, you want to get across?

CELDRAN: This is really an issue of freedoms, like all kinds of freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of good government, freedom to access our judicial system, everything that has to do with what we understand as freedom. This is a great starting point for all Filipinos to really analyze what it truly means to be free. - Rappler.com