From excommunication to Padre Damaso, Catholics debate RH issue

10/05/2010 - To go or not to go? To church, that is, is the question many Filipino Catholics are facing these days.

There has been talk of boycotting mass, boycotting "abuloy," or going to church but being vocal about the RH Bill, a la Carlos Celdran. Friends of the Manila tour guide launched a "Damaso" t-shirt Tuesday at the "Draw the Line... Toe the Line: Church, State and Family Planning" press conference organized by the Forum for Family Planning and Development Inc.

The 300-peso white t-shirt with "Damaso" in front and "Pass the RH Bill Now" at the back will raise funds for the case of Celdran, who was detained after staging a protest at the Manila Cathedral last week, as well as the reproductive health campaign.

It isn't often that a literary character finds his name on a t-shirt, but supporters of the RH Bill find that the antagonistic priest from Rizal's novel Noli Me Tangere is a powerful and succinct way of expressing their feelings toward the Church, which is said to be the bill's number one opponent.

In the novel, Padre Damaso fathered the main female protagonist Maria Clara. He was a powerful parish priest both feared and hated in the community, and he manipulated civilian and police officials alike to favor Church interests and his own personal whims, thus symbolizing all that was corrupt in the Church during Spanish times.

Celdran's act was a reminder of the “abuses and inequities of the clergy during the Spanish colonial regime when the Church wantonly interfered in secular activities and dictated on civilian authorities," according to a statement from Minority Leader and Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, author of the current RH bill.

Life-saving legislation

The 16-year old controversial RH Bill has returned to the hot seat, and Manila tour guide Carlos Celdran's theatrical protest last week has everyone abuzz.

"Ayaw na naming mag-debut ito. Na-hostage na tayo for 16 years," said Elizabeth Angsioco, National President of Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines.

AKBAYAN Partylist Representative Kaka Bag-ao appealed to the President to certify as urgent all the bills pertaining to the establishment of a national policy on reproductive health.

"The debate of a fundamentally public policy issue should eventually and promptly be brought back to where it belongs - within the walls of our policy-making bodies," she wrote in her letter addressed to President Benigno Aquino III.

"We would like the Church to consider the plight of the majority. It should consider that there are provisions in the RH bill which are intended really to help the flock," said Gabriela Party List Representative Luz Ilagan.

"The RH Bill should be certified as urgent and life-saving," said Linangan ng Kababaihan Executive Director Dr. Junice L. Demetrio Melgar. "It's not just family planning. The bill provides for mobile health clinics, for the medical services needed by women whose lives are put on the line," said Melgar.

Support for the RH Bill and support for the Church are not mutually exclusive, clarified Dr. Edelina dela Paz, Executive Director for the Health Action Information Network. "We are Catholics, but we believe that women have the right to reproductive health. It's still a choice, but it should be made accessible, available and affordable. Not all Filipinos are Catholics," she said.

Excommunication

For his supporters, Celdran has become close to a hero, like Rizal. He was dressed as the national hero when he raised a white board bearing the name "Damaso" in front of the Manila Cathedral altar. After shouting "Stop getting involved in politics!" Celdran was arrested and spent 24 hours in jail. He was charged with violation of Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code which prohibits "offending religious feelings" at the Metropolitan Trial Court.

Similar cases exist from the 1930s, according to Atty. Marlon J. Manuel, who is representing Celdran. Manuel said they are waiting for Celdran's arraignment, but it is also possible that the case might be withdrawn, or parties may reach an out-of-court settlement. While Celdran has said he probably would not have gone through with it had he thought about the consequences, the act has inspired others to stand up and speak out, in their own creative ways.

Museum tour guide and gay activist John Silva for one has written an open letter that begins, "Dear Bishops, I would like you to excommunicate me."

In his blog, Silva listed several reasons for seeking religious censure.

For one, he alleged that the stand of the Church against contraception is anti-women, citing statistics that say around 500,000 Filipino women undergo abortions each year. He accused the Church of "wholesale murder" because many women have died because of abortion.

Medieval bully

Defending the church, on the other hand, is Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Vina in his Manila Standard Today column "Eagle Eye."

In his piece, entitled "Standing by the Catholic Church," La Viña wrote: "As I understand it, the Church teaching on reproductive health is above all about love – the love between husband and wife, love for children and family that is the fruit of that love, and ultimately the love of God that forgives us."

He added: "This is a beautiful message and the Church should not be ashamed of it. But when this teaching is demeaned with such toxic statements as 'all contraception is abortion' or "excommunication is a proximate possibility' (for the President), the message is lost and the Catholic Church is accused of being a bully with a medieval mindset," La Viña added.

La Vina suggests that if the Church is secure in its teaching, it should engage with the state and with the public on the subject. (GMA News)

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