Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Confusion about politics and morality

I know a number of people who have taken the guided tours conducted by professional Intramuros tour guide Carlos Celdran and they like the way he makes Spanish colonial history come alive in all its passions and pageantry. But yesterday he went overboard with his own “crime of passion,” as he put it in media interviews.

Celdran entered the Metropolitan Cathedral where Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales and other Catholic personages were holding, ironically, what a report termed “an ecumenical service” and disrupted it by shouting that the Church “should not involve itself in politics.” He then held up a placard bearing the name “Damaso,” a hated Spanish friar in Dr. Jose Rizal’s novel, “Noli Me Tangere.” Celdran explained later to media that he had just intended to hold his demo outside the cathedral, but since it was raining he decided to go inside; once he got close to the altar, he “was tempted” to deliver his message of non-inteference by the Church.

Freedom of speech but in the right venue

I’ve been asked about how I feel about this episode and the issue of the RH bill. First, on Celdran’s headline episode. Had he just gathered all his fellow advocates outside the cathedral for peaceful mass action, there would have been nothing wrong with it. It’s a free country and freedom of assembly is guaranteed by our Bill of Rights, so long as it's peaceful and does not bother other citisens. I’ve always held a tolerant attitude towards rallies and mass actions, be it in Mendiola Bridge or in front of Camp Aguinaldo or at the Batasan, and God knows how I myself have availed of this freedom in many years of being a street parliamentarian. 

 Strong opinions for and against Celdran's actions

But Celdran went inside the cathedral and disrupted an on-going service to air his protest. He was charged for succumbing to his temptation and “offending religious feelings” under the Revised Penal Code. He is on bail. Had he had done this sort of thing in a mosque he probably wouldn’t have come out alive. To like-minded people, Celdran has become some kind of hero, and in fact, my good friend Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, the House Minority Leader and principal author of the RH Bill, has decried the charge leveled against him as “of an archaic and colonial vestige.”

Edcel also lamented that priests opposed to the bill’s passage “had been using the pulpit to campaign against it despite the solemnity of a Mass.”  But that’s the way our democratic system works, each protest in its own venue: where else would priests campaign against the bill but from the pulpit, just as Celdran and like-minded folks are free to campaign for it in the media and in the halls of Congress, as RH advocates have been doing over the past years.  
In December 2008, my husband and I dropped by Munich on the way home from the climate change summit in Poland and we heard mass at the cathedral in that Bavarian capital. Midway through the service a half-naked man barged down the main aisle and began knocking down giant candelabras before heading for the altar where several priests were concelebrating mass; the security collared him out and later we learned that he was charged in court.
Is the Church meddling in politics?

On the issue of the Church’s “interference” in politics and government affairs,  I note from postings on “Facebook” that some people equate the Church’s stand against the RH bill with meddling in politics. In regard to politics, the Church has been very careful about appearing to interfere, and evidence has been its consistent refusal to be drawn into election campaigns and endorsing candidates outright. About the only exception I recall was in February 1986 when it quite obviously went for Cory Aquino against the dictator. It will be recalled that a turning point in the 1986 elections, which helped triggered the EDSA Revolution, was the collective statement of the bishops, led by Jaime Cardinal Sin, condemning the massive cheating resorted to by the Marcos regime. At that time it was not just politics that was at issue, but the morality of clean and honest elections, and the bishops did not equivocate.

Consistency of the church stand

But on the issue of the RH bill and the use of contraceptives the Church has been pretty consistent too, for as Tandag Bishop Nereo P. Odchimar, the current president of the CBCP, put it in a recent statement, “The Church intervenes in this issue because this is a moral question.” It concerns, among other things, he stressed, “the right to life particularly of the unborn child in the mother’s womb.”
Bishop Odchimar explained the Church position in his disclaimer to news reports that the Church has threatened President Aquino with excommunication over his reported support for the RH Bill pending in Congress.

The CBCP head pointed out that it has been the “traditional” position of the Church that human life starts at conception and not at implantation. He stressed that some contraceptive pills and devices are abortifacent in nature and that “Any completed act to expel or kill the fertilized ovum is considered to be an act of abortion.” Church advocates have also argued in other forums that certain aspects of the RH bill could encourage more teen-age promiscuity and that some contraceptive devices are confirmed to actually be quite harmful to women’s health.

Unwavering in its objections

On the issue of morality and the preciousness of human life, beginning with the unborn, I do not see the Church buckling down, for that’s the way it has been since the beginning of its existence (this is also the basis for its staunch  objection to capital punishment). Recall that it didn’t blink when King Henry VIII of England threatened to secede from the Church when it refused to recognize his divorce from Catherine and his marriage to Ann Boleyn (who subsequently also lost her head in the Tower, like Catherine); for a while the Church lost an entire country, but it did not surrender its stand. 

This bedrock obstinacy has been both its strength and its weakness, or as romantics would put it, its agony and its ecstasy over some truths that it holds to be immutable. The RH bill is no different. The Church may ultimately lose the vote in Congress on this issue, but I don’t see it ever buckling down in its opposition to contraceptives, especially those masquerading as abortifacents.

One Facebook fan has a thoughtful suggestion for the Church, which makes sense: “Why can’t (it) put (its) efforts into urging people to abstain through education, prayer and counsel? I quite agree with this idea. We practicing Catholics know that the Church will uphold the morality of its idea that contraception obstructs the transmission of life, as it proposes natural family planning instead. So why don’t Church prelates and the various organizations within the Church carry out a zealous campaign beyond the pulpit, and in the grassroots level, to inform and educate people, especially among the lower-income groups, about natural family planning. If it cares so much about the morality of the population issue, there’s no other way to go but the grassroots.

(Next: population issue as bete-noire for the real issues: the misuse of resources and the poor economy)

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