- Posted January 29, 2013 by
Offending Catholic feelings
Last January 28 Filipino reproductive health activist and tour guide, Carlos Celdran, was convicted of having offended religious feelings according to Article 133 of the Philippine Revised Penal Code. About two years ago, Celdran walked into the Manila Cathedral during an ecumenical forum, dressed as the late Jose Rizal, Philippines's national hero, and held up a big sign, saying "DAMASO". Padre Damaso is a character of Rizal's famous novel Noli Me Tangere. Damaso, a priest, is depicted as harsh, unforgiving and ruthless, all in the name of the Catholic Church.
Celdran in several interviews following the stunt and his brief incarceration said that his act of protest was in light of the Church's meddling with the then passing of the controversial and much debated Reproductive Health Bill. The Catholic Church in the Philippines has openly spoken against the bill from their pulpits and was known to have attempted to sway the votes of several legislators on this particular bill.
Many were surprised, nevertheless, that Celdran was charged under the Revised Penal Code. Many thought that a slap on the wrist would have been quite enough to teach him a lesson, so to speak.
The Prosecution at the Metropolitan Trial Court was of a different opinion and pursued the matter for the last two years. The court agreed with the prosecution yesterday, stating essentially that what Celdran did, was indeed a performance that notoriously offended the feelings of the faithful.
As a law student, one is trained to think critically and to apply deductive reasoning when analysing a certain legal norm. Even as a non-law student, however, one could clearly see the difficulties that Article 133 brought in this case.
The obvious questions were: How is "notorious" defined in Philippine law? Does case law say anything about this or did the lawmakers bother to come up with a meaning to eradicate uncertainty? How does a court determine if something is offensive or not? Would it use the famous "reasonable man" test that common law judges use in this kind of situations? Who are considered faithful within the parameters of Article 133? And how does a court of law gauge feelings?
Other requirements of this legal norm are that the offensive act should have taken place in a place of worship or during a religious celebration. Now this might seem a no-brainer since Celdran did enter the Cathedral (a place of worship) but the event taking place there was not a holy mass. Still, if one reads the law, it does say "or", so the legal requirement is not cumulative and one of the two options will suffice in fulfilling the two-part requirement of the legal norm.
Nevertheless, the second part, as already briefly presented above, does raise a lot of questions about the possible obsolete nature of such rules in the penal code. For a lot of the netizens who took to Twitter and Facebook yesterday, it seems that Article 133 is a remnant of some colonial penal code, back when blasphemy and heresy were crimes. And Article 133 is probably not the only one that was copied and pasted into the current penal code and went unseen through all the reforms in the past years.
As expected, Celdran is out on bail for now. His attorney confirmed that he and Celdran will file an appeal and were even prepared to stand in the Supreme Court if things get worse. This is understandable. Pandora's Box has indeed been opened and it is not only about Celdran anymore. The issue has gotten bigger and there are more things at stake. A flawed, archaic law was uncovered during this case and Filipinos are almost sure that Celdran is also fighting to repeal Article 133. Rightly so. This legal norm is subjective and vague. The onus is either on the judicial body to create new law/ define the terms of the controversial article by setting precedent and/or refer it to the legislative or on the lawmakers to finally open the debate on this particular law.
Many believe that Article 133 infringes on one's freedom of speech. Many say that Article 133 will only be used in an unfair way in the future, only protecting the religious feelings of the Catholics but not those of other beliefs. Others belief that the floodgates for more covert abuse from the Church have been opened and the Philippines will soon be pulled back into the 17th century when the Inquisition was the reigning force on the archipelago.
Anything can happen when it comes to this matter. The only thing that can go wrong for now is if the lawmakers do not even take notice of this issue and dismiss the outrage for another passing Twitter trend.