With Carlos Celdran having been convicted and sentenced to jail time for the crime of ‘offending religious feelings’, reactions online have ranged from triumphalist anti-RH diatribes to sympathy to outrage to concern over the curtailing of freedom of speech. There also seems to have been a resurrection, so to speak, of the old discussion back when he first walked into that mass with the Damaso sign in support of separation of church and state. Did he have a right to do so? Isn’t he just getting what he deserves? Sure, maybe he doesn’t deserve jail time, but as a Christian I’m still offended, and shouldn’t that count for something?
The short answer is no, under international conventions to which the Philippines is a signatory, the shared possible offense to us Christians does not count for anything, nor should it. While there is currently some debate ongoing, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in its General Comment No. 34, Article 19 clearly laid out that freedom of speech is incompatible with blasphemy laws like the one Carlos was convicted of violating. In this, the UN has essentially enshrined being able to commit blasphemy as a human right.
The reason for this is admittedly somewhat counter-intuitive, but there are documented historical examples of how badly laws banning blasphemy backfired in India that I’ve included in the links section below. I think it is summed up nicely by US President Obama in a speech explaining why he didn’t ban a video that offended Muslims (it should be noted that our constitution enshrines the same right to free speech he is talking about here):
“I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.
Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with.
We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”
One argument I often hear religious people throw at advocates of free speech in an attempt to get at the non religious sensibilities said advocates presumably hold, is ‘how would you feel if someone insulted your father or your mother?’
As an Episcopalean myself, I don’t even need to make that hypothetical leap. I can ask myself directly, how would I feel if Carlos Celdran walked into my church and held up that sign?
I’d want to know why. Though I might be annoyed at the interruption, I would genuinely be curious as to what this obvious act of protest was trying to get at. I’d say that the interruption of a single mass might be worth it, if it was to be made aware of something vitally wrong with the institution I literally put my faith in. I have been blessed in having been born and baptized into a loving and supportive church whose stance on social issues are in line with mine (pro-RH, pro-LGBT, pro-secularism), and which holds a tradition of relatively democratic involvement by the laity in church affairs. With the exception of the actions of some rogue, roundly publicy decried elements in Africa, I took the effort to research and make sure that it is not engaged in any activities I have a problem with. If it was, both as a member of the congregation and as a serving member of the church vestry council, I would want to know about it and work with the rest of the congregation, our parish priest and if need be the diocesan assembly and our presiding bishop to see what could be done to rectify it.
And that is what confuses me most about people who assert that they’re offended by Carlos Celdran’s action. If I found out that my bishops were bullying politicians to kill legislation that would save mother’s lives -and- reduce abortions, I wouldn’t want to attend a mass with those bishops in it anyway. Where is their offense and outrage over the lies being spread about how condoms supposedly don’t work, leading to more AIDS cases? Where is their offense and outrage at the ivory smuggling, or the bribes they took to keep quiet through all the corruption perpetrated by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo? Why do they keep giving money to an organization that not only can’t seem to stop raping nuns and children, but keeps spending that money to cover it up?
What really offends my religious feelings are people who go out, declare themselves holy, and then spread hate and fear and lies and pain in the name of God and Christ. I am deeply offended at how the words and deeds of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) are giving us Christians a bad name, and that is why I actively and openly fight them. I live in hope that someday more Catholics, like Carlos used to be before they banned him from San Agustin, may rise up to do the same.