Carlos Celdran, Padre Damaso and the Catholic Church

This selection was originally published in my book Buhol-Buhol/Entanglement: Contemporary Theatre in Metropolitan Manila (Bern et al: Peter Lang, 2017). The essay is a tribute to the performance artist Carlos Celdran, who passed away on 9 October 2019 and whose provocative and bold performance of Damaso becomes 10 years old this year. Note: cover photo courtesy of Get Real Philippines Official Website and maybe accessed here.

Before the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, a protest performance by Carlos Celdran was held at the Manila Cathedral on 30 September 2010. The performance was a response to the perceived meddling of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in Philippine politics, particularly in policymaking. Specifically, the protest aimed to give voice to Celdran’s disappointment with the CBCP’s interference of reading and passing the Reproductive Health Bill (RH Bill) in the House of Congress and the House of Senate. 

The RH Bill seeks to recognize and guarantee universal access to population control (i.e. methods on contraception and fertility control), sex education, and most importantly, maternal care in the archipelago. The Catholic Church (via the CBCP) is against the passing of the bill into a law primarily because, the Church believes that it is morally flawed, and at the same time, it goes against natural law (Esmaquel 2012). The Church maintains that RH Bill is also against life since it promotes abortion: “RH bill promotes artificial contraceptives which are abortificients, meaning, they cause abortion” (De la Rosa 2011). More importantly, CBCP is adamantly against the bill’s approval, for fear of legalizing divorce and same-sex marriage in the future. These are also considered to contradict natural law. 

Supporters of the bill have responded to criticisms posted by the CBCP (and their followers) in various media and pronounced in the pulpits during Eucharistic celebrations. In particular, authors of the Bill responded to the false accusations of the CBCP. Amendments were finalized before the first reading of the bill in the House of Congress on 6 June 2011 to satisfy the Catholic Church. In the official website of RH Bill supporters Occupy RH Bill Online, citizens are provided with ten important reasons for passing the bill. Accordingly, the RH Bill is intended to “protect the health and lives of mother, save babies, respond to the majority who want smaller families, promote equality for poor families, prevent induced abortions, support and deploy more public midwives, nurses and doctors, guarantee funding for and equal access to health facilities, give accurate and positive sexual education to young people, reduce cancer deaths, and save money that can be used for even more social spending” (Occupy RH Bill 2011).

The performance of Damaso inside the Manila Cathedral (Photo: Carlos Celdran’s Facebook page)

Celdran’s performance was simple. During an ecumenical service at the Manila Cathedral attended by Church leaders (such as Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, and the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Edward Adams) and some government officials (including then Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim), Celdran dressed as Jose Rizal (black suit, black pants, and a top hat) and stood before the altar with a sign bearing the word “DAMASO” – the villain in Rizal’s Noli me Tangere. The service was interrupted. Mayor Lim had Celdran arrested. In Evelyn Macairan’s (2010) report, Celdran was described as calm when he was arrested, and once policemen brought him outside the premises of the Cathedral, he began shouting that Church officials need to “hear the Filipinos are saying: that 90 percent of the people want the RH” (Macairan 2010). Celdran was detained at Manila City Jail and later the CBCP charged him under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines for “offending religious feeling.”14

Rizal’s Noli me Tangere is anti-cleric (i.e. Hispanic clerics) due to the Catholic Church’s abuse of authority in the Philippines during the 19th century. The character of Friar Damaso in the novel is an embodiment of political tyranny, religious hypocrisy and social injustice. In this context, Celdran’s performance-protest implies that the abusive Catholic Church in the 19thcentury is still experienced in today’s society, particularly with Catholic Church leaders meddling in state policymaking. 

This intervening character of the past and the present makes the performance an alternative middle ground of performing Jose Rizal, where various political and ideological agendas of the national hero intersect. In assuming the character of Rizal, Celdran brought the there and then to the here and now by invoking Rizal’s political and socio-cultural ideologies as relevant frameworks for interrogating social issues that present-day Filipinos are encountering. Celdran performed not only the dogmatic Rizal found in textbooks, but also an imagined Rizal who is conceived to be alive in the present. In this performance, Celdran might have been imagining Rizal as a balikbayan (a returning Filipino from overseas). Like the character of Ibarra in Noli me Tangere, Rizal was excited to go back home, hoping for a more developed and a more politically mature Philippines. But his excitement was transformed into disappointment because he witnessed the same social injustices, political tyranny and religious hypocrisy he used to encounter before going overseas. In utter disappointment, Rizal reminded the people about Damaso – hoping for the possibility of social reforms, which he started envisioning since the late 19th century. 

Celdran, imprisoned after performing Damaso inside the Manila Catedral in Intramuros (Photo: https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2018/08/15/1842878/calida-backs-celdrans-appeal-sc-case)

The performance invited a contrapuntal conversation among citizens about population and health issues in the Philippines, using Jose Rizal as the mediating agent. More particularly, Celdran’s performance, which interrupted the service inside the Manila Cathedral, was implicitly inviting Church leaders to engage in a dialogue. In my reading, Celdran was inviting Church leaders to listen to what the authors and supporters of the RH Bill had to say before silencing them. The official website of RH Bill supporters have already responded to the issues of abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage that Church leaders have been asserting against the Bill. Nonetheless, the Church and those who are supportive of the CBCP’s stand on the matter opted to ignore the responses. Despite opposition, the Bill was passed in December 2012 (and officially signed by President Benigno Aquino III on 21 December 2012).  Since its approval, the RH Bill has been implemented as a law via Republic Act Number 10354.  

However, the exuberance of RH Bill supporters was cut short when the Supreme Court released a Temporary Restraining Order on the implementation of the RH Law on 19 March 2013. The Supreme Court ordered “oral arguments” regarding the constitutionality of the law, which had been challenged by the CBCP. These are yet to take place. What about Celdran? What happened to him after he was charged by the CBCP with “offending religious feeling” because of his performance as Jose Rizal? On his Facebook and Twitter accounts, Celdran informed his followers that a Manila trial court disapproved his appeal to reverse the decision of Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. of the Manila Metropolitan Trial Court. Carlos Celdran was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt.       

The performance destabilized authorial narrative about Jose Rizal. Here, Celdran’s performance invited a participatory conversation especially when he showed the placard with the words “Damaso.” Celdran was probably imploring the Church officials, whose role in Philippine policymaking, according to Enrique Niño Leviste (2011) is hegemonic, that the issue at stake (RH Bill) be interrogated with the ordinary people. In other words, Celdran was requesting for the Catholic Church to allow other members of the civil society to dialogue about the said issue. On a final note, this short performance successfully presented an alternative image of the national hero. Celdran’s representation and presentation of Rizal is a radical one, a total opposite of the reformist or the anti-revolution assertion. Many historians explain that Rizal was the inspiration of the katipuneros (the revolutionists) in the plight for an independent Philippine nation from Spain via an armed revolution. But in Damaso, Rizal is not only the symbol of the revolution but the revolution himself. 

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