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New wine needs new wineskins

What does it mean to be a Filipino and a Catholic today?

  • Sophia Lizares Bodegon, Manila
  • Philippines
  • February 1, 2013
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The setting was not lost on Carlos Celdran, performance artist and Catholic. Two years ago, he donned the attire of the national hero Jose Rizal and disrupted a prayer meeting in Manila Cathedral.

Into the neo-Romanesque grandeur of the prime basilica in the country, Celdran marched, holding a sign that read “Damaso,” referring to an abusive Spanish friar in Rizal’s novel. “You bishops, stop involving yourself in politics,” he reportedly shouted as he was being led away. This week, a Manila court decided that Celdran had violated a law that prohibited “hurting religious feelings.”

Writing on the decision, lawyer Oscar Franklin Tan observed, “The ‘Damaso’ meme gained so much traction,” capturing in one word the “political bullying in this supposedly modern, enlightened age, alongside the thought of the president being excommunicated.”

Celdran is only one of the many Filipino Catholics, who despite being torn between childhood faith and critical thought, profess their allegiance to the Church.

“Being Catholic is something that I am until it is taken away from me,” Celdran said in an interview. His was an angry yet painful rejection of archaic structures, coupled with the awareness of what is holy.

Here is a Christian generation for whom dualisms have started to unravel. Can what is holy also be oppressive?  Can I have faith and also use reason?  If we are part of the Body of Christ, why are our questions and contributions disregarded?

Underneath it is the question: what does it mean to be Filipino and Roman Catholic today?

The criticism is frontal. After all this is a religion started by someone who had caused a ruckus in a temple, entering it with a whip and upturning tables. Someone who allowed himself to be seen as sullied by the touch of dubious women and who invited himself to dine with petty bureaucrats. A small time rabbi who one day stood up to read from the scroll scandalizing religious leaders and the congregation as he proclaimed that the time of the Lord is near.

While his methods and motives have been questioned, Celdran is not alone.

There is an emerging “Occupy Catholicism” movement that refuses to allow the hierarchy to dominate the debate. It is a challenge in a country where smooth interpersonal relations are at a preminum, where honor is paramount, and shame and blame are the ultimate penalty, making robust and principled debate hard to sustain.

Joel Tabora, a Jesuit priest and president of the Ateneo de Naga University, bemoans the fact  that while there are many “contentious issues,” Filipinos have to learn how to be able to talk about these issues “without condemning one another to hell…or in waging holy war against each other.”

In a  blog followed by more than 7,000,  he pleads: “Is there any space where we can allow reason to help us find faith, or faith to help us find reason – even in discussing such things as mining and environment, corruption and politics, gay and lesbian culture, gay marriage and civil divorce?

Is there any space where discussion and deliberation can be rigorous, but where the outcome is not spilled blood, nor abused honor, but deeper insight into reasons for difference, deeper human understanding, and deeper love?

Unless we find this space, we will end up a nation of mutually-excommunicated devotees in hatred, wallowing in self-righteousness, not profound but silly.”

Last year, a large number of faculty members of the respected Ateneo, the Jesuit Catholic university, supported what was then the RH Bill using faith as their lens.

In 2008, a group known as the Catholics of the RH Bill was organized, aiming “to help bring out the true voices of Filipino Catholics,” with Celdran leading a walking tour at its founding.

The Catholics for Reproductive Health (C4RH) “envisions a fellowship of Filipino Catholics living in harmony with their faith and right to RH.” It claims that 500 Catholics proudly said that “I am Catholic and I support the right to Reproductive Health.”

These are organic statements of faith and Catholic identity based on experience and not dogma, a growing mass of autobiographical accounts that has been missing in many public theologies.

What we are seeing is a resurgence, the bubbling up of new wine that needs new wineskins.

Sophia Lizares Bodegon is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and works in lay and continuing education

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