ONLY incurable romantics, or the excessively self-indulgent, will disagree that the exercise of freedom must be balanced with the virtues of responsibility and prudence.
Sympathy with last week’s Charlie Hebdo murder victims in Paris by two Muslim extremists has unreasonably encompassed the case of Carlos Celdran, hater of Roman Catholicism and earnest Roman Catholics who has become a kind of icon of freedom in some circles after doing an outrageous deed in September 2010.
He put on a costume that made him a caricature of Jose Rizal. He carried a sign emblazoned with the word DAMASO, entered the Manila Cathedral and walked up toward the altar while Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the then Papal Nuncio Archbishop Edward Adams and other prelates where concelebrating Holy Mass. His intention was clearly to disrupt the Mass and make a spectacle of himself and remind people of that Catholic friars, like Padre Damaso in Noli Me Tangere, were bad persons. He was hollering against churchmen being involved in politics while policemen were leading him out of the cathedral.
Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code imposes imprisonment “upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.” At a Manila court, he was charged under this point of law and found guilty three years after his deed. The community of human rights champions almost unanimously agreed with him that the verdict was bad because it would set a bad precedent and cause critics of religion to censor themselves.
Celdran, before he was found guilty, wrote a letter asking for forgiveness to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. But way before that the saintly Cardinal Rosales had actually forgiven Celdran. But it was neither the Archdiocese of Manila nor the association of bishops but the state that had brought suit against Celdran.
Celdran appealed the guilty verdict and recently the Court of Appeals affirmed the Manila Court’s ruling. It said: “The RTC was correct when it found that in conformity with one’s right to free exercise of religion, the faithful may, within the limits set by laws, rightfully practice and observe their beliefs, unimpeded by unfair interference from other people. It goes without saying that those people observing a certain form of religion or sect are equally entitled to the state’s protection as any of its citizens.”
Some Filipino champions of personal freedoms and human rights have used the atrocity committed in Paris to exalt the “right to offend” which they claim Celdran had in common with the editor and people of Charlie Weekly, whose exercise of that right led to their death. One famous commentator has called on “Lovers of free speech” to “stand behind Celdran and uphold his–and our–right to speak out certain truths, no matter how uncomfortable.”
We see no parallel between Celdran’s violation of the law and performing acts offensive to the feelings of the Roman Catholic faithful and their prelates who were doing religious worship at the Manila Cathedral in September 2010 and the publication by Charlie Hebdo of cartoons offensive to some adherents of the Islamic faith.
Prudence dictates “there is no right to offend”
Intructively, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier, had once said these words that applies to the case of Celdran: “If they are not amused by our cartoons, they don’t need to buy our magazine. Of course they are allowed to demonstrate. The right to protest needs to be protected, so long as one abides by the law and refrains from violence.” One can say, too, “If they do not like our religion, they don’t have to be members of our Church. Of course they are allowed to demonstrate against us. The right to protest needs to be protected, so long as one abides by the law and refrains from violence.”
The words of our columnist Francisco S. Tatad are appropriate: “Freedom can exist only with justice, even in the hands of those who consider it their business to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. A journalist may feel free, even without any provocation, to deflate inflated political egos and deride the mighty and the powerful; but she may not be free to ridicule what other people hold as sacred or inviolable. There is no human right to offend, contrary to what some people may want to preach from their self-created thrones, and the ability to attack God or any religion has never been the proof of individual freedom. Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, may have a way of taking such abuses on the chin, but Jews or Muslims may not easily put up with them.
“Thus, if Carlos Celdran, whom some conscript columnists would like to promote into some kind of icon for abusing Catholics and other Christians gathered inside the Manila Cathedral in 2010, had walked into a Muslim prayer assembly and behaved in the same manner, his misguided fans would probably have been eulogizing ‘the late Carlos Celdran’ instead of merely lamenting the court sentence that failed to recognize his nonexistent ‘right to offend.’ “