Fr. Winston Cabading, who upheld the Vatican nullification of the 1948 “Marian Apparition” in Lipa, Batangas, must not suffer the miserable fate of Carlos Celdran who was prosecuted and convicted, albeit without finality, of the archaic offense of “offending religious feelings” under Sec. 133 of the Revised Penal Code.
It will be recalled that during the height of the arduous crusade for the enactment of the Reproductive Health Bill, now Republic Act No. 10354, on September 30, 2010, Celdran, dressed as national hero Jose Rizal, meandered towards the main altar of the Manila Cathedral where an ecumenical activity on bible distribution by Catholic and Protestant leaders was being held. He raised a placard with the name “Damaso” in reference to the villainous friar from Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere. Those who were fans of the telenovela “Maria Clara at Ibarra” are familiar with the loathsome Padre Damaso and his detestable deeds.
Carlos Celdran made a political statement, not a religious one, that unlike Padre Damaso, the Catholic hierarchy must not interfere in secular affairs like the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill even as Protestant ministers, Muslim imams, and pastors from other Christian denominations did not oppose the measure.
Verily, Article 133 is a prior restraint on free speech. It forbids a citizen from expressing views which purported offended parties would subjectively consider “notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful”. This is vastly different from the victim’s objectively ascertainable death in murder, bodily infliction in physical injuries, damage to property in arson or even a damaged reputation in libel.
In Article 133, the proscription of an act under pain of penalty is a veritable prior censorship or restraint on the freedom of expression because one is foreclosed from expressing his opinion or forced to fossilize his thought on a public issue that demands articulation.
What the constitution protects is more than docile and conventional speech. It truly safeguards controversial and provocative views which challenge audiences.
As ruled in Terminiello vs. City of Chicago (337 U.S. 1 ), “Accordingly, a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute… Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public convenience, annoyance or unrest.
Of the same import is the ruling of our Supreme Court in Chavez vs. Gonzales which provides that “To be truly meaningful, freedom of speech and of the press should allow and even encourage the articulation of the unorthodox view, though it be hostile to or derided by others; or though such view ‘induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.’”
There was global outrage on the desecration of the freedom of expression in the aftermath of the terror assault in Paris against the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.
The caricature of Prophet Mohammed is widely considered seriously offensive to the religious feelings of Muslims, but the world community, including Muslim leaders, consider the controversial lampoons as protected freedom of expression.
Charlie Hebdo finds affinity in the case of Charlie Celdran, who has been convicted, albeit not final, of violating Article 133.
Aside from alleging Celdran’s display of the Damaso placard, no other “inculpatory” act was attributed to Celdran in the Information. Incidentally, the “offended” religious leaders mentioned in the Information, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, Papal Nuncio Edward Joseph Adams, Ambassador Henrietta de Villa and Msgr. Nestor Verbo did not testify for the prosecution. They must have realized that the advocacy of Celdran for modern-day Filipino priests and bishops to shun the sordid reputation of Padre Damaso is a reform shibboleth which does not ridicule or castigate, but on the contrary, challenges, even elevates.
The act of Celdran was neither an insult against any religious faith nor notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful. He was not attacking any religion or dogma. His mission was to challenge clerics to reform themselves by not embracing the importuning of Padre Damaso. This is absolutely a protected free speech. Its articulation cannot be subject to prior restraint or subsequent penalty. The liberating mantle of freedom of expression must not be tainted by the obscurantism and unconstitutionality of Article 133.
Carlos Celdran died on October 8, 2019 without seeing his possible vindication by the Supreme Court because his motion for reconsideration assailing the High Court’s affirmation of his conviction by the lower courts was still pending.
Anticipating a delay in the judicial process, I filed House Bill No. 5170 in the 18thCongress to repeal Article 133 for being unconstitutional as an affront on the right of free speech and free expression. Since it was not acted upon during the 18th Congress, I refiled it as House Bill No. 1477 in the current Congress where it is pending before the Committee on Justice.
It is now for the Congress of the Philippines to render justice and redress to Celdran by repealing the aforequoted archaic provision which is an odious remnant of the Dark Ages.
The repeal of Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code will forever foreclose similar prosecutions and travails of well-meaning critics which Carlos Celdran unjustifiably suffered and endured and which may wreak havoc to Fr. Cabading’s freedom of expression.
EDCEL C. LAGMAN