political representation

Redrawing the circle

Manila Cathedral

To entrench oneself in a position diametrically opposite to that occupied by a ideological adversary may well be a significant demonstration of whatever convictions one holds dear. That said, the problem with such a move, however ferociously or passionately undertaken, should be obvious enough: it merely reinforces the area and the circumference of the already existing discursive circle. Moreover, antipodal antagonism confirms, if not intensifies, in the foe the power that one is trying to deny it.

Thus, no matter how many individual skirmishes or battles one claims as triumphs, the war itself cannot be won—the terms of the conflict only ensure the maintenance of the status quo, which is to say endless and unproductive enmity, rather than victory, which is to say any hoped-for change: the expansion or contraction of the circle, or its transformation into a different, more feasible shape.

Within such a scheme of struggle, the question of strategic value is often elided or ignored, because the effect and defect of committing to diametrical distance, to absolute opposition, is the reduction of one’s vision—if vision it can indeed be called—to a narrow set of premises, which in turn lead to action that is limited in scope and efficacy. It should be unsurprising that agitators of this stripe tend toward maneuvers that are predicated less on dignity, respect, or logic than on puerility, sanctimoniousness, or auto-eroticism.

One such agitator is Carlos Celdran, a tour guide and an advocate for the immediate passage of the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill—a bill that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is strongly against.

Let us call a spade a spade: Celdran’s recent disruption of an ongoing mass at the Manila Cathedral by holding up a placard emblazoned with “Damaso”, yelling at the assembled bishops, and—according to a report from The Philippine Star—later goading police officers on the scene to arrest him is an act not of subversion in the vein of José Rizal, regardless of Celdran’s attire—or utterly destitute notions of Rizal and heroism—but of perversion.

If with his gimmick Celdran had intended to catch the spotlight of national attention, he has certainly succeeded brilliantly. But now that he has drawn our collective notice, I have to ask: So what? Or, perhaps more crucially: Now what?

Perversion, admittedly, has a long and honorable tradition of being deployed in the name of critical commentary. For example, Diogenes of Sinope, perhaps the most famous of the Cynics, deliberately behaved like a dog in order to foreground the falsehoods of civilization and uphold the virtues of asceticism. To my mind, though, Celdran’s publicity stunt partakes of the same kind of perversion that motivates a child to sneak cookies before dinner, draw on the walls with crayons, or grab the shiny new toys of another: for the primitive pleasure of being able to do something that is conventionally forbidden.

Insofar as Celdran can be described as a cynic, it is in the modern sense of word, because if the manner in which he chose to make his protest is any indication, he seems to believe the only way to forward his cause is to sensationalize it, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to frame a complex matter in the crudest and most simplistic of ways: by stoking the fires of generic underdog rage. Perhaps the bishops did need “to hear what the Filipinos are saying“, but Celdran’s objective did not appear to be so much clarity as it was blasphemy.

Whatever Celdran thought he was doing—in his own words, he wanted to give the bishops “a dose of their own [medicine]“—I have serious doubts that his stunt has helped matters any, chiefly because he and like-minded ilk missed a very important point: engaging the CBCP on the RH bill is an exercise in futility, because, as an institution of the Roman Catholic Church, it cannot and should not be expected to take a stand that runs counter to official Church teachings or defies the Holy See. For better or for worse, the Church accepts as axiomatic that artificial contraception is evil, and the actions of the CBCP with reference to the RH bill proceed from that same premise. Given this, it must be understood that there is no room for negotiation at all.

Nevertheless, it is exceedingly evident that what the CBCP thinks, says, or does as a body clearly does not have much of an impact on the general populace, considering that several surveys have already shown that a majority of Filipinos—including Catholics—favor the passage of the RH bill. Furthermore, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Catholic doctrine allows for the possibility of dissent if that is what one’s conscience dictates. Going head-to-head with the bishops, therefore, is myopic and wasteful, even gratuitous: one might as well bash one’s head repeatedly against a wall for all the good that arguing with the CBCP will do, even if cracking one’s skull open is “gutsy” and “bad-ass”—oh, and, of course, thoroughly mediagenic.

In the realm of public opinion, church and state are already separate, so why bother to fight the CBCP and accord it more power, more influence, and more exposure than it ought to have, entitled though it may be to a voice in the peanut gallery of our rowdy democracy? Enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom of expression, which necessarily includes the freedom to ignore. The battle for the passage of the RH bill, at this particular juncture at least, is not with the bishops, but with the nominally honorable members of Congress. As blogger iwriteasiwrite has suggested, dialogue with the Catholic Church can—and should—resume after the bill has been passed into law.

[This also appears in my blog, Random Salt.]

Photo credit: Manila Cathedral, by Micropawn217, some rights reserved.