Daring Acts of Blasphemy
Our SPOT.ph blogger on excommunication, Carlos Celdran’s "desecration of holy ground" and why people are not afraid of spending their lives in hell.
"EXCOMMUNICATION" is such a heavy, frightening word-"one with such connotations of medieval severity, gigantic diptychs of angry clerics in dark cloaks with condemnatory fingers, pitchforks, torches, gothic spires, torture chambers, and, you know the rest. Of course, Bishop Nereo Odchimar says he was merely misquoted and a "truce" of sorts between Church and Malacanang has been called, but then again, you can’t do anything once you drop the "E" word. That’s like saying "bomb" inside an airplane. Then again, phrases like "civil disobedience" and "selling souls" are not exactly examples of temperate language.
But times have changed. Now we all know that the world is flat, the sun does not revolve around the earth, and that human beings will not be smitten by thunderbolt and frogs should they break the fourth commandment. More and more people are standing up to the Church, which they feel is still stuck in another darker century. Carlos Celdran-"who actually looks more frayle than anyone else inside Manila Cathedral ("Kayo na mana indio!")-"has become an overnight hero, mostly to young people, and especially young women (basing on the pictures) on whom we’d certainly like to practice our reproductive health, uhm, skills. The furious priests claimed it a desecration of holy ground-"Manila Cathedral, the place of Cory Aquino’s wake as well as the unlucky site where Martin and Pops as well as Sharon and Gabby promised each other undying love.
More than impassioned advocacy or outrage (to some), I regard Celdran’s actuations as performance. His "Damaso" act had all the elements of performance-"props, costume, timing, message, punchline, and more importantly, cojones--and the man knows how to put up a show. He also had wit. "Damaso" was short and snappy but spot-on; I would’ve put it more bluntly, something like "Die, motherfuckers" or "Feed my ten unplanned kids, bitch," then maybe run away screaming for heavenly forgiveness.
Those who moan, "But he desecrated the Holy Mass. He could’ve expressed his sentiments outside the cathedral" completely miss the point. One dude carrying a placard in front of a coven of bishops will not instantly dismantle the very foundation of the Roman Catholic faith nor result into a generation of heathens who dump babies in the airline trash bin. But timing and placement is everything. Sure, he risks the fury of hellfire and eternal damnation by doing it in front of the altar, but, again, timing is everything. Had he chosen to stage a protest outside, it would merely gotten lame-o coverage and he would’ve been dismissed as some cute and novel crackpot.
Maybe desperate times do call for desperate measures-"it’s a debate that has no end, but you understand how urgent things are every time you need to hit the emergency brake every time a wayward toddler-"grimy and pantless-"dashes across the street, the first of many. In an image-driven mass media, sometimes you have to toe the line and break certain taboos. The Mass is holy? Sure, but opponents of Vatican II will tell you that it hasn’t been holy and solemn since 1963, with the disappearance of Latin, and with its liturgical songs acquiring a jangly pop sheen, and with churchgoers in spaghetti straps and tight jeans. But that’s another quarrel for another day. For now, mahalo, Caloy.
I come from a school that considers "Liberation Theology" an ugly phrase and where a teacher once admonished a student for asking-"in all earnestness-- the moral consequences of oral sex ("Ano kayo, baboy?"). But on such matters there now seems to be a tectonic shift in attitude-"even among the faithful. And I hope that said teacher would die without experiencing the one thousand and pleasures of well-performed cunnilingus.
Image from worshippingchristian.org.
The history of art and popular culture is peppered with stuff that flashed the Church a big dirty finger and The Da Vinci Fucking Code doesn’t really count. John Lennon said The Beatles were "bigger than Jesus" and a lot of people went ballistic. Slayer’s "Jesus Saves" and "Altar of Sacrifice" are the two of the most Satanic compositions before Justin Bieber’s "Baby." Sinead O’Connor once ripped apart a picture of Pope John Paul II on national TV. Depeche Mode recorded a song with a chorus that went, "I don’t want to start all these blasphemous rumors/ But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor/ And when I die/ I expect to find him laughing " The genius British comedy troupe Monty Python made the film, The Meaning of Life, which contained a song with the lyrics "Every sperm is sacred/ Every sperm is great/ If a sperm is wasted/ God gets quite irate."
Child and Rat by Emer Roberts. Image from stonegallery.ie.
In the ’80s an Italian-American woman called herself Madonna and started singing songs moist with sexual innuendos-"she hitherto remains alive and rich although her punishment might have come in the form of looking like an aging transvestite after too much yoga. Whether or not the songs of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, AC/DC, and The Eagles were direct attacks against the Christian faith is no longer relevant-" anything that involves backmasking, Faustian deals with the devil, oblique references to dark castles, wizards, fairies, dark desert highways and warm smells of collitas are instantly disqualified. So are the lyrics of every conceivable black metal band from Venom to Gorgoth.
Illustration by Gil Vicente. Image from artesquema.com
Here, too, is an excerpt from a Marquis de Sade novel: "To Testard’s horror he also began to engage in the most provocative and blasphemous acts, including masturbating into a chalice, referring to the Lord as ’motherfucker’ and inserting two communion hosts into the terrified young woman before entering her himself, all the while screaming, ’If thou art God, avenge thyself!’" A few months back, a Brazilian painter named Gil Vicente illustrated his fantasies, one of which was pointing a gun at Pope Benedict a.k.a God’s Rottweiler. And I remember back in the ’90s, Pinoy macabre artist Jojo Legaspi staged an exhibited at Penguin Café in Malate where I was surprised to piss into a urinal full of rosaries.
Image from artcrimes.net
Any attack on the Church made on the basis of pure hysteria cannot seem to possess lasting gravity, as they remain purely on the level of hyperbolic caricature, like an album titled "God Hates Us All" or ironic sloganeering as in this delightful painting by my favourite, Manuel Ocampo or this photograph portraying a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine. Shock often diminishes any merit of discourse. Then again, if you’re an organization that’s been around for only, say, the past five thousand years and has survived countless heretic movements, schisms, antagonistic philosophers, drunken poets and mad composers, why should one painting or one piece of performance art or one stupid pop song matter? Marquis de Sade and John Lennon are dead, Sinead O’Connor is now a footnote in pop music, but, har har, the Church is still here.
But if on the basis of a political issue-"now we’re talking. Especially if you happen to be smart, educated, and living in the Philippines circa 1890s, at time when we were still worrying about purgatory and venal sins while the Western world was talking about laboratory barometers and democracy.
Our Propagandistas were masters of satire. The granddaddy of them all, Rizal, drew up the ultimate archetype of the loathsome Franciscan, including the ugly attribute of not appreciating a tinola full of bony chicken parts.What made their shtick even more akin to an extreme sport was that the Spanish friars did not exactly have a sense of humor.
But the Manila Cathedral episode definitely says something about us. Maybe you can call it "maturity" or an awakening of sorts. My father likes calling it "matigas na ang buto" (i.e. "Marunong ka nang sumagot, ha? Bakit, matigas na ang buto mo? Dapa!") The more we are informed and educated, the more we tend to stand up to what we believe is "right." With knowledge comes a terrifying sense of confidence. Condoms, aside from preventing unwanted babies who will one day make scandal videos of their own, also make excellent if somewhat unctuous party balloons. Birth-control pills make women fat and temperamental. We’re surrounded by an excess of information.
And since the persona of Rizal has been invoked, let’s see what Nick Joaquin, in his book A Question of Heroes, has to say about the era of the Propagandists: "The common belief is that Philippine insurgency was a reaction to misery. The economic facts indicate the reverse. An insurgent intellectual movement appeared precisely during an era of peace, progress and prosperity Indeed if the Insurgency was a reaction to misery, then the Revolution should have exploded in, say, Samar or Leyte, the most miserable areas in the country then as now. But no, the Revolution exploded precisely in the country’s most affluent region: the Tagalog and Pampango provinces. It’s easy to see why. People become less and less willing to swallow slights as they become more and more wealthy and cultured. Rizal born in a mansion and educated in Europe is not going to kowtow to some ignorant small-town curate." This is not to say that the bishops are ignorant. It’s just that in the mansion of information where we now purport to dwell, people are no longer afraid of spending the rest of their lives in hell (although we must always remember that information isn’t always knowledge). Although there’s a significant chance our lawmakers might fear not the fires of hell but something closer to their black, black hearts: the loss of votes should the Church campaign against them in the next elections.
In 2007, Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens published a book called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, offending everyone from the Catholic Church to the Moslem hierarchy. Earlier this year, Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer. Of the endless attributes of God, we must not forget sense of humor. And when I die, I, too, expect to find Him laughing. Note: I capitalized the ’H.’ Just making sure.
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Artwork by Warren Espejo.