Tour guide Carlos Celdran took on the all-powerful Catholic Church in the Philippines and ended up sentenced to prison. But in his estimation, he won.
Carlos Celdran still considers himself a Roman Catholic, though perhaps not a great one. He's come to grips with the idea that his fate is something he no longer has control over.
"Apparently the Catholic Church feels that I can go to heaven, but I have to go to jail first," he says with a laugh.
The 40-year-old Manila-based tour guide and performance artist is facing up to a year in prison. His crime: offending the Catholic Church.
The Archdiocese of Manila says it has forgiven Celdran for what he did back in September 2010. That's when he entered Manila Cathedral dressed as Jose Rizal, the acclaimed 19th century Filipino author, whose novel "Noli Me Tangere" brought attention to church corruption. Celdran wrote the name of the book's antagonist, Father Damaso, on a placard and presented it in front of a delegation of bishops and other church officials. Reports say he also shouted that the church should "stop meddling in government affairs." A witness is said to have reported the incident to the authorities, and Celdran was later arrested for violating a colonial-era law.
"When they started using the pulpit as a political stage, that gave me a right to go into that arena and speak up against what they are doing," Celdran says. "The Catholic Church threatened to excommunicate the president and called for civil unrest."
Church doctrine vs. soaring birthrate
Celdran was protesting the 16-year church-led blockade of the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill, legislation that would provide free contraception and health care to poor Filipinos. The archdiocese says it violates Catholic doctrine and encourages promiscuity. Celdran says his country's explosive birthrate can no longer be sustained, and affordable family planning can help solve that problem.
The Catholic Church's influence over Filipino politics is nothing new. During his tours of Manila's historic Intramuros district, Celdran describes the clergy's power as being similar to a "theocracy" and likens them to "18th-century Catholic Taliban."
"Everything in the Philippines revolved around the Catholic Church, literally," he says, pointing to the steeple of Manila Cathedral, which was once considered the center of the Philippines.
Celdran admits that many people in the predominently Catholic country might not share his opinion. The church remains the spiritual core of the nation.
But he believes that people are no less religious just because they adapt to modern needs.
"To be Filipino is to be Catholic. We like our fiestas, we like our saints, we like our churches, we venerate our priests. The only thing we don't like about Catholicism in this country is their involvement in politics," the activist says. "The Philippines is a secular country and we have gotten rid of the shackles of theocracy."
Celdran says his standoff with the Archdiocese of Manila has shaken his own faith, but hasn't quashed it.
"I'm inherently Catholic, it's in my wiring. If a plane is crashing, I will pray the Hail Mary," he adds.
Celdran has filed an appeal and plans to take his case all the way to the country's Supreme Court. As he awaits the judge's decision he cannot help but feel his actions have been vindicated. Last December, lawmakers finally overcame the church's pressure and passed the reproductive health bill.
"The RH bill has become RH law. That was my objective when I entered the church. Objective accomplished," Celdran says. "Worth every moment, jail time or not."