The scientific temperament of Pope Francis is being felt across the reform-oriented Catholic church in India
After working for several years with the Roman Catholic Church in India, closely interacting with bishops and observing the intricacies of the Church’s functioning, Virginia Saldanha, a Mumbai-based theologian, relinquished her job with bitter feelings. She had risen up the ranks. From working for the Diocesan Women’s Desk in Mumbai at the beginning, she had gone on to hold the posts of executive secretary of the Commission for Women in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the Office of Laity, Family and Women’s Desk at the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC). But she often faced difficulty in getting the support of Church authorities to organise meetings between female theologians and bishops.
She noticed how bishops were often pleased to have only a few women participate in conferences, not allowing executive secretaries like her to speak except to present reports of their offices and answer queries on them. Of one such conference, the Asia Bishops’ Federation held in Manila in 2009, she told the National Catholic Reporter, a US-based newspaper that covers the Catholic Church: “I was told that the bishops were very happy that this meeting was among themselves; they felt comfortable. It seems like they want a church where they are comfortable, the old boys’ club, not a church of the people of God where they exercise servant leadership!” She later added, “I thought that the purpose of having a Women’s Desk in a bishops’ structure would be to help the bishops understand the problems of women so that they can carry out their pastoral ministry to women better. But since the bishops felt they had to tell me what to do and how to do it, I felt it is no use wasting my time in the structure…”
Saldanha, a leading voice in India’s community of Catholic Christians, is a founder-member of the Indian Women Theologians Forum, a group involved in theologising from a women’s perspective, apart from working and writing about gender issues. She feels differently about the Church’s attitudes now. “There is still a lot to be achieved,” she says, “But it is different now. The rigidity and conservatism of the previous years is missing. The attitude of the Church, whether in India or elsewhere, to issues facing them isn’t one of indifference like before.”
Ever since he stepped into office, Pope Francis has assumed a sort of saintly celebrityhood. Many think that unlike his predecessors, he is more concerned about alleviating poverty and suffering than getting tied down by the Church’s dogma. They also think that he will transform the Church and liberalise its doctrine on marriage, the family, and homosexuality. In the first 18 months of his papacy, he has proven every bit inclined to do so. He sent out a questionnaire last year, asking the world’s over- one-billion Catholics for their opinions on contentious issues like contraception and abortion, same-sex marriage, cohabitation by unwed couples, and the place of divorced and remarried people in the Church. He held an Extraordinary Synod last month and put these issues to vote and made the vote tally for each issue public, even those rejected, so that people could continue discussing them. He has said he does not have the authority to judge homosexuals. And recently, he emphasised the reality of evolution and the Big Bang theory, saying God isn’t a magician with a magic wand. While the Extraordinary Synod did not result in a change of Church doctrine or teaching, many believe it will lay the groundwork for a major upheaval sometime later. Another synod on these issues will take place next year.
In India, Pope Francis’ actions are re- invigorating reform-oriented Catholic organisations. The clergy and laity are gradually questioning previous rigid stances and moving towards a greater understanding and openness about unconventional family situations. Allan de Noronha, president of the Kanpur Catholic Association and a former president of the All India Catholic Union, says, “The irony is that Francis is attracting so much attention for doing what is basic Christianity; because most of us who profess to be Christians have, in fact, ignored the basics and gone for the superficial, like participation in various pious devotional practices, with which the clergy feel most comfortable.”
Last year, when the Vatican sent its questionnaire on family issues to India, the Church here did not pass it down to members of the Catholic community. When members of the laity inquired, they learnt that a report on the questionnaire had already been sent to Rome with little or no contribution from them. However, rather than letting the matter rest, some individuals took it upon themselves to simplify and distribute the questionnaire among Catholics in India. Aided by the Catholic Church Reform International, an international group devoted to reforms within the Catholic faith, the answers were then sent directly to the Vatican.
Noronha, who played an instrumental role in distributing the questionnaire among the laity, claims that the Church in India often tries to keep the laity in the dark. “The Catholic family in India,” he says, “is more like a domesticated fowl that is expected to make appropriate clucking noises and produce more eggs (increase the Catholic population) as some bishops in Kerala have been advocating.” Saldanha, who was also part of the group that simplified and distributed the questionnaire, reveals, “While most of the respondents in India did not find an issue with the Church’s policy on homosexuals, most people claimed that the ban on contraception was wrong and impractical.”
Noronha and others then organised a National Consultation on Catholic Families (NCCF) in Pune that was attended by lay leaders from across the country. At the end of the two-day conference, an ‘Agenda For Change’ was drafted and a group called the Indian Catholic Forum was formed to push these demands in Rome. The demands range from the adoption of an inclusive approach toward people of various sexual orientations, to doing away with the ban on ‘artificial’ contraception and the condemnation of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).
The Church in India is getting less rigid itself in its stance on such issues. In Kerala, when there was talk in 2009 of the Centre attempting to decriminalise homosexuality by having Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code ‘read down’, the Syro-Malabar Church had come out against such a move. Its spokesperson, Father Paul Thelakkattu, had then told The Indian Express, “Gay marriages and sexual relation between persons of the same gender could not be allowed… the Church had always been sympathetic towards homosexuals and [said] that they should be nursed back to normalcy through proper treatment and counselling… the government move would mean giving a licence to the sexual perversions of a section of society.” Speaking about the conclusions of the synod held recently, and its implications, Father Thelakkattu’s tone has changed. He says in an email interview, ‘If you read the resolutions of the Synod you will immediately note a very inclusive language used there. The change of language is very important. Any change happens first in language. There is surely an honest attempt to understand the world situations and conflicts the marital life involves. The church there uses a more inclusive language meaning the church is for not only saints but sinners also. The church is becoming more a home which does not want to use a judgmental language of sin and punishment but a language of understanding and mercy to all.’
Last year, during a sermon at St Thomas Church in Mumbai, a priest created a furore among the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community when he opposed same-sex marriage, calling homosexuality ‘a great sin’. During the same time period, Pope Francis had famously said, in an interview to the Jesuit journal, La Civilta Cattolica, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
About a month later, the Archbishop of Bombay, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, wrote a letter to the LGBT activists who were upset, claiming the priest who had delivered the sermon was incorrect and that he would advise priests to be more sensitive in their homilies. Father Nigel Barrett, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bombay, says, “The Archbishop said that while homosexual marriages aren’t permitted in the faith, the concerned priest made inappropriate remarks. The Church does not accept gay marriage. But to say that those with other sexual orientations are sinners is wrong. This is reflective of the stand the Pope himself has taken.” According to Barrett, since that incident there have been discussions within the clergy in Mumbai about these issues and Cardinal Gracias has requested individual parishes and their priests to be more sensitive and compassionate while addressing the public.
An issue that is of peculiar concern to the Church in India is the matter of annulments. Since divorce and remarriage are not accepted within the Catholic faith, the Church allows couples who want to separate to seek an annulment of their marriage, which unlike a legal divorce, is a declaration by the Church that there was no real marriage between the two. This matter is however decided by a tribunal set up by the diocese of the area, and its decision has to be ratified by a tribunal of another diocese. If the two tribunals differ, the matter has to be decided by Vatican. But in India, where the clergy required for such matters is woefully short in numbers, an annulment can take extremely long. Many are known to legally divorce and remarry before getting an annulment, which could result in their being barred from the Communion and their children from next marriages not being baptised. According to Sister Teena Jose, a member of the Congregation of Mother of Carmel (CMC) sisters in Ernakulum, Kerala, the Church in India delays granting annulments on purpose so that fewer marriages are annulled. “I know of women who have been waiting for 10 years to get their annulments. This is done so [that] fewer people approach the clergy for annulments and the sanctity of the institution of marriage, in the eyes of the clergy, remains.”
According to Barrett, there just aren’t enough priests. He claims the Church in India is now considering lay individuals trained in canon law to help clear the backlog. This is also a matter Noronha is working on. “We’ve been asking the Church to sympathetically consider the cases of those who have gotten legal divorces without an annulment and want to be a part of the Church,” he says.
Saldanha says, “There was a time when the women’s movement was being blamed in India for marriage breakups. No one then spoke about how earlier women were quietly bearing violence in their homes. This isn’t the case anymore. Change will take time as the Church has to carry everyone along with it. But it will occur.”
In Kerala, groups like the Kerala Catholic Reformation Movement (KCRM), an organisation that wants reform within the Catholic faith and protests against the Church’s influence outside the realm of spirituality, has now begun to hold monthly workshops and seminars to convince people about issues that need to be redressed.
In its last discussion, the KCRM held a seminar in Kottayam on how priests who had given up their vows are often ill-treated by their family and other members of society. The group is currently planning to collect funds to build a shelter home for them. In the past, it has dealt with issues concerning sexuality and how the Church looks at any form of sexual activity, including masturbation, as a sin. Says George Joseph, president of the KCRM, “After several years, we are seeing something positive in the Vatican. The Pope seems to want to bring about changes. The conservative in the clergy may resist this, but we will have to ensure that this doesn’t happen.”