Kerala bishop opposes bill to govern church property
By Santosh Digal
Kochi: A Catholic Church leader in Kerala has told the southern Indian state government not to interfere in the administration of church properties.
In a letter dated April 15, Archbishop M. Soosa Pakiam, president of Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), wrote to the secretary of the Kerala State Minority Commission to assert the fundamental right of Christians to manage and administer church property.
The Latin rite prelate was responding to an email letter the secretary sent to KCBC seeking its response to the Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill 2009. Bishop Pakiam said he has consulted all dioceses, religious congregations and lay organization.
“We submit the following: India is a secular Republic. The Supreme Court of India has declared that even the Parliament cannot amend the Constitution of India to change the basic features of the constitution. Secularism has been declared as one of the basic features of the Constitution,” the letter says.
The article 26 of the constitution provides secular character to the republic. It reads: “Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right-to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes; to manage its own affairs in matters of religion; to town and acquire movable and immovable property; and to administer such property in accordance with law.
Archbishop Pakiam asserts that the right to maintain included the right to administer such institutions. The article 26 guarantees not only the right to own and acquire movable and immovable properties but also the right to administer such property in accordance with law, he adds.
The state can control, curtail or regulate these rights only if their use by a religion affects public order, morality or health. “The proposers of the new legislation have no case that the institutions and the properties of the Christian churches are managed or administered in a manner affecting public order, morality or health. The declared object of the bill is not to preserve or protect public order, morality or health,” the letter says.
The declared object is “to promote more democratic, efficient and just administration of the temporal affairs and properties of the Churches.” The constitution does not permit or authorize the state to control or curtail the fundamental rights guaranteed to the religious denominations by Article 26, in the name of promoting more democracy or efficiency or justice in the administration of the church properties and institutions, the bishop explains.
The Church, he says, has the fundamental right to administer its properties in accordance with the Canon law applicable to administration of Church properties. Only if such provisions in the Canon law and their application are against public order, morality and health, the state can interfere.
Observing that the proposers of the Bill have not raised such allegations, the archbishop describes it as unconstitutional as it violates the Article 26 of the Constitution. It is also against the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Constitution, he adds.
Archbishop explains to the secretary that canon law’s codified rules govern the administration of church properties and institutions. Canon law has also provisions to deal with violation of its rules and offers remedies.
He also explains that local civil laws deal with matters such as registration, transfer and inheritance of church properties as well as payment of fees and taxes. “Our objection is only to the attempt to interfere with administration of church properties and institutions,” he adds.
The church leader says the Article 26 stipulates that only the members of the religious denomination can decide how its properties and institutions are administered and which law to use.
“The State or an outsider has no role in the matter. The state can of course intervene to protect public order, morality and health. If any member of the religious denomination is not happy with the present system, he should try to get his view accepted by the denomination. He cannot invite or request the govt. to exercise any power which it does not have.
The letter also explains that the right to administer Catholic Church properties vests in the bishop of a diocese. He does it through various diocesan officials with proper consultation with parish council and diocesan pastoral council, which the prelate says is a form of democracy.
“Further, the political concept of democracy cannot be applied to the full extent in the case of families, private institutions or associations and religious denominations. The present system in the Church has stood the test of time and no official body or forum of the Church has demanded the introduction of a new system as proposed in the Bill,” the Kerala Church leader says.
He says any suggestion for improvement has to be first raised within the Church set up. “It is for the Church at various levels to decide whether or not more democracy is desirable or more efficiency is required. The state has no authority to bring legislation under the pretext of promoting more democracy and efficiency,” the archbishop and warns the proposed bill will bring more harm than good.
The prelate says the fact that the state has made laws regarding properties of other religion does not justify such a for the church.
“In the case of those religious denominations, there were historical reasons for making such laws. Such reasons don’t exist in the case of Christian Churches and their properties. In the case of those religious denominations, the condition of administration of properties was probably such that they welcomed the interference by the State. The condition of Church properties and institutions is quite different,” the prelate explained.
Archbishop Pakiam expresses the Church’s fear that the new law will adversely affect the “present peaceful and orderly administration of Church properties and institutions” as it opens to more disputes and litigations. “We also suspect that behind the Bill there is a hidden agenda to bring the administration of Church properties and institutions under Government control,” he added.
“We believe that the concern of the State Government should be to provide better governance to the people by promoting more democratic, efficient and just administration of the State, instead of denying the Christians their fundamental rights under Art.26 of the Constitution of India,” he added.