Flock must lead as shepherds lose way
By Jiby J Kattakayam
It is in human nature to err and in divine nature to forgive. But if the one making cardinal errors is a Cardinal, what is to be done?
This is the question facing the Syro Malabar Church after an internal inquiry found that Cardinal George Alencherry and two aides allegedly disposed of Church lands at a loss on the pretext of repaying debts that its institutions had incurred. The inquiry also alleged that the sale price was underreported and the sellers accepted black money.
The charges have divided the church, some backing the Cardinal and his associates and others demanding Alencherry’s resignation. Regional schisms have also taken root, a worrying development for a two-millennia old church that has alternatively splintered into factions and reunited multiple times.
Far more interesting is the silence of the Kerala government which is struggling with falling tax receipts and aggressively prosecuting even film stars for evading road tax. The evasion of stamp duty is as serious but it is not often that religious leaders and institutions are called to account for financial crimes. If the Kerala government fears nonexistent Christian anger, how better is it from North Indian states that routinely bend before organized interests?
The issues are manifold. Does the Cardinal and priests or do the laity claim ownership of Church properties? If they are merely trustees, what are the responsibilities that lie with Cardinals and priests when acquiring or selling property? What are the standards of accountability and transparency that the Church must practice in tabulating contributions from the laity, revenues from operations like hospitals and schools, or expenditure like building Churches and other structures? Murmurs of discontent have emerged from laity for long but they have refrained from upsetting the applecart.
For centuries the Catholic Church as an institutionalized religion has dictated the fates, morals and choices of people and nations subscribing to its temporal and spiritual authority. In an age of constitutional morality that introduced constitutional rights and posited individual freedoms over social and religious morality more people are questioning the Catholic church’s rules on marriage, divorce, sexuality, love, and procreation. It is only natural that the questions will now extend to the financial and operational spheres.
Last year, the Kerala church was left shamefaced after a priest was arrested for allegedly raping and impregnating a minor girl. Other priests and nuns were also in the dock for allegedly covering up the grave offence. Like the other scandals, the Church will overcome this one too. That is faith for you. But there is no room for complacency. For centuries, a compact has held that priests and nuns by virtue of practicing celibacy and sacrificing family life will not seek material pleasures like the laity. Age-old urban legends that families of priests who appropriate church property face devastation and penury cannot deter wrongdoing.
With economic growth, the Church has all but abandoned pretensions of austerity. Look no further than the towering churches that dot the Kerala skyline from cities to villages. It was foolish to assume that the consumerist ethos that has gripped society would spare the Church and its priests. Even while recognizing the spiritual nature of the vocation, it is important to recognize the role of priests and bishops as managers of church wealth and keepers of believer’s faiths. Pay them competitive salaries: in short treat them also as professionals, keeping with the spirit of the age.
Like governments, even the Church needs structural reforms that ensure openness and accountability. Kerala’s Christians top the country on most human development indices. Undue fear of hierarchy does disservice to the socio-economic advances the community has made. Those who believe in Alencherry’s probity should also ask for reforms. But will other bishops and priests agree?
(Source: The Times of India)