By Jose Kavi
New Delhi: A recent article in a Vatican magazine on widespread exploitation of nuns in the Catholic Church has found many takers in India, home to the world’s largest number of women religious.
“A welcome statement but late in coming,” Sister Teresa Kotturan, former vice president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, reacted to the March 1 article in the monthly, “Women, Church, World.”
Father Paul Thelakat, who has arbitrated several disputes between nuns and priests in Kerala, southern India, too says the “cry of the magazine from Rome is too late.”
Nevertheless, the fact that an official Vatican publication has “come out with some painful truth within the Church” has cheered Presentation Sister Shalini Mulackal, the first woman to head the predominantly male Indian Theological Association.
The article in the monthly women’s magazine of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano is based on the comments of several unnamed nuns. It describes the drudgery of nuns who work as cooks, cleaners, waiters on tables for cardinals, bishops and priests. It also narrates how some work in the residences of “men of the Church, waking at dawn to prepare breakfast and going to sleep once dinner is served.”
They also keep the house of priests and bishops in order and clean and iron the laundry for them for “random and often modest” remuneration.
The situation is no better in India where patriarchal norms and culture in the Church and society shackle women religious, says Sister Kotturan, who once headed the Indian province of the congregation based in Kentucky, United States. She is currently the NGO Representative at the UN Sisters of Charity Federation.
Sister Mulackal says several nuns in India manage kitchen and household affairs in church run institutions and seminaries. Seminarians who get used to sisters serving them do not grow up in respecting sisters as consecrated persons like them.
“But instead they look at them as mere servants. Unfortunately this mentality is carried on when they become parish priests. They order around even if the religious sister is much senior to them” she adds.
Low wages are another area of concern. Sisters working in diocesan schools or hospitals are not paid just wages. “It is taken for granted that sisters are there to serve and that their congregation will take care of their needs.” However, most congregations depend on their small working group to support the non-working members, old as well as young, Sister Mulackal points out.
Sister Rita Pinto, president of the women’s wing of the Conference of Religious India, finds most diocesan priests wanting in priestly caliber and human maturity. “They tend to be arrogant, demanding with little sensitivity to the sisters assisting them in the parish. Their knowledge of theology and Scripture comes to a standstill after ordination,” she bemoans.
Sister Pinto heads more than 130,000 women religious who belong to around 500 congregations. The statistics would need updating, the provincial of the Society of the Sacred Heart told Matters India on March 20.
Many parish priests tend to see women religious as handmaids meant to carry out orders and fall in line with their vision of what Christian life in the parish should be. If this does not happen, they feel disappointed and frustrated.
This negativity on the part of the priest sometimes leads to penalizing communities of women religious by negative criticism from the pulpit or refusing to celebrate Mass for them, Sister Pinto explains.
Many priests in Church institutions lack administrative skills, and their manner of relating to lay staff and religious can be abrupt, condescending and disrespectful, she says.
Most parish priests hardly understand the particular charisms of the congregations of religious women in the parish. Hence not much interest is shown in their pastoral and apostolic engagements, the impact of their work, their need of support and encouragement, Sister Pinto adds.
According to Sister Kotturan, diocesan orders bear “the heavy burden” as they depend on their bishops for survival.
The poor treatment of Catholic religious women in India was first raised in February 2016 by the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for religious. Its letter sent to major superiors and bishops noted that priests use their power to control the women religious. During disputes, priests deny sisters communion or confession, the letter alleged.
Forum secretary Holy Cross Sister Manju Kulapuram told Global Sisters Report that the issue was “a very serious problem” that could create a “tsunami like effect” if it came in the open.
While Sister Mulackal asserts that the gender discrimination is not ordained by God, Sister Pinto says the cultural condition in the country “automatically influences our perception of the roles of clergy and women religious as also our perception of authority and service.”
Unfortunately a Church that has succumbed to the patriarchal culture treats women as inferior to men with less value and worth, laments Sister Mulackal, who teaches in Vidyajyoti, a Jesuit theology college in the Indian capital. “The liberating message of the Gospels has been eclipsed for long,” she adds.
Sister Mulackal, who has a priest brother, says she often wonders why he is given “an exalted place” in the Church when they both had renounced everything to serve God in distant lands. “The only difference is that I was not ordained like my brother because I happened to be born as a girl. Is my consecration as a religious less valuable?” asks the systematic theologian.
Father Thelakat says the nuns never got their share of social recognition and the rightful place in the Church. They were always menial servants and foot soldiers of the hierarchical church with muffled voices and rights.
Who is to be blamed?
Both sides, asserts Sister Kotturan. She, however, blames more the hierarchy and clergy who use their power to exploit the nuns’ vulnerability.
Father Thelakat says women religious are also to be blamed for their situation. Based on his experience, he explains that when a nun voices dissent other sisters along with their superiors try to suppress her. “The vow of obedience was abused by authorities to suit their gains with the complicity of the nuns’ superiors,” the priest bemoans.
This situation cannot go on forever, says Father Thelakat, who edits the Sathyadeepam (lamp of light), an English language Church weekly that often discusses burning issues in the Church.
The male superiority and hegemony, he warns, will wipe out women religious from the Church. The “death wind” blowing from the West has shut down churches and monasteries. “The phenomenon of the Church going away from the people started with the closure of convents,” the priest told Matters India.
What is the solution?
Sister Kotturan wants women religious leaders to speak up without fear. However, most nuns “are beholden to the hierarchy and clergy and are willing to follow orders,” she laments. They need to be true to their charism, vision and ministry, she asserted.
Sister Mulackal urges women, both religious and lay, to break “the culture of silence” forced upon them for centuries. “We need to speak the truth. Christianity is about service but not about servitude,” she told Matters India.
Matters India requested several young sisters to share their views on the issue, but none responded.
Those who shared their views are unanimous about bringing a paradigm shift in the training of priests to resolve the nuns’ servitude in the Church.
Sister Pinto, who is also the provincial of the Society of the Sacred Heart, wants priests, seminarians and those governing “the people of God” to realize that “the power-driven tendencies” of the Church’s patriarchal mindset are the root cause of nuns’ servitude.
Sister Kotturan says seminarians should be taught that priests and nuns have “different roles in the Church, but not one of subservience.” She wants the Church and society to cultivate gender equality in their structures.
Sister Mulackal says educating both the hierarchy and the sisters will resolve nuns’ servitude. The bishops and priests should recognize sisters as persons, like themselves, who are set apart by God for a particular mission in the Church and the world. The sisters, on the other hand, should become aware of their dignity and worth, she says.
She also wants more women appointed as seminary professors to help future priests get accustomed to respecting women as equals and acknowledging that they have intellectual capacity like them.
Sister Pinto and Father Thelakat agree the Church has many educated and talented nuns, who seldom find recognition.
“Today women are more knowledgeable, professionally better trained and experienced and their presence, instead of being recognized as strength for mission, is often seen as a threat to the male clergy who then develop a negative stance which ultimately becomes detrimental to the Mission,” Sister Pinto says.
Father Thelakat says the official Church never heeds the voice of many “highly talented and well educated sisters.” The CRI and its local units, he says, often toe the hierarchical line while women religious superiors fail to defend their convents and sisters when conflicts and disagreements arise with Church authorities.
Sister Pinto sees as “utmost importance” the introduction of various dimension of personal growth to help human formation of seminarians. This is necessary for a long-term change of attitude in gender relations, she adds.
She wants women religious to express themselves with responsibility, affirm their understanding and wisdom in planning the Church’s mission orientations. The nuns have to break out of cultural norms that force them todepend on priests and silence free expression of their thought, their perception and grasp of contemporary reality.
Sister Pinto also wants those choosing to serve God to undergo a thorough discernment process to clarify their deep inner motivations.