By Valson Thampu
Thiruvananthapuram, July 16, 2019: Two media headlines on July 15 made significant reading. The first pertained to the struggle of a sizable segment of the priests and laity of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese against what they deem to be the dubious and indefensible involvement of Cardinal George Alencherry in shady land deals.
The other relates to the ‘resolution’ adopted by the Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council under the leadership of Archbishop Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum, affirming the Church’s resolve to ‘protect the Indian Constitution.’ The ironic contradiction between the two news items exposes the autotoxicity that is convulsing not just the Catholic Church but all Christian denominations in Kerala.
Those who, in opportune situations, show-case their commitment to the Constitution overlook the fact that the Constitution is a mandate to create a ‘socialist, secular, democratic Republic.’ One is left wondering which of these aspects of the Constitution the Church wants to protect. The Church cannot be ‘socialist’ and also rich at the expense of a largely poor laity. The Syro-Malabar Church alone has assets in excess of two lakh crores of (2,000 trillion) rupees.
Secularism is, in theory and practice, anathema to the Church. As for democracy, the struggle that is currently raging in the Angamaly archdiocese is provoked by the total negation of the basics of democracy in Church governance. Alencherry has taken the condemnable stand that the members of the Church have no right vis-à-vis the material assets of the Church, including land. That sounds more like dictatorship than like democracy. But even Alencherry is keen to defend the Constitution.
It comes as no surprise that bishops resist the Kerala Christian Church Properties Bill (2019), which is a long over-due measure to introduce the rudiments of democracy into Church polity. The bishops’ lobby arm-twists the government against it on the strength of the vote-banks they presumably control. Till date, no bishop or bishops’ council has initiated any consultation with the laity on the provisions of this Bill. Nor has any one of them explained to anyone how this Bill endangers the Church.
True to tradition, they have arbitrarily come to the conclusion that transparency and accountability in managing Church properties and assets will ruin Christianity. At the same time, they also pass resolutions to protect the Indian Constitution.
This glaring hypocrisy will surprise only those who are ignorant of how the priestly class in all religions in all ages and cultures has functioned. In the interest of objectivity, let me cite a distant example from the annals of Egypt. The priests of Osiris made worshipers believe that, after death, their souls would be weighed in the scale against a feather to test their truthfulness. Those whose hearts are found to be heavier than feathers would be condemned to eternal torments in their tombs; hungering and thirsting, and their bodies fed upon by hideous crocodiles.
But priests knew a way out of this misery for those who could pay amply for it. They would fill the tomb with talismans pleasing to the gods. The secret of what ‘pleased the gods’ -says Will Durant in The Story of Civilization (vol 1, Our Oriental Heritage) was known only to priests. The consequence was that priests grew immensely rich.
In many Eastern cultures, priests became richer than kings. The power of the clergy depended in every religion at all times entirely on the wealth they commanded. God was superfluous to it. The people were indoctrinated to believe that ‘offerings made to the gods’ were out of bounds for them and that it was impious for them to meddle with. The door of accountability remained shut for millennia. It still does.
Readers would readily see that religious establishments, irrespective of their differences in other respects, are identical in wanting to resist transparency and accountability in money matters. Democracy becomes a mockery without it. Since it is money, not God, who keeps the engine of religion going, administrative inscrutability is insisted on as a religious right. This defies the discipline of democracy.
No priest, bishop, archbishop or Pope generates wealth. The wealth of the Church, like the wealth of a nation, is generated entirely by ordinary people. The right of the believers has stood reduced to the right to contribute, without the right to know if what they contribute is managed or mismanaged. Cardinal Alencherry should let the people know the parcels of land he personally brought into the church or the wealth he generated out of the sweat of his brow.
In two thousand years, Christians have not cared to understand, or dared to reckon, Christ’s denunciation of the venality and depravity of the priestly class. He condemned them for subverting the religious freedom of the people. He denounced their hypocrisy and immorality. Prostitutes, he said, would enter the Kingdom of God, but not Pharisees; or, by implication, priests or bishops.
It is sheer hypocrisy that resolutions are passed to ‘defend’ the Constitution and, at the same time, every attempt to bring basic democratic discipline into the management of Church assets is resisted tooth and nail.
If Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council or the KCBC [Kerala Catholic Bishops Council] or the CBCI [Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India], or the leaders of other Christian denominations, have any regard at all for the Constitution, the urgent thing to do is to welcome the Church Property Bill.
The Church is the body of believers, not a handful of priests and prelates swollen with worldly entitlements in the name of Jesus Christ who did not have a roof over his head. The initiative and commitment shown by the priests and laity of the Angamaly diocese in resisting the criminalization of the Church merits wide support and admiration.
They, and not land mafia dons in sheep’s clothing, are the true shepherds of the flock. Their struggle, in its spiritual significance, is comparable to the bid of a few nuns to ensure that an outraged fellow nun, as they believe to be the case, gets justice against the might of the Church bolstered by the muscle of the state.