‘Nuns and women deserve better treatment from the Church’

Fr Paul Thelakat, editor and former official spokesperson for the Church, on the Bishop Franco case and other issues plaguing the Catholic Church.

ByAnand Kochukudy
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‘Nuns and women deserve better treatment from the Church’
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Fr Paul Thelakat is the chief editor of the weekly Sathyadeepam/Light of Truth, the mouthpiece of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, and has been in the position for 32 years. Lately, he’s begun to take divergent positions on issues concerning the Church after stepping down as the official spokesperson for the Church in 2013. He was a rare exception within the Church to publicly express solidarity with the nuns protesting at Vanchi Square (next to the Kerala High Court) demanding justice and Bishop Franco’s arrest.

I caught up with him to speak about the Bishop Franco case, the reaction of the Church, and the larger issues plaguing the Catholic Church.

We are speaking in the backdrop of a fortnight-long public protest by a group of nuns which culminated in Bishop Franco’s arrest. You are one of the lone voices from within the Church to express solidarity with them. What made you take a stand?

Let me articulate my position on the case in detail. I had nothing to do with organising the protest but I went to the venue twice and spoke. First of all, there was no interdiction. It is a fact that the nuns are accusing the bishop of sexual violence; they were not against the Church. Do I know the truth of the case? No, I cannot say I am sure of the sexual violence. Why did I go then?

A young priest of our archdiocese, who is also a relative of the complainant nun in the case, came to meet me some time ago. He told me what the nun had told him. It is only then that I realised it was a case of domination and subjugation of authority. She was perhaps reduced to the status of a slave. Finally, she musters the courage to confide in a couple of close relatives and begins to resist. She goes to a retreat and after a confession, a priest advises her to take the complaint forward. She takes it up with the vicar of Kuravilangad, and the Pala Bishop and then the Major Archbishop, and finally writes to the Nuncio.  Why did they fail her? The issue would not have exploded in the public had these authorities—who are bound to act morally—not failed miserably to respond. Everyone was trying to hide behind the veil of jurisdiction. This was simply the failure of moral leadership.

We walk on the slippery ground of temptations and frailties. But the Church authorities seem to have attempted a cover-up. This is the background in which I stood with the victim. Still, do I have certainty? No, I don’t. But I cannot pretend to stay neutral—for it would be the silence of complicity with the predator. The letter of Pope Francis—“To the People of God”, August 20, 2018—clearly gives the Church’s stand on these issues.

 Apart from the raw deal the nuns got from the Church, despite running from pillar to post, do you admit to the prevalence of patriarchy and a lack of democracy in the Catholic Church? Is it more of an institutional issue?

It is true that a patriarchal mindset is prevalent in the community and the Church. There is no doubt that the role of women—especially the nuns—should be re-defined according to the Church doctrine of equality of sexes. Nuns and women deserve better treatment from the Church. The nuns in the Catholic Church are doing yeoman service in different fields like education, healthcare, serving and caring for the poor and invalids. They are unrecognised foot soldiers of the Church; they need to be recognised and honoured in the Church. I do not know why they cannot also share leadership in the Church.

It is both an institutional problem as well as a problem of mindset. Pope Francis is a prophetic leader and I believe he may bring in some renewal concerning women in the Church.

The Kerala Catholics Bishops Council (KCBC) released a statement which sounded more like a defence of the bishop. As a former spokesperson, how do you read the statement?

They seem to say that the bishop is the victim. I am sorry that statement does not reflect the position of the Church clearly taken in Pope Francis’ letter to the People of God.  All I can say is the Church is the body of Christ and should speak like Jesus. It is up to them to evaluate their statement. I do not want to comment more.

Even the Catholic Bishops Council of India (CBCI) statement was ambivalent and apologetic when it said, “our silence should not be construed as siding with either party”. What prevents them from standing with the victim or survivor pending inquiry?

The statement of the CBCI nevertheless says something important. It clearly tells us, “The law should take its course and once the police file their definitive report after their investigations, the competent authorities will definitely make necessary decisions.” This information comes from the CBCI but it reads like information coming from the Vatican. It presupposes the Vatican is cognizant of the issue and they are not only considering [decisions], but decisions are impending.

With respect to the lack of democracy in the church, do you think the demand for the enactment of a “Church Act” for accountability is justified—especially in the backdrop of the land scam involving Cardinal Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church?

It is not the lack of any law that caused the land scam but a clear violation of it. I have very many times stated my position on the Church Act. The proponents of it, as far as I know, were Justice VR Krishna Iyer and Joseph Pulikkunnel. I personally think the Canon Law is enough to deal with property matters of the Church. It is this law that manages Church property in all other countries all over the world. The Indian Catholic Church needs no other law.

What do you say to the argument of certain conspiracy theorists that factionalism is one of the reasons for that scandal involving Cardinal Alencherry to emerge?

I cannot say anything on the conspiracy theory, for the Pope and the Vatican has acted upon it. The issue can be settled by the apostolic administrator appointed by the Pope.

There is a more than three-decade-old factional feud on liturgy between the Chaldean faction spearheaded by the Changanassery Archdiocese—which argues for a return to its roots in the Syrian tradition—and the “modernist” Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, which favours a more Indian approach in sync with local traditions. Can any solution emerge to this debate?

There can always be polarities of progressive and conservative outlooks in the Church. This tension is part of healthy growth, but this issue has turned regional, which may not be healthy. Such differences of opinion can be creatively seen as possibilities rather than problems. It is not a good versus bad argument—both are good or better possibilities. Questions are decided on particular issues with dialogical agreements.

Isn’t it curious that the Chaldean faction champions the restoration of the liturgy to the true East Syriac rituals practised by the St Thomas Christians, even as they do not want to adopt the system of democratic administration of the Church through “Palliyogam” prevalent back then?

Man should live with memory. To lose memory is to lose one’s identity. But that doesn’t mean going back to the past; instead, we should remember the past in the present for the future. I would like to remind the readers of the Egyptian play by Tawfìq al-Óakìm (1898-1987) titled Ahl al-Kahf (The People of the Cave). During the persecution of Christians, seven men of Ephesus take refuge in a cave where they miraculously sleep for three centuries. They are awakened to find their city totally changed and now inhabited by Christians. These men fail to live with the Christians around them and return to the cave. This should be understood as Homer’s Ulyssian return home in contrast to Abraham’s call “to leave your kindred, land and home to a land I will show”—the contrast between a return to past and an exodus to future. The rootedness in the earth can lead you back in the ethnic and pagan methods of irresponsibility and violence. 

Jesus Christ didn’t approve of temporal wealth, pomp and authority in the gospel when he said, “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18: 36). Doesn’t it then become incumbent on the Church to heed it?

“No one can serve two masters: Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24).

But from Emperor Constantine’s days, the Church seems to take the two. Constantine made Christianity the religion of the state. He was not enthroning Christ but he was making Christ the Sun God, the God of the empire. Remember the vision he is said to have got on the Melvin Bridge. He looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it and with it the words “in hoc signo vinces” (in this sign, you shall conquer). It was a conversion of the sign of the cross to a crusading domination of power and pomp. The Church has seen the failure and returned to the humble and simple way of the Divine but the old ghosts remain.

What is your position regarding the reading down of Section 377 of the IPC that deals with the LGBT community?

I accept the reality that any human being irrespective of sexual orientations must be respected and honoured. A homosexual or lesbian person cannot be discriminated against. A person can have a homosexual or heterosexual orientation, there is nothing as such wrong. Heterosexual affairs outside of marriage are considered bad, [but] so is the case in other relationships. My real problem here is with respect to sexual identity. Sexual identity is said to be a biological as well as a socio-cultural construct; sexuality is not an impulse of necessity and determination. There is the freedom to become. Can a heterosexual become a homosexual and vice versa? I do not have a definitive answer to these questions. Therefore I am hesitant to condemn or to condone.

Although the Church is still very powerful in Kerala, do you sense the feeling of alienation among a section of the laity for their failure to change with the times? If this persists, do you anticipate a situation like the West where Churches have emptied out?

Herman Gundert had started a Malayalam science periodical from Thalassery titled Sunrise from the West (Enlightenment comes from West). What is happening in the West comes to the East. There is a crisis of faith taking place in the West—it is secularisation. The Church is weakening. Similar trends may appear here as well. There are thinkers who say secularism is itself a consequence of Judeo-Christian heritage. Is Christianity a religion? There are theologians who deny, call it a way of life, exemplified by Jesus. The beauty of Christianity is that it can recreate itself.

You have been the editor of Sathyadeepam /Light of Truth for 32 years. You were also the authorised spokesperson for the Church till 2013 and strongly defended the doctrines and dogmas of the Church for a long time. Of late, however, many of your positions on these issues seem to have evolved to reflect the reality of the times. How did it happen?

Yes, I am a follower of Christ and I try to walk his way; priesthood for me is a sort of a possession. I am more of a becoming than a being. Life is a process of finding oneself by measuring oneself with the measure of Christ. I am in the Church which nurtured me and I am immensely grateful. I am still defending Christ and his gospel.

Much of my lifespan was spent as a journalist. To speak to the media is not an argument to be won but a confession of faith and life. It is not an unending narcissistic cry but a confession like St Augustine’s. “See my wound, I do not hide them (ecce vulnera mea non abscondo)” (Confessions 10.28). It is also about the critical evaluation of history and its events and being self-critical. As St Augustine wrote, “I became a vast question to myself, and my soul interrogated itself.” Yet Augustine writes: “And now I confess to you, O Lord, in writing”. Perhaps what I write and speak are confessions. The positions of the Church are not mine but the language and the expressions evolve and mature with age and wisdom.

Coming back to the issue of the nuns, do you think Bishop Franco’s case is a symptom of a deeper malaise afflicting the Church or do you think it’s a rare exception?

Human beings are fallible and fragile. Every crisis is also an opportunity for self-evaluation and regeneration and reform. To love God means to follow his commandments. God is to be found in ethics. The face of the other is the primary scripture. Showing concern for “the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the beggar” must not end up as empty rhetoric. The aspiration to a just society is an eminently religious action. And in concrete terms, this means that each person acts as though he were the Messiah.

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