‘Blind faith of the past is shaken’: The movement to reform the church in Kerala

The dominance of bishops and poor treatment of nuns are some of the issues that triggered the movement.

WrittenBy:Cris
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Seventeen years ago, when Felix Pulludan was “healthier in his mind and body” as he’d like to put it, a sequence of incidents – beginning with a meeting of bishops, priests and the laity – led to his exit from the Catholic Church in Kerala. They were discussing a Bill moved by the then education minister of Kerala, MA Baby – the Kerala Professional Colleges or Institutions Act, 2006. The law could identify minority institutions and included provisions for reservation in self-financing colleges. 

Felix made a speech about how it could be beneficial to the minorities, and everyone had agreed to his suggestion that they accept it. But in the newspapers the next day, Felix found that the bishops issued a statement opposite to what was agreed at the meeting.

“I called on the archbishop to find out what happened. He said that after the laity [the laypersons or the common followers] left the meeting, the bishops decided to go against the earlier decision to support the Bill,” he tells TNM years later. “When I asked how they could veto a decision they made together, he said the metropolitans had the absolute power, and there was no question above it. So I called a press meet, made our stance clear, and left the sabha [church].”

Felix has been part of reform movements within Christianity since then, turning state president for the Joint Christian Council and convener for the Save Our Sisters campaign, which began as a justice forum for a rape survivor nun. Like Felix, several priests, nuns and others among the laity have over the years raised the need for reforms within the religion and church establishment. 

Four years ago, more than a hundred thousand people had marched to the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, demanding that the Church Bill (Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill proposed by the VR Krishna Iyer Commission in 2009) be implemented. It would, they stated, bring transparency in the administration of church affairs. Various Christian reformist groups had taken part in the march.

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Protest for the Church Act in front of the Secretariat in 2019.

“It is an act that could bring democracy to the church. But of course, nothing came out of the huge turnout of protesters, because the all-powerful bishops also have undue political influence,” says George Moolechalil, founding member of the Kerala Catholic Reformation Movement (KCRM).

Many of the concerns of such reformist groups arise out of the hierarchical structure that seems unbreakable in the community. The ones at the bottom rung of the ladder — the laity — appeared to have rarely been heard or paid heed to. In the words of the reformists, they live a neglected life.

Several of them speak of the second Vatican Council that took place between 1962 and ’65, during which Pope John XXIII wanted some “updates” in church practices. One of them was to break down the hierarchical structure. Felix calls this structure a pyramid, which begins with the Pope at the top, followed by the archbishop and the bishops, then the priests, the nuns, and finally the laity. Pope John wanted to make it a circle, with the Pope at the centre and every other category placed around him, enjoying equal status and access.

Father Kuriakose Mundadan, priest and professor who has been vocal about his views, recalls how the Vatican Council acknowledged the need for laity’s participation in church matters. “Before 1965, we could only see the holy qurbana [holy mass]. After that we were able to take part in the mass,” he says.

Other than that though, the democratic nature advocated by the Vatican Council was disregarded, says the priest. The churches in Kerala did not implement Pope John’s recommendation, and instead took the system back by centuries, he says.

But the council’s influence was still felt in a few colleges and educational institutions of India. Father Augustin Vattoly, one of the main voices of the Save Our Sisters forum, said it was studying liberation theology that shaped his thoughts at a young age. 

“I studied in a campus in Poonamallee of then Madras. Influenced by this theology, learning different perspectives, I could look at the sabha and the priestly life critically. And I understood that what was happening in our churches was not what Jesus had in mind,” he says.

Most of the voices calling for reforms did not denounce the religion, only questioned the way churches worked. The church was built in the name of Jesus, but this is not something Jesus wanted, says Felix. “He didn’t want to be worshipped like a godman but he was made a saviour and god. When he was asked if he was the son of god, his reply was that every person was the child of god,” he adds.

Felix speaks during a seminar of the Joint Christian Council.

Father Kuriakose also points out that Jesus Christ was the first rebel and he was crucified for asking questions. “As a priest, I say, let them ask questions. I am a caretaker, not an owner [of the believers]. They are not slaves,” he says.

Rather than start new organisations, all the reform movements and the people behind it simply want to point out the flaws in the existing system and resolve them, says advocate Indulekha Joseph, who has been part of reform groups such as the KCRM and the Joint Christian Council. Indulekha propagates the need for transparency in economic deals. The church, she says, has a lot of wealth but there are no accounts for it. “It is kept as the bishop’s personal property. They don’t follow the vision of Jesus Christ or the Bible which says give to the ones who don’t have. They don’t encourage poor students.”

Indulekha’s own student life was disrupted by the doings of the church, she alleges. She was a student at a Christian management college, from which she was expelled because her father wrote a book called Nasraayanum Naranathu Bhranthanum which was critical of the college principal as well as the church.

“I was a student there, my father was a professor. In my first year, I was elected vice chairperson. But after the book came out, I was mentally harassed to the verge of suicide. Students were discouraged from sitting near me. In the church, they spoke badly of my character. I sat on satyagraha against my expulsion, I went to court and fought a case for three years. But I lost the case because they had the money to bring senior advocates such as Harish Salve. It again spoke of their money power,” Indulekha says.

Indulekha at a protest for the implementation of the Church Act.

Indulekha and George also point to the vow of celibacy often forced upon nuns and priests. “Many step into the priestly life at an immature age, and they can't go back home. They suppress their desires. But this would often lead to other kinds of exploitation. Think of the number of nuns found dead in wells. And nuns often struggle even for their basic needs without money," Indulekha says.

She also brings up the confession box and the exploitation that takes place between some priests and women devotees. Male priests who hear the confessions of a woman may sometimes use it to blackmail her and then abuse her, she says. 

“In the old days we had a system called pizhamoolal, in which the devotee simply thinks of the misdeed in front of the priest and then gets blessed by the priest. Either that system has to be brought back, or women should confess to women instead of male priests," Indulekha says.

George concurs that the system is anti-woman, and that nuns are often treated as subservient.

The Save Our Sisters council was formed only when the nuns had no other choice, Father Vattoly points out. It had turned many heads when five nuns began sitting in protest outside the High Court in Kochi, asking that Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who was then accused of rape of another nun, be arrested. “The nuns who backed the survivor and even their relatives faced the wrath of the bishop’s supporters.”

Nuns protesting in support of the survivor in the Franco case.

Not that these acts of unseen courage would not have impact, it just may take years, he says. “After the Alencherry archbishop accused in a land scam case] and Franco cases and the massive protests over it, the devotee community has accepted or taken note that there is something wrong here. The blind faith of the earlier years has been shaken.”

Felix says something on the same lines. When Thomas Isaac, who was a state minister at the time of Felix’s exit, likened his act to beating a giant wall with bare hands, Felix told him, “Maybe so, but someone will see the blood marks I leave there and would want to beat on the wall again. When it keeps repeating, when many people begin beating and reacting, there will be a difference.”

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.

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