The Cat Among The Pigeons

February 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Goa, National, newsletter-india, State

Rev Bismarque Dias, Goa PriestGoa, February 19, 2012: The decision of Rev Bismarque Dias to stand for elections from the Cumbharjua constituency of the Goa Assembly, albeit as an Independent candidate, has set the cat among the pigeons, triggering a heated debate. Those against the priest’s decision have based their arguments on Canon Law, and those for him have referred to the rampant political corruption in Goa.

Since Dias’ decision has widespread ramifications I have done some research before putting pen to paper. I shall address the issue from various angles: – 1. Contextual 2. Canonical 3. Scriptural 4. Historical 5. Ecclesiological 6. Social 7. Psychological 8. Moral. I have relied on public opinion, contemporary realities, sacred scripture, Church teachings as found in Canon Law and Vatican Council documents, and two respected writers, Rev Josef Neuner SJ, the doyen of Indian theologians, and eminent scripture scholar Rev J.N.M. Wijngaards MHM. Specific reference is to Neuner’s “The Prophetic Role of the Laity” (PRL) and Wijngaards’ “Christ’s Idea of Authority” (CIA).

The Context: Dias, a social activist in Goa, has apparently leapt into electoral politics because of the rampant corruption prevalent there. Ironically, Goa has the second highest literacy rate in the country, and an influential number of Catholics. Unfortunately, the most corrupt politicians allegedly involved in murder, rape, drugs, smuggling and money laundering are Catholics! They have a 400-year legacy of Christianity. One is constrained to ask if the “illiterate and backward” voters of Bihar, who opted for Nitish Kumar, are more enlightened and morally upright than the sanctimonious (novenas and rosaries) Catholics of Goa?

If so, has the Rome of the East failed to be a guiding light and moral force in its own backyard? Who is responsible for this pathetic situation? Sri Alan Nazareth, former Indian ambassador, states that the “foundations of religious and ethical values have been poorly laid”.

Rev P.J. Jacob, was an MLA from Kalghatgi in Karnataka from 1983 to 85. Writing in Indian Currents (30th January) he admits that “priesthood is no less corrupt” and “priesthood in every religion is identified with power, pelf and privilege”. That being so, what did he achieve by becoming an MLA, and what does Dias now hope for? Is it not a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Would Jacob and Dias not have achieved more by stemming the rot within the priesthood itself?

Canon Law: Conservatives point to Canon Law that forbids Catholic priests from entering electoral or party politics. Liberals would say that the Sabbath is made for man, and not vice-versa. Rev M.K. George SJ goes so far as to allege that the church made the canonical prohibitions with its own vested interests in mind, and they should be dispensed with! On the other hand Rev Dominic Emmanuel SVD has quoted Canon 285:3 that bars clerics from seeking public office or civil power.

Canon Law has infact drawn a Laxman Rekha for clerics in various spheres. It debars clerics from involvement in whatever is “unbecoming or foreign to their state” eventhough they are “not unseemly” (C 285). Among the forbidden fruit are not just civil power and public office (C 285:3), but also the practice of trade and commerce (C286), active role in political parties and in directing trade unions (C 287:2), and volunteering for the Armed Forces (C 289:1). This is not because they are per se “unseemly”, but because they are “unbecoming” for a cleric. Do these provisions sound unreasonable, vested or arbitrary?

There are laws for everything, including for married people and the laity. If clerics are going to flout Canon Law then what stops the laity from taking over the common assets of the church? We are opening up a Pandora’s Box. Laws may either curtail or confer a right. Speaking of the laity and lay organisations Canon Law avers that “they have the special obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things” (C 225:2). The church exhorts us to “especially esteem those associations whose aim is to animate the temporal order” (C 327). However, even for the laity it is stated “Those who hold an office of direction in political parties are not to be moderators in public associations of the faithful” (C 317:4). Could this be termed discriminatory, restrictive and unjust, or mere jurisprudence? Nevertheless we cannot treat Canon Law in isolation, without also addressing the scriptural, historical and ecclesiological factors.

Sacred Scripture: The Word of God is a powerful, though not exhaustive, benchmark to test the waters. I believe that Jesus’ categorical statement to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (cf Mat 23:21) is the foundation of secularism. In erstwhile Christendom this is seen as the separation of Church and State. Writing to the Romans St Paul also categorically states that even temporal authority is from God, and should be respected by the believers (cf Rom 13:1-4).

Rev Neuner elucidates that in the Old Testament the roles of Priest (who makes the rules), the King (who actually rules), and the Prophet (who interprets the rules in a given circumstance) are distinctly different. In a modern democratic society these same functions are assumed by the Legislature (law making), the Executive (rule of law), and the Judiciary (interpreting or adjudicating on a specific aspect of law). Separation and balance of powers without encroaching on the other’s domain, is critical for a healthy democracy.  What happened during the Emergency (1975-77), when Indira Gandhi assumed absolute power? Sure enough, it corrupted her absolutely. The same danger lurks when a priest (who being part of the hierarchy) actually lays down the rules, governs and adjudicates; and now seeks to add political power to it. It is an explosive mix. Neuner further states that Jesus “persistently refused to identify himself with any institution, be it political (the freedom fighters of Galilee) or religious (the Pharisees or the monks of Qumran)” (PRL Pg 24).

In like manner Wjngaards reminds us that Jesus’ authority was not that of the world (cf Mat 20:25-26, Lk 16:18). Jesus infact opposed worldly power (cf Jn 18:36, 6:15), and symbolically rode a lowly donkey (cf Mat 21:5). He states that “The instruments of secular authority are money, weapons and force. Jesus denies this to his disciples (cf Mat 10:9, 26:52). He abjures competition (cf Lk 18:14), party formation (cf Lk 6:32) and the struggle for rank (cf Mk 10:41)” (CIA Pg 4). Yet Rev Jacob would have us believe that “Jesus was a politician”! I would rather believe Jesus than Rev Jacob.

Lessons From History: Church history is replete with how the hierarchical church, and even the papacy, has often forgotten Jesus’ teachings, in their blind pursuit of power. Emperor Constantine, in the 4th Century, dealt the severest blow to Christianity when he made it the state religion of the Roman/ Byzantine Empire. Pristine Christianity did not purge the empire. The reverse happened. The Church absorbed all the trappings of temporal power, extant to this day, in the honorifics like Eminence, Lordship, and symbols like rings and a coat of arms.

Wijngaards says that during the Middle Ages, Christianity “flourished as a feudalistic society with three groups – nobility, craftsmen and dependents (slaves) – the clergy was considered part of or parallel to the nobility. Most vocations would come from this group, and becoming a priest was therefore not considered a loss” (CIA Pg 15).

I myself have always held that, be it the ancient churches of Kerala or Goa, or the nascent post-colonial churches in the rest of India, the Catholic hierarchy has always been part of the ruling class; be it the Syrian nobility in Kerala, the Brahmins in Goa, or the Gora Sahibs in the colonial era. This mindset has barely diminished. Scratch under the surface and you will find that the clergyman is the Master, not the Servant.

Wijngaards says that “Church history confirms the influence of secular kingship ideas on ruling in the church” (CIA Pg 2). Neuner adds that this resulted in a “process of secularisation that could not be stopped” (PRL Pg 12). “This resulted in the growing redundancy of the church as it gradually lost patronage and control over the secular realm” (PRL Pg 131). “This discomfort led to a revolt of the laity and the Reformation” (PRL Pg 11). To the Reformation I would add the French Revolution and the Bastille cry for “liberty, equality and fraternity’. It was as much directed against the corpulent monarchy as against the opulent hierarchy. The French apathy to the Church’s temporal power is even today manifest in its rigorous enforcement of the separation of Church and State.

Given India’s own penchant for subservience to the ruling elite or high castes, the Church in India should learn the lessons of European church history, and not repeat the same mistake of adding political power to the considerable economic, spiritual, institutional, pulpit and media clout that it already wields. Pope John XXIII was a simple and humble man. That is why he was open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and convened Vatican II in 1962, to correct the course of history.

Vatican II Ecclesiology: A deep anguish that I carry in my heart is that, 50 years after Vatican II, its teachings have neither been expounded nor implemented. We have only had some cosmetic changes in the liturgy or the dress of priests and nuns. The deeper attitudinal changes have fallen by the wayside. It is a vast subject, but I will here restrict myself to the case in point – priests entering into electoral politics. I will therefore dwell on relevant extracts from “The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” (LG), “The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” (GS) and “The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” (PO).

The relevant ecclesiology of Vatican II is based on the following premises: – 1. The secular world is good, not profane as contrasted with the sacred 2. The Church respects the authority and autonomy of secular affairs, including politics 3. Temporal affairs, and more specifically politics, is the legitimate domain of the laity and lay organisations, which the Church respects and promotes 4. Clerics are different, the difference is of divine origin, and serves a unifying purpose 5. The specific role of clerics is clearly spelt out. This is what Vatican II says.

To begin with, it recognises the autonomy of earthly affairs (cf GS 36). It also acknowledges its submission to civil Govt. “She has no fiercer desire than that … she may be able to develop herself freely under any kind of Government which grants recognition to the demands of the common good” (GS 42). It does not even seek the undue privileges of the past when it says, “ The Church does not lodge her hope in privileges conferred by civil authority. Indeed she stands ready to renounce the exercise of certain legitimately acquired rights” (GS 76).

The Church exhorts the faithful to be involved in temporal affairs. It asserts that “The Christian who neglects his temporal duties neglects his duty towards his neighbour and even God and jeopardises his eternal salvation” (GS 43). ”The Church regards as worthy of praise and consideration the work of those who, as a service to others, dedicate themselves to the welfare of the state” (GS 75). Nevertheless the Church also cautions that “It is highly important … that a proper view exist of the relation between the political community and the Church” (GS76). Besides, “The Church must in no way be confused with the political community nor bound to any political system” (GS 76).

While on the one hand recognising the importance of political affairs, the Church simultaneously states that this is the specific role of the laity, as already referred to in Canon Law herein above. It says “The laity, by their very vocation seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs” (LG 31). “The layman is closely involved in temporal affairs. It is therefore his special task to illumine and organise these affairs” (LG 31). “The laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can she become the salt of the earth” (LG 33).

In contrast the Council advocates a different role for the clergy. It states that “Their ministry itself, by a special title, forbids them to be conformed to the world” (PO 3). It identifies three special functions for the priest – Proclamation of God’s Word (PO 4), Ministering of the Sacraments (PO 5) and Community Building (PO 6). Had the clergy of Goa fulfilled this three-fold task, I daresay that we would not have seen today’s pathetic scenario, where Catholic politicians are criminals and corrupt.

The Church has spoken through scripture, history, Canon Law and Vatican II. Neuner sums it up in these words, that the Council “in an irrevocable and universal decision opened the church to the modern world … This reality of our world is the realm of the laity” (PRL Pg 27). Is Dias listening?

The Social Aspect: No doctrine can exist in a void. It must be rooted in society. Hence, from the objective I now move to some subjective experiences. I have been actively involved in lay ministry and leadership roles for the last 43 years. As National President of the All India Catholic Union I have travelled all over India, and interacted with the President, Prime minister, CBCI, Papal Nuncio etc at one end, and dalits and tribals at the other end of the spectrum. I now state in unequivocal terms that the hierarchical church in India has not implemented the teachings of Vatican II vis-à-vis the laity, and its role in the modern world. It is loathe to appoint a layperson as a school principal, let alone assigning leadership roles in a parish or elsewhere.

Most of our Catholic politicians are there not because of the support of the church. Ironically, the three highest profile ones – Sonia Gandhi, George Fernandes and A.K. Antony, are not known to be churchgoers! We have had an array of distinguished Catholics as Governors, Chiefs of the Armed Forces, Ambassadors, Supreme Court Judges etc. They were there because of their individual brilliance or competence. Have any of them been proffered a leadership role in the hierarchical church? The answer is an emphatic “No”.

It is this fear of an enlightened and empowered laity that has robbed the church of its prophetic role, to be a game changer. Unfortunately, exceptions notwithstanding, the Catholic Church in India is status-quoist and pro-establishment. It seems happy teaching arithmetic, and geography, and dispensing medicines. Why does it suffer from a serious case of “layophobia”?

The Psychological Dimension: It is all in the mind. A phobia is more often imaginary, not real, playing on individual or collective insecurities. The hierarchical church is so well entrenched, cocooned, secure, that any exposure to lay influence will cause clerical influenza, with a severe bout of sneezing insecurity and coughing uncertainty. It suffers from shuttered doors and cluttered minds. It lacks the humility and simplicity of Pope John XXIII, who dared to open the doors to the world, science, other religions, and the laity. An insecure and uncertain hierarchical church has quickly reverted to clamming up and slamming the door shut on Vatican II ecclesiology.

After clamming, up another psychological factor is the “growing up” syndrome. Having taught the infant laity how to talk and walk, the “Father” now wants the “child” to shut up and sit down! In Transactional Analysis we call this the paradigm shift from the Parent-Child relationship to the Adult-Adult one. Being inured to being “Fathered” by everybody, a priest is unable to adapt from a paternalistic to a fraternal relationship.

Here is what Wijngaards says. “By habit we are accustomed to think of a priest as a father. The idea is so familiar to us that we stop to question its validity. Scripture gives very slender support” (CIA Pg 29). “No where did Christ claim to be the father, nor did he ever describe himself as father” (CIA Pg 30). Infact he expressly forbade anybody being called father (cf Mat 23:9), for he “was like his brothers in every way” (Heb 2:17).

Vatican II echoes a similar fraternal approach. “By divine condescension the laity have Christ for their brother … They also have for their brothers those in the sacred ministry” (LG 32). “They deal with other men as with brothers. This was the way that the Lord Jesus … willed to become like his brothers” (PO 3).

Powerful parish priests are used to dealing with dumb and subservient laity. Omniscient Principals interact with fawning teachers or frightened students. This has further entrenched the father image. But as the child grows up the parent must step down. I don’t see this happening in the church. Hence I strongly oppose any further attempt to foster the paternal role by adding political power to the priest’s existing armoury.

The Moral Force: All other considerations apart, is electoral politics the only way to combat corruption? We have a glittering array of influential and effective leaders who were not politicians, yet irrevocably altered the course of history. Pride of place goes to Mahatma Gandhi, followed by Martin Luther King, Abp Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Jayprakash Narayan, Baba Amte, Vinobha Bhave, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Medha Patkar, and the more recent Anna Hazare. Ironically, the last, lost his credibility and high moral ground the moment his movement became politicised. We have had effective CECs like T.N. Sheshan, James Lyngdoh and the incumbent soft-spoken Dr S.Y. Quraishi. We have had exemplary Chief Justices like P.N. Bhagwati, J.S. Verma and the incumbent H.S. Kapadia. We have had crusading journalists like N. Ram, Arun Shourie, Ramnath Goenka and Tarun Tejpal. There are courageous RTI activists who have exposed corruption, and have often laid down their lives for the cause. They were all catalysts and animators of change.

Conclusion: The conclusion that one arrives at is that electoral politics is certainly not the only option available to Rev (not Father) Bismarque Dias, if indeed he wants to fight corruption and cleanse Goan society. If he still feels so strongly about it, then he should have the courage and humility to renounce the priesthood, and join the ranks of the laity. We will welcome him with open arms. But he would be in for a rude shock outside the security and sanctity of the Catholic ministerial priesthood.

If Dias insists on setting the cat among the pigeons, nobody, other than the electorate, can stop him. I for one don’t like treacherously purring cats. I prefer barking watchdogs that are also faithful to their masters. I also don’t fancy pigeons that keep “dropping” things. I would rather be a dove, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, Sacred Scripture, the Church’s official teachings and the lessons of history. I would prefer to learn from Pope John XXIII, and keep it simple.

– chhotebhai

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