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Recent reports of criminal activities committed by some clergies of the Kerala Church have shaken many of its faithful followers. These reports have become favourite themes of the social media,not only among the Malayalam speaking community in Kerala but also among people from other states too[1]. It is a grave situation and has precipitated a crisis within the Catholic Church in Kerala.The incidents which happened in the Church recently are of serious nature and include rape, murder, attempt to destroy evidence and threatening victims to not to report the offences to others. Whoever committed these crimes should be punished as per the law of the land.

No righteous person would want the Church, which did immensely good work in the areas of education, health and socio-economic development of the state to suffer[2]. Popular analyses of this crisis conclude that these offenses are isolated and are committed by few frustrated and sexually deprived priests, as these priests are forced to follow celibacy against their will and interest. To them, a long- term solution to this crisis could be letting the Catholic priests to get married.

This popular analysis of the crisis is baseless primarily because sexual offenses are only part of the symptoms of a grave and entrenched problem in the community. Marriage as a remedy for reforming the ‘erring boys of the community’, though being prescribed for a long time, has lost its effectiveness over the years. Besides, it has potential to create many more problems to the women who marry these erring boys!

The community needs a realistic understanding of the issue to arrive at some radical solutions. Listed below are some of the precipitating factors of the current crisis in the Kerala Church.

Gendered socialisation process: Socialisation is the act of adapting behaviour of new members of a community to the norms of a culture or society. Church in Kerala endorses a gendered socialization process – a process of educating different social expectations, roles, attitudes and values associated with one’s sex. The catechism of the church in Kerala is highly gendered and not interpreted based on gender equality and freedom. It assigns inferior positions and roles to women. Accordingly, girls and women believe that they are inferior to boys and men.The gendered socialisation process starts from the womb and continues till the tomb. Every Sunday, priests give sermons from the pulpitto the community in which they emphasize their patriarchal values. Compulsory Sunday classes for children further endorses such values.

Emphasis on impeccability:‘Priests can never make mistakes’ is the accepted norm. Even if they make mistakes, believers should accept these as they might be doing these acts for the final good of the faithful.Unquestionably accepting everything is considered as a supreme virtue, especially for women.

Patriarchal men: Feudal and patriarchal values precipitated by the gendered socialisation are deeply entrenched among its laymen. Church in Kerala also revolves around the impeccability and supremacy of its feudal men in every sphere of life and social engagement. Along with priests, men are also there to define, control and guide all matters around faith. Patriarchal Men are there to protect everyone. It kills initiative among girls and forces them to keep quiet, even when other men make sexual advances against them.

Unilateral interpretation of Word of God:Priests are considered as superior souls with divine powers. They are the final word on all religious matters. They have the final advice on all moral dilemmas of the community. Unlike the Protestant faith, Catholic priests interpret Bible and only their interpretations are accepted as authentic. These interpretations are unilateral and give less room for the faithful to think, decide, and act for themselves leading to a ‘slave mindset’ among followers. It encourages the community to unquestionably accept instructions and take only the trodden path.

Feudalist mindset:Feudalism is a system in which a community submit all their rights to a feudal lord and give him extreme reverence, labour, and a share of their produce with the expectation of protection and blessings.Social organization in the Kerala church is based on a similar feudal mindset and considers priests as feudal lords. Priests can claim the rights of faithful, their respect, and money. Priests seldom consider they are one among them. Quiet often they claim super natural powers and many of them are involved in occult and magical practices. Priests make all important decisions for the community. Community is expected to be loyal and obedient to these feudal priests.

Different male and female heroic virtues: Heroic virtues for men and women are different in the Kerala Church. To illustrate this point further, one may take the example of Saints formation in the Kerala Church. Saints are canonized by the Church for the believers to follow and emulate their virtues. Sainthood is decided through a rigorous and time consuming process of gathering and examining evidence and subsequent validation. To become a Saint, it should be categorically proved that candidates of Sainthood lived a life of “heroic virtue”. The heroic virtues of female saints are ‘being inward looking’, ‘obedient’ and ‘conforming’ while for male saints it is ‘outgoing’ and ‘being rebellious’ and ‘radical’.

St. Chavara, a male saint lived in the 19th century Kerala, is considered as a social reformer and visionary priest. In fact, he started the first printing press and later, this press was used for bringing out the first Malayalam daily newspaper. His pioneering contribution to Kerala society was “school along with church”. He also started a special school for weaker sections in society and opened the first boarding school for girls. Another male candidate for sainthood is Blessed Kunjachan who devoted his entire life towards the uplifting of the downtrodden and the Dalits.

On the contrary, St. Euprasia, a female saint had her life confined within a convent. She led a life dedicated to prayer and suffering. She had led a very secluded life, spending most of her time in the convent chapel. Similarly, another female saint St. Alphonsa too, dogged by various diseases and a burnt leg led a life of prayer and suffering. Silently suffering everything is a virtue prescribed for heroic women of the community.

Scope of sharing the accumulated wealth:The ancestry of most of the Catholics in Kerala are from humble agrarian families. Internal migration within Kerala in the early years and migration to foreign countries later made many of them rich. Taking advantage of the accumulated wealth, priests have entered into a spree of re-construction of Church buildings, which opened scope for sharing some of the wealth through various ways. Accumulated wealth has potential to corrupt many of the noble minds!

Lack of key roles for women in the Church:As elsewhere in the Catholic world, only men could occupy the high position of priesthood. Catholic church reasons out the exclusion of women from priesthood by pointing out that Jesus chose only men as his apostles. Even though the situation in the world has changed, catholic Church is hesitant to change as the hold of patriarchy is very strong. Women are not allowed to take up not only priesthood, but important positions of power in the affairs of the Church. Priesthood in Kerala comes with power to manage its many institutions including educational and clinical establishments. Nuns are not given charge of any of these powerful institutions. Interestingly, the aspirants for male priesthood has not come down compared to aspirants to become nuns, indicating the ever increasing charm of priesthood.

Controlling rites of passages:Rites of passages are ceremonies or events marking important stages in life, such as birth, the transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and death.There are important and essential ceremonies attached to these rites of passages such as baptism, holy communion, confirmation and so on. With the newly accumulated wealth among the faithful, these ceremonies have gained importance in the life of Church members. By instituting cumbersome processes of certifications and sanctions, priests have taken control of these rites of passages and thereby controlling the life of its faithful.

Suppression of Dissent: Dissent in Kerala Church has always been suppressed through threat of ostracising. Through the network of family prayer groups and community networks, priests can always exert pressure on dissenting members and silence them. Threats of not issuing certificates for ceremonies around rites of passages or for admissions in Church institutions, they exert organized pressure on the community and suppress any form of dissent.

In brief

The criminal activities of some of the priests should be seen in the light of above factors. Solution of increasing criminal activities among priesthood is not just‘letting them get married’. It needs radical changes in terms of democratising church institutions and encouraging priests to take an honest attempt to de-learn their patriarchal catechisms and reform their feudal mindsets. Empowering women in the Kerala church should go beyond tokenism and give way for radical changes in redefining its long held values by promoting attitudinal changes. The position of majority of girls and women in the Church hierarchy are very low. They are beingsuppressed, controlled and even manipulated to serve the interests of patriarchy. They find it difficult to respond to oppressors.The community needs support to introspect and correct. It is not enough to leave solutions of this crisis to the clergy alone, as it needs radial reforms and changes in the way the Church thinks and acts today, especially in some of the values it upholds.

(Kandathil Sebastian is an author, novelist and social development professional based in Delhi)

[1]  See “Kerala priest who spoke against child abuse arrested for raping minor girl” at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/kerala-vicar-arrested-for-raping-minor-who-attended-church-run-computer-classes/story-R6BA4dXZP5UAvZdJw4BWXL.html

[2] Reports of the latest National Family Health Survey of India ranks Kerala’s health indicators at par with developed countries. Curative services provided by the Church in rural Kerala is instrumental to this achievement.

2 Comments

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The problems faced in churches are similar in every religion. Since the priests belong to the same society, they have similar characters of patriarchy, crimes, discrimination, etc. The rapes and murders are pathetic. While there are many positive developments in Kerala churches, such henious crimes should be condemned and action taken

  2. This article regards ‘sex as sin’. In fact most of the religious and conservative societies all across world regard sex as sin. But if you have come across the sculptors of Khajurahu or Konark or Chola temples, no way you can regard sex as sin. Spiritual masters all across the world has only called for a moderation or restraint in the matter of sex. In fact, human body itself calls for moderation when it comes in matters like food, sleep and sex. Ayurveda clearly tells that excess sex or masturbation can lead to depreciation of ‘ojaz’ or human vitality and can lead to several diseases. But instead of calling for a moderation or restraint in the matters like sex, priestly class all across the world tried to curb the mobility of women and imposed controls on her. Maya or ‘Cosmic Delusion’ or ‘Temptation’ in Christianity is a real thing. More often sex addiction is the result. Instead of controlling sex addiction in both Man and Women, Christian morality, Brahmins and Maulavis all across the world imposed controls on women. The standards imposed by the priestly class are now mocked upon in the social media. The priestly class themselves have to blame for this dilemma.