End of church pretences

Kerala nun rape case

Indian Christian nuns and Muslim supporters demand the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun, outside the High Court in Kochi. AFP

The instance of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Catholic Church allegedly raping a nun repeatedly over a period of two years is turning out to be a climactic event not only for the church they both belong to, but for the Kerala Christian community as a whole. The issues underlying this event, and the shape it has acquired by now, merit wider attention insofar as they are also reflected in the life of other faith communities as well.

The very first issue is that the victim nun sought in vain for justice within the church but found none. As a result, she was forced to seek redressal of her grievances through legal action, though biblical teaching discourages Christians from resorting to litigation. For centuries, the church preached justice, but having succumbed to crass worldliness, it developed, like all centres of power, an allergy to justice. The voice crying for justice is now mistaken as being in collusion with anti-church conspirators.

The church will neither give you justice nor allow you to seek justice from other sources. A worse stance of oppression cannot be imagined. The bishops of the Catholic Church, under pretext of neutrality, have, in effect, sided with the alleged rapist. One is reminded of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s response when certain fellow Christians said that they were neutral towards the struggle against Apartheid. “If an elephant,” said Tutu, “is standing on the tail of a monkey and the monkey is in pain unto death and you say you are ‘neutral’, you are on the side of the elephant.”

The second issue highlighted by this event is that of a clear polarisation between the church hierarchy and the nuns belonging to Missionaries of Jesus. This needs to be read symbolically. The exclusively-male, power-hungry, hierarchical episcopal worthies appear to be, by dint of their own actions, in affinity to Franco Mulakkal. You are known in the public sphere by the choice of loyalty you make. By virtually aligning themselves with Franco, the bishops betrayed the inner rot of the church. They have chosen to respond as the ring-leaders of any political party would to a similar situation.

If what is reported is true, Franco and those in solidarity with him, by attempting to pressure and demoralise the agitating nuns, by maligning and shaming the victim, by coaching nuns to lie to the police and, eventually, to the court of law, by trying to hush up the crime with bribes, have rejected the spiritual approach to this issue and betrayed their crass worldliness, unmitigated by any compassion or fellow feeling.

The nuns, on the other hand, lead a life of renunciation and self-sacrifice. They are, if left to themselves by the wolves in sheep’s clothing, loyal to Jesus Christ. Symbolically, they represent the spirit of the faith, whereas the andro-centric church hierarchy represents the swollen, embossed body of the church. In the Franco event, the church has turned viciously against the faith. Over the years, a gulf has been developing between the two.

Now, a great rupture has taken place in public. That even the prospect, if not the reality, of a bishop raping a nun repeatedly can arise at all, and that it can carry so much credibility with tens and thousands of people, is historic. The church in Kerala will never be the same after this event. It is good that it is so. The Christian community has endured this establishment of crass hypocrisy for too long. It is time they showed some spirit and commitment to truth.

The third issue is that of the obscene wealth at the disposal of bishops who are sworn to lead a life of poverty and chastity. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor”. One aspect of the blessedness of poverty is that it makes chastity viable. It is extremely difficult, Jesus said, for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God; for wealth has a tendency to undermine our sense of fellow humanity and subvert spiritual discipline.

The allegation that a representative of Franco offered Rs 5 crore to the victim nun to shut her up, has not been repudiated by anyone. So, it stands. Given such mega resources, which cannot be got except through illicit means, it should not be surprising if the allegation against Franco is proved to be well-founded. I have no hesitation in bearing witness not only to the fact that the church hierarchy in Kerala is over-rich, but that Mammon, not God, is their master. Given that, the present crisis was waiting to happen.

Biblical ideal vilaoted

Finally, there is the issue of hypocrisy. The church hierarchy has violated, in this instance, every key biblical ideal they have been preaching for centuries. In the teachings of Jesus, highest spiritual priority is assigned to justice. “Seek first,” he said, “the Kingdom of God and his justice”. “Blessed are those,” he elaborated, “who hunger and thirst after justice; for they shall be filled.”

The church hierarchy has, however, no qualms in denouncing the cause of justice and flexing their muscles against the victim crying out for redressal. They are experts in recommending poverty and chastity to others; but they would not be overly inconvenienced by either. They know that humility, self-control, and the way of the Cross are all good for the common folks; but they don’t hold the same belief in respect of themselves. One has to be caparisoned in elaborate episcopal vestments to be able to carry with ease a conscience as calloused as this.

In respect of all of these, and much else besides, the Franco event signals a massive collapse of pretences. The worldly, indulgent, prurient among the bishops will find it a lot harder henceforth to go around hoodwinking even the naïve and the credulous. They may be asked uncomfortable questions by the common man as never before. And that is no mean gain for the humble and the simple who take their faith seriously.

(The writer is former principal, St Stephen’s College, New Delhi)

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