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When silence is deafening

It is time to speak out but India's Church appears to be tongue tied

  • John Dayal, Delhi
  • India
  • November 26, 2012
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In one of the more traumatic recent weeks in India, the media – electronic and print – exposed their bigotry and their blood thirst in ample measure.

The issues were the tragic death in Ireland of an Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar of Karnataka state, of septicemia following a miscarriage, and the execution by hanging of Ajmal Kasab, a 25-year-old Pakistani citizen who was part of a terrorist commando group that killed over 160 persons in Mumbai four years ago.

Both issues were also marked by a deafening silence from the official Church in the country.

A response in the first case could have pre-empted a very focused attack on Catholic social teachings and the second would have brought the Church in consonance with the vast civil society that opposed the ghoulish ranting in the media.

There is no doubt but that these are polarizing issues in India, where hyper-nationalism and identity have become critically important in the face of an economic slowdown at home and a perceived isolation abroad.

It does not help that President Barack Obama in his re-election rhetoric repeatedly called for an end to outsourcing services to India, whose economy has become increasingly dependent on remittances from migrant labor in the Gulf region, the engineers in North America and Europe, and the call centers in metropolitan cities and even in some small towns.

But the Church, apart from affirming its continuing faith in its own doctrine and social teachings, also has to show that it is a part of that component of rational civil society which keeps the lunatics, the extremists and the fringe elements at bay, and effectively prevents them from usurping public space in the media and the political discourse. 

Above all, it would show that the Church has the courage to go against the grain, to oppose what it perceives to be wrong.

In the case of Halappanavar’s tragic death in a Galway hospital, India’s pro-choice lobby made common cause with its western sister groups in demanding that India intervene to force Ireland to change its “Catholic” laws on abortion, which had led to the medical “murder”.

The media, especially television, led a hysterical propaganda tsunami, pillorying the Church.

It did not help that the few Catholics invited to participate in the studio debates assumed positions of wounded faith and emerged as ogres of a monstrous religion.

The hanging of the Pakistani terrorist was “celebrated” in India, even in some official circles, as a victory of our judicial system, as a “closure” for the victims, and in the crude language of the Home Minister of the state of Maharashtra, “justice” for the victims.

Sections of the media even have us believe it was a victory over Pakistan.

The community must be clear on the Church’s social teachings on the death penalty and abortion. 

In a position paper in 2007 during the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Paris, the Vatican said that the death penalty "is not only a refusal of the right to life, but it also is an affront to human dignity."

Governments have an obligation to protect their citizens, the paper added. "Today it truly is difficult to justify" using capital punishment when other means of protection, such as life in prison, are possible.  

It carries numerous risks, including the danger of punishing innocent people, contributes to a "culture of violence" and shows "a contempt for the Gospel teaching on forgiveness."

The statement on the Irish issue touching on sanctioning abortion when the life of the mother is in danger came too late, and diluted under the umbrella of the National United Christian Forum, which includes mainline Protestant denominations as well as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

A statement at the beginning of the controversy would have put the Church in a warmer light.

But it was a good and tempered statement and clearly set out the social teachings of the Church in which primacy is for a respect of life as a gift from God, which is not for man to tamper with, just to pander to some exigency of the day.

As important, the statement cautioned against bowing to peer pressure, social trends or lobbies with a vested interest.

The silence in recent decades on issues of human dignity, development and gender has rapidly marginalized the mainline Church, especially the Catholic Church.

Jesuit scholars have been pioneers in documenting displacement and the ecological havoc from big dams and nuclear plants.

The “commissions” of the CBCI dealing with justice, peace and development have attended workshops and tried to educate bishops and protesters.

Similarly, the Indian Catholic Church has been among the first in organized religion to come out with an official gender policy and an education code. 

Not only have both these revolutionary documents not contributed to the national discourse, they are not even fully known within the Church.

It hardly needs repeating that the average parish priest and the layperson do not have a clue of the Church’s position on these issues.

Was the Church frightened it would be pilloried as being anti-national if it spoke its mind on the issue of capital punishment in general and the hanging of Kasab in particular, that it would be misunderstood, or that there would be some kind of violent reaction against it, specially in hinterland areas where it is already a victim of violent persecution?

If this were so, it is high time the Church came out of its fear complex, and showed the maturity of standing in the face of obscene and extremist nationalism.

This will earn it the respect of the better elements in the country.

The Church needs to realize that while it ought not be as arrogant as to presume it is the repository of all that is moral, its interventions are important in shaping the national, social, political and development discourse as it stands up for all that is true and honorable and nurturing for the common people of the country whose voice is carried but feebly in forums that matter.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council

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