To be expelled from friendship circles and driven away from the sources of life is a death sentence.
Few people know this better than India's Dalits, or Untouchables, who are considered the most polluted and polluting of peoples. Almost 80 percent of Indian Christians have Dalit backgrounds. Many of them are martyrs for the faith, suffering expulsion from their villages. They may not buy food from the village shop, nor can they draw water from the village well.
But there is another looming issue of disunity.
The Catholic Church continues to disqualify half its membership from leadership because they are women and to expell members who challenge that policy.
In a time of prayer for Christian unity, it is an elephant in the room.
Threats of excommunication hang above the heads of clergy, particularly those who support the ordination of women as priests. During this week, Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist Irish priest who has been threatened with excommunication by the Vatican, broke his silence. In a widely-published statement, Flannery declared the centrality of being Catholic to his personal identity.
“No matter what sanctions the Vatican imposes on me I will continue, in whatever way I can, to try to bring about reform in the Church and to make it again a place where all who want to follow Christ will be welcome," he said. Pointing out how Christ made friends with the outcasts of society, he vowed to continue to oppose “the current Vatican trend of creating a Church of condemnation rather than one of compassion.”
For Flannery, giving up the “freedom of thought, freedom of speech and most especially freedom of conscience is too high a price for me to pay to be allowed to minister in today’s Church.”
In November, the Vatican dismissed Roy Bourgeois, an American priest from the Maryknoll order, for supporting women’s ordinations.
Female theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson have similarly been sanctioned. A day before the Week of Prayer started on January 18, Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya passed away. He too supported women’s ordination and is the only Asian to have been excommunicated.
Despite the threats, resolute conversations continue. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in October, an international group of theologians presented “A Catholic Scholars Declaration,” with a blueprint for “a new system of authority, based on Gospel teaching and genuine co-responsibility as demanded by Vatican II.”
The declaration stressed “standards of openness, accountability and democracy achieved in modern society. Leadership should be seen to be honest and credible; inspired by humility and service; breathing concern for people rather than preoccupation with rules and discipline; radiating a Christ who makes us free; and listening to Christ's Spirit who speaks and acts through each and every person.”
The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer came from Micah 6:6-8: What does God require of us?” This question refers not just to relationships outside the churches, but also to those within – and those who struggle to remain within.
Sophia Lizares Bodegon is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and works in lay and continuing education.