Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church addressing a session of the Jan. 7-18 bishops' synod. (Photo provided)
The motley crowd of some 200 Indian Catholics clapped and cheered as they set fire to some printed sheets of a church circular in protest.
Within hours winds and traffic took away even traces of ash from the road in front of Cardinal George Alencherry's residence near a busy market in Ernakulam, the business center of Kerala state, southern India.
But by then, the Jan. 20 protest already made media headlines of about the increasing defiance in the cardinal's Syro-Malabar Church and that church hierarchy's attempt to check it.
The burnt sheets of papers were copies of a circular that Cardinal Alencherry issued as the head of the Kerala-based Eastern Catholic church.
The circular which came after the Jan. 7-18 Syro-Malabar bishops' synod expressed a desire to bring back discipline to the church.
The circular, meant to be read out to the Syro-Malabar Church’s 4.5 million Catholics in its 34 dioceses, banned anyone from making public statements on a land-deal controversy involving the cardinal who is Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese.
The circular-burning protestors called the order a move to gag priests, nuns and lay leaders who speak for justice in the church in the face of inaction from a hierarchical church.
The land controversy became public knowledge via the media early last year after some priests of the archdiocese alleged that the cardinal among with two senior priests sold off land incurring a loss of some US$10 million.
The bishops’ circular said the Vatican has ordered an enquiry into the controversy and has appointed an apostolic administrator to the archdiocese to help resolve the issue.
“The report will bring out the truth,” the circular said. The report will be submitted to the Vatican’s Oriental Congregation, which will make a final decision on the issue, it stated.
“All connected with this issue are urged not to make any public statements on this and be vigilant against those trying to vilify the church through media,” the circular stated.
Public statements and street protests made by certain priests and nuns have “crossed all limits of [church] discipline,” it said adding that the bishops will take disciplinary measures where necessary.
The circular is seen in part to be a reaction to protests that began after a nun complained to police last July that Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar raped her several times while he visited her convent in Kerala. The Vatican has since removed Bishop Mulakkal from administrative duties of his diocese and appointed an administrator.
Five nuns subsequently began a street protest in September seeking the arrest of the bishop. A priest coordinated the protest where several senior priests publicly accused church officials of trying to protect the accused.
“Canonical action will be taken” against those who violate church discipline, the circular said.
“Church people should speak to media only with permission of their superiors,” it said.
Priests and nuns who participate in public protests and criminal cases should know relevant church laws and adhere to them, it said.
The circular went on to say that attempts to create division in the church would be considered “serious acts of indiscipline.”
Bishops’ order ‘counterproductive’
The circular’s orders are counterproductive, said Riju Kanookarn, a leader of an activist group seeking greater transparency in the church.
Kanookarn said the bishops are panicking because Catholics are not taking their “threat tactics” seriously.
Such actions will “not yield any result, instead they only ruin the church,” he told ucanews.com.
Joseph Varghese, vice chairman of Kerala Catholic Reform Movement, questioned how could church leaders could issue a ban on people speaking to media in the name of church discipline.
Members of his group were among those who burnt copies of the synod order in front of the office of the cardinal’s house.
Varghese said the priests and nuns have few options other than complying with the orders as “they have nowhere to go if they oppose church authorities.”
Lawyer Indulekha Joseph, a supporter of the nuns’ protest, told ucanews.com the circular’s orders are a “clear violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech” guaranteed in India’s constitution.
She said such circulars, however, cannot be challenged in a court unless implementation of it violates a law. “It is up to people to follow it or not,” Joseph said.
Missionaries of Jesus Sister Kelamangalathuveliyil Anupma, one of the five nuns who publicly protested against the bishop, told ucanews.com that the inaction of the bishops “forced us to conduct the street protests.”
Injustice and immorality cannot continue in the church and people cannot be oppressed in the name of discipline, Sister Anupma said.
The bishops are “worried about more skeletons in the closet” and wanted “to scare people and shut them up,” the nun said.