Supreme Court of India ends dispute over status of priest, nuns

Their religious vocation cannot be equated to a profession and can be permitted to practice law
Supreme Court of India ends dispute over status of priest, nuns

Former Supreme Court of India Judge Cyriac Joseph lights a traditional lamp Sept. 16 marking the opening of the Kerala unit of the National Lawyers Forum, a network of priests, nuns and religious who are qualified lawyers. (Photo supplied) reporter, New Delhi
September 22, 2017
The Supreme Court of India has ruled that Catholic priests and religious are not in a "professional engagement" for profit but a way of life, ending a long-drawn legal dispute over their status in the country.

The Sept. 15 verdict of country's top court ended a clash that began in 2004 when a Catholic priest and two nuns were not allowed to enroll in the Kerala unit of the Bar Council of India. The priest and nuns said that a religious vocation cannot be equated to a profession while the Bar Council of India said its rules do not permit people in other professions to practice law.

The Kerala High Court in 2006 ruled in favor of the priest and nuns.

The Bar Council of India appealed to the Supreme Court of India and cited rules that those gainfully engaged in any trade, business or profession cannot be enrolled as lawyers. It said priests and nuns cannot become lawyers as they are already "professed" members of another profession and get paid by the church.

"The core issue was interpretation of the word profession," said Sister Mary Scaria, a Supreme Court lawyer. The court clarified that the profession of a religious "has nothing to do with professional engagement," she told on Sept. 18.

Supreme Court lawyer M.P. Raju, a Catholic, who appeared on behalf of the priest and two nuns told that the relevance of the verdict can be judged "only when you consider the impact of Supreme Court admitting the appeal."

If the Supreme Court had not intervened, no Catholic priest and nun could be allowed to practice law in any court of India, Raju said.

The Supreme Court said a blanket ban on priests and religious cannot stand, but that the bar council can examine each individual case to see if an applicant is gainfully engaged in any other profession.

The Supreme Court agreed with the High Court that priests and nuns are not paid a salary from the church but "live on a subsistence (allowance) or maintenance."

Claretian Father Johny Kattupurayil, who helps coordinates lawyer priests and nuns in India under the National Lawyers Forum, estimated India has some 1,000 men and women religious who are qualified lawyers.

"But, only a quarter of that number must be practicing in courts, and most of them engaged in helping out poor people who have no money to pay for lawyers," he said.

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