Dalit Christians and Muslims hold a protest to demand scheduled caste status for constitutional benefits in education and jobs as they observe a 'black day' in Hyderabad, India, on Aug. 10. (Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP)
The word "synodality" is frequently heard across the Catholic world these days, but few are aware of its many implications.
One person very conscious of what synodality means in Catholic India today is journalist and activist John Dayal. In a recent piece, he dwelled on the “three most virulent fractures which have beset the Indian Church for decades.”
Since I consider his views important, I thought I might elaborate a bit on what Dayal has only briefly described.
Firstly, it is clericalism. By this, we understand the sense of entitlement that the clergy has appropriated to itself so that everything — yes, everything — must be controlled and done in reference to them alone.
So thoroughly have the laity been indoctrinated that almost no one will ever challenge “what Father wants” in public.
As American canon lawyer Father Thomas Doyle OP put it, “even intelligent and educated people become childish when they enter a church.” They are “infantilized” into obedience, and thus are consumed with guilt and anxiety should they ever contravene what Father says.
Sadly, the plight of Catholic women — be these single or married, lay or religious — does not seem to be different from that of the general population
When we reflect on the criminal behavior of so many priests involved in pedophile scandals, as well as others involved in sexual assaults on women; or when we ask ourselves how it is that bishops and cardinals continually cover up for offenders in financial or sexual matters, one answer alone recurs with depressing frequency: “We are not accountable to you,” say the hierarchy. “You will never bring us to trial.”
Is clericalism therefore a “virulent fracture” of the Church in India? You be the judge.
The second issue is gender justice. Numerous reports over the years have lent credibility to the statement that India is probably the worst place in the world for women, so rampant are the crimes against them, especially those who are poor and defenseless.
Sadly, the plight of Catholic women — be these single or married, lay or religious — does not seem to be different from that of the general population. In some respects, it may even be worse. This is because religious indoctrination keeps women meek and humble and does not allow them to assert themselves.
It’s High Time, a recent publication of the Conference of Religious in India, surveys the numerous ways in which priests and bishops demean and belittle religious sisters, and harass them in private and public, especially over matters of property. The very title of the booklet suggests that it’s high time women religious spoke out.
And yet, astonishingly, many women religious superiors are reluctant to let their own communities read this report, as they are afraid “the bishops will be offended.”
And yet the report stays silent on one important crime that has increasingly come to public attention these days: sexual assaults on religious sisters by priests and bishops.
In December 2009, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India issued a gender policy directive to all its constituent member dioceses. Twelve years later, these directives remain largely on paper, and attempts to have them incorporated into seminary studies have proved ineffective.
No wonder that most educated Catholic professional women feel that they have no future in a Church that does not respect them.
Thirdly, the insidious presence of caste in the Indian Church. Caste is India’s homegrown version of racism and is experienced differently in various parts of the country. Like racism, it is often subtle and contemptuous of “others, not like us” in skin tone or ethnic origin.
Not many are aware that the majority of Indian Christians are Dalits. So while there have been continued attempts to get government concessions for Christian Dalits, these very Dalits continue to suffer discrimination within their Church.
What synodality must do, no matter how small the measure, is eradicate clericalism and empower Catholic women
One would assume that at least in the Church, there would be “no slave or freeman,” as St. Paul envisaged. Not so, alas.
In this respect, the principle of synodality requires a sense of equality, inclusiveness and community — values that go directly against the practices of caste.
Will the Indian Church measure up to the challenge of synodality?
Well, the Church in India is not small and homogeneous, it is widely scattered and diverse. Certainly, some parts of the Church will respond better than others.
While its public face is seen in the nation’s prestigious schools and colleges, the Church is present no less in the deep faith of its villages in rural India. Its people have survived and endured, and they have not buckled under persecution.
What synodality must do, no matter how small the measure, is eradicate clericalism and empower Catholic women. They are the first steps, and they are vital. Caste will take a little longer, for it has deeper roots.
This is synodality’s challenge for the Church of this country.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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