For the most part, truth remains like a mirage. It continues to recede and elude our grasp. But there come rare moments when truth abandons its customary elusiveness, stands, stares and dares you into an encounter. The Catholic Church in Kerala today finds itself in such a pickle. Such a moment comes but rarely, and it is spiritually promising when it does.
A bishop allegedly rapes a nun repeatedly, besides forcing her into, what the police term, unnatural sex. The rape victim, having knocked in vain at the doors of church authorities, files a police complaint. The Catholic Church in Kerala is not without its clout, so the police take their own sweet time. Nothing happens. A few fellow nuns of the rape victim resort, for the first time in the history of Kerala, to public agitation. Sister Lucy Kalapura of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation joins them in solidarity. Hell breaks out. Her superior initiates disciplinary action against her, alleging a slew of frivolous charges that include: publishing poems, learning driving, owning a small car, participating in channel discussions and so on. The Catholic Church all of a sudden finds out that there is an array of crimes worse than raping a nun and despoiling her spiritual purity.
Sr Lucy, facing imminent expulsion from her convent in northern Kerala, appeals to Rome. The Vatican rejects her appeal and endorses ‘disciplinary’ action against her. Her folly? Well, she took the words of Pope Francis seriously. Only a few months ago, the Holy Father stated publicly and vehemently that sexual abuse of nuns was widespread in the Catholic Church and that victims endured the outrage silently for ‘fear of reprisal’ from their powerful tormentors. The Pope exhorted Catholics to stand by the nuns languishing in sexual slavery, which Sister Lucy did.
The Catholic Church has denigrated itself by disowning one of its sincere spiritual daughters. What is more regrettable is the way it has been done and the complicity of the entire Syro-Malabar hierarchy in it. If we were to abstract the Franco Mulakkal rape episode from its religious context and view it as a profane event, we would be surprised no end that the cries for justice of a rape victim should have fallen on deaf ears. Why is it that no sense of outrage is felt by members of the church?
As a witness to how this event has unfolded in public so far, and in particular considering the callousness of the Church towards the rape victim, I cannot help coming to the conclusion that this widespread abuse of nuns by their episcopal and clerical brethren has everything to do with the unnatural institution of involuntary chastity. Priests and bishops, on ordination, are required to take the vows of poverty, chastity (mistakenly equated with celibacy) and obedience.
The truth is that these vows can comprise a stable triad, only if they reinforce each other. If any one goes, the others too collapse. The vows of chastity cannot exist, without the vow of poverty, which helps to keep the intractable forces of male libido even notionally under control. The church abandoned the discipline of poverty centuries ago. Not even comedians believe priests and bishops, barring rare exceptions, live except in conspicuous luxury and worldly indulgence. This makes the demons of priestly libido, bridled under unnatural celibacy, break loose. Helpless nuns, cast into the lumber rooms of convents before they have time or maturity to think and decide for themselves, have to bear the brunt of this scheme of things, bristling with murderous hypocrisy.
This sinister reality is kept hidden behind the smoke-screen of pious assumptions and hypocritical myths. The parents of the young girls are made to believe their credulous and unsuspecting daughters, as nuns, are the ‘brides’ of Jesus Christ. The Christian community as a whole is brainwashed into believing that a nun who jumps the convent is accursed, and that she should be treated as an outcast even by her parents. The nuns are kept in abject economic dependence, warding off from them hopes of freedom, dignity and human rights. Thus, an institution of sacral slavery—analogous to temple prostitution in the past—thrives in the 21st century in a democratic society in flagrant violation not only of constitutional provisions but also of Christ’s teachings.
It is high time this dissembling form of slavery is sanitised. I value religious orders and have no problems with the vocation of celibacy per se. But I am implacably against degrading innocent girls into voiceless sex slaves behind iron curtains of brutally imposed invisibility. A nun is an Indian citizen, first and foremost. The basic rights enshrined for her in the Constitution—especially freedom of choice—must be accessible to her at all times. The state has a duty to ensure that slavery in all its myriad manifestations is eradicated. Given that this institutionalised human atrocity can find no remedy within the community, I deem it a duty to appeal to the authority of the state to ensure that atrocities, especially on women, are not perpetrated behind the facade of canon laws and religious orders. It should be made mandatory to register all nuns with a designated state authority and convents should be required to function under license. State patronage of criminal priests and bishops should end forthwith. They should be tried in fast-track courts and punished in an exemplary fashion.
If there is a crime worse than raping defenseless nuns, it is hounding those who, out of spiritual sensitivity, dare to stand by their spiritual sisters. The fact that the Catholic Church has dared to perpetrate this unthinkable outrage should make every self-respecting Christian hang his head in shame. The situation has already reached such a pass that one has to beg apologies for being a Christian in the public sphere.
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi