The disquieting signal from Holy See

It is with deep disappointment that I learn that Pope Francis, to whom Sister Lucy Kalapurakkal had appealed against her expulsion from the Franciscan Clarist Congregations (FCC), has rejected her plea.

I had expected, based on the progressive stand this enlightened Pope had adopted earlier, that justice would be done to Sr. Lucy.  This action, originating at the highest seat of the Catholic Church, makes one wonder if justice would ever be available to anyone who happens to incur the disfavor of the church oligarchs.

This decision from the Vatican is all the more disappointing because of the clear and bold statement Pope Francis himself had made earlier regarding the extensive sexual abuse of nuns in the church. He went as far as stating that such abuses are borne silently by nuns because they fear reprisal from their exploiters, who enjoy formidable authority over them. Over 25 nuns have been found dead in various convent wells since the intriguing death of Sister Abhaya. This proves that the power these priestly predators enjoy is not institutional but also muscular. Pope Francis had urged Catholics to stand by the victims of such atrocities, which is all that Sister Lucy has done in this case. It should hurt the integrity of the church irreparably that a sister can incur extreme condemnation for taking the Pope's words of exhortation seriously and for acting accordingly.

Leave alone Pope Francis' exhortation. Sr. Lucy, like all Christians who follow Jesus Christ, is under obligation to stand up for justice. Justice, Jesus taught, should be the foremost spiritual priority. Christianity is a religion in which God himself embraced victimhood. This spiritual pattern is meant to quicken and fortify a sense of justice in Christians. The fact that justice was not available to Jesus, who came to embody justice for humankind, is a sobering reminder that his followers should never be found wanting in standing up for justice, especially for the weak and the vulnerable.

A person’s commitment to justice is proved not when she clamours for justice for herself, but seeks justice for others at personal risk. Irrespective of the fanciful allegations brought up against Sr. Lucy, no one doubts that she is being made a public example for taking a stand in the Franco rape case. The church is keen to leave no one in any doubt about the extreme risk in not tamely surrendering one’s conscience and spiritual vocation to the men in authority.  The intent behind this step against Sr. Lucy is to frighten the nuns who live helpless and exploited in virtual slavery and to ensure that the lid is hammered firmly down on the bottle of anger. By decimating Sr. Lucy, the church seeks to forestall the voices of the many who live oppressed behind iron doors of secrecy sanctified, alas, by anti-democratic, old-world rules and regulations that militate against the provisions of the Indian Constitution.  

The message from the plight of Sr. Lucy is loud and clear: a nun has to surrender her freedom to be faithful to Jesus Christ to the whims and fancies of the church hierarchy, if she is to survive at all. This is worse than slavery. It is high time that a review of convent rules and canon laws is initiated so as to determine the extent to which they infringe the fundamental rights of citizens like Sr. Lucy.

The predicament of a nun comes within the ambit of the legal definition of 'bonded labour'. Anyone who is not paid wages, or is paid less than the prescribed minimum wage, is in bonded labour. A bonded labourer is free to express his or her creativity. Bonded labourers are not punished for writing poems, which is a charge against Sr. Lucy. A bonded labourer is free to learn driving and own a car, if he has the means to. This has become a serious offence in the case of St. Lucy. A bonded labourer is entitled to freedom of conscience. Sr. Lucy is not. The unthinkable thing is that this oppression is perpetuated in the name of Jesus Christ, who came to ‘set the captives free’.

Over and above all this, there is the question of exploitation based on deception. When a young woman joins a religious order, she is made to believe that she is wedded to Jesus Christ. If so, how can any church authority expel her from her vocation? Who has the right to decide who Jesus should divorce, and on what count? The action of the Catholic Church against Sr. Lucy is tantamount to coercing Jesus Christ to pronounce 'triple talaq' against one who sincerely believes she is his ‘bride’.

I am afraid the Catholic Church is doing irreparable damage to itself in this case and exposing itself to public ridicule. The church preaches forgiveness; it fails to practise it. It waxes eloquent about God’s justice; but exposes its utter inability to meet even bottom-line requirements of natural justice in this case. The glaring fact is that Sr. Lucy is being crucified for taking a stand against an alleged rapist whom the church big-wigs feel obliged to support, driven by herd instinct.

Sr. Lucy, unfortunately for the Catholic Church, is widely perceived as an exemplar of brave solidarity with the oppressed. Her spiritual authenticity is well-attested by her moral courage to remain unflinching and un-embittered in the face of overwhelming malice. The Church is exposing its spiritual bankruptcy by pitting its titanic muscles against a frail, lone woman whose only fault is that she stands firm when her betters are beaten into cowardly silence in the face of naked aggression against the daughters of the church.

(The writer is former principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi)

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