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Church must make its voice heard in society

In one of the more traumatic weeks in India, the media exposed their bigotry and their blood thirst in ample measure over the tragic death in Ireland of an Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar, from Karnataka state, of septicemia following a miscarriage, and the execution by hanging of Ajmal Kasab, a 25-year-old Pakistani citizen, who had been part of a terrorist commando group that killed over 160 persons during a hotel hijack in Mumbai four years ago.

Both issues were also marked by a deafening silence from the official Church in the country.

A response in the first case could have pre-empted a highly focussed attack on Catholic social teaching and the second would have brought the Church in consonance with the vast civil society that opposed the ghoulish ranting in the media.

There is no doubt that these are polarising issues in India, where hyper-nationalism and identity have become critically important in the face of an economic slowdown and a perceived isolation abroad.

It does not help that the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, has been repeatedly calling for an end to outsourcing services to India, whose economy has become increasingly dependent on remittances from migrant labour in the Gulf region, engineers in northern America and Europe, and the call centres in metropolitan cities and some small towns.

But the Church, apart from affirming its continuing faith in its own doctrine and social teaching, has to show that it is a part of that component of rational civil society which keeps the lunatics, the extremists and the fringe elements at bay.

It would also show that the Church has the courage to go against the grain, to oppose what it perceives to be wrong.

Halappanavar’s tragic death in a Galway hospital coupled with India’s pro-choice lobby made common cause with its western sister groups in demanding that India intervene to force Ireland to change its Catholic laws on abortion, which, the media claimed, had led to what was termed a medical murder.

The media, especially television, pilloried the Church.

It did not help that the few Catholics who were invited to studio debates assumed positions of wounded faith, painting themselves as ogres of a monstrous religion.

The hanging of the Pakistani terrorist was celebrated, even in some official circles, as a victory of our judicial system, as a closure for the victims and, in the crude language of the home minister, justice.

Sections of the media even had us believe it was a victory over Pakistan.

The community must be clear on Church social teaching on the death penalty and abortion.

In a position paper in 2007 from the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Paris, the Vatican calls the death penalty “not only a refusal of the right to life, but it also an affront to human dignity.”

The statement on the Irish issue touching on sanctioning abortion when the life of the mother is in danger came too late and diluted under the umbrella of the National United Christian Forum, which includes mainline Protestant denominations as well as the Indian Bishops’ Conference.

A statement at the beginning of the controversy would have put the Church in a warmer light.

But it was a good and tempered statement and clearly set out the social teaching of the Church in which respect of life as a gift from God is not for man to tamper with.

The statement also cautioned against bowing to peer pressure, social trends or lobbies with vested interests.

The silence in recent decades on issues of human dignity, development and gender has rapidly marginalised the Catholic Church.

Jesuit scholars have been pioneers in documenting displacement and the ecological havoc from big dams and nuclear plants.

The commissions on justice, peace and development have attended workshops and tried to educate bishops and protesters.

Similarly, the Catholic Church has been among the first in organised religion to come out with an official gender policy and an education code.

Not only have both these revolutionary documents not contributed to the national discourse, they are not even fully known within the Church.

It hardly needs repeating that the average parish priest and the layperson do not have a clue about the Church’s position on these issues.

Was the Church frightened it would be pilloried as being anti-national if it spoke its mind on the issue of capital punishment in general and the hanging of Kasab in particular, that it would be misunderstood, or that there would be some kind of violent reaction against it, especially in hinterland areas where it is already a victim of violent persecution?

The Church needs to realise that while it ought not be so arrogant as to presume it is the repository of all that is moral, its interventions are important in shaping the national, social, political and development discourse as it stands up for all that is true and honourable.

They are also important in nurturing the common people of the country, whose voice is carried only feebly in the forums that matter (UCAN).



John Dayal

All India Christian Council 

National Integration Council