Valson Thampu

The Kerala church could have done no worse than betraying its anxieties via a public protest in the wake of the manifestly absurd ‘recommendation’ by the National Commission for Women (NCW) that the office of private confession be abolished. For one thing, the NCW has no jurisdiction in the matter. Reforming religions is nowhere near its mandate. Sure, it can intervene in matters that degrade the dignity of women. But it can do so only on a case-by-case basis.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution enshrines a fundamental right: the right to practise, preach and propagate one’s faith. But, this article, unlike Article 30, enfolds an individual right. It confers a fundamental right on all women in the country, as citizens, to choose which religion, and which religious practice within a religion, they may practise. The NCW has no right or authority to meddle with it. It cannot, for example, force women, overtly or covertly, do not confess, if they choose to confess. The Central Government has to be cavalierly imprudent to interfere with the freedom of religion and conscience as envisaged in the Constitution. Sufficient indications were made, in the wake of the hasty NCW recommendation, that the NDA was circumspect in this respect. The church leaders going public with their resentment notwithstanding all this is being simply foolish.

To see the scope of this imprudence, the manufactured controversy against which it is a reaction, needs to be seen in the light of the BJP’s desperate keenness to enlarge its footprint in Kerala. It is possible that the NCW recommendation was meant not to be implemented, but to nuance the political climate in Kerala. That climate, at the present time, involves two significant events: the litigation to rid the sanctuary of the Sabarimala temple of alleged gender-based discrimination and the selective and disproportionate response of the NCW overlooking worse similar offences elsewhere to random instances of sexual offences in the church.

The church leaders are not, perhaps, wholly off the point in apprehending mischief in the NCW recommendation. They may even be right. But correct diagnosis, if any, must be followed up with fit remedies. Sagacity demands that the remedy be not allowed to aggravate the malady. The core strategy of the RSS-BJP combine is to thrive by whipping up majoritarian victimhood. Put in a nutshell it reads, ‘Hindus are under attack from all sides. All else, are appeased and mollycoddled; but Hindus are targeted. A sinister plot is on to obliterate Hinduism.’

The Sabarimala litigation, whatever else it is meant to be, is a potent catalyst for Hindu grievance insofar as an age-old tradition is under challenge. I have received much propaganda material insinuating that this litigation is a covert Christian conspiracy against Hinduism. It is into such a context that the sexual scandals have erupted. We have no means to divine the intention of NCW in shooting the proposed remedy off-the-cuff. But its effect is that of creating a grievance-breeding symmetry. A religious issue on the Hindu side counterpointed by a comparable one on the Christian side. Why is the temple meddled with and the church spared? Surely, the scenario lends itself inflammably to the raging narrative of Hindus being targeted.

But, for the explosive potential of this symmetry to erupt it is imperative that the church react to it in a silly and short-sighted fashion. The project of majoritarian victimhood can have free play only when the conduct of the church leaders seems gratuitously aggressive. Uncalled-for aggression sits ill especially on the church because of its pacifist identity and pretensions of religious superiority. Any aberration in AAP, to take a comparable instance from the sphere of politics, invites worse public condemnation as compared to what the same would in respect of any other political party.

That is not all. The over-reaction of the church leaves a bad taste even in the mouth of its sympathizers. That is so, because the church paints itself as reluctant to confront the rot within. Clearly, the foremost and urgent need is not to defend the practice of personal confession. It is to repair the dented spiritual integrity of the church. The church in India will hurt itself and the community of believers if it pretends that the sexual exploitation of a confessant by four priests or the alleged sexual misconduct of a bishop are mere casual aberrations. They are not. They are alarming symptoms of a serious rot. The misconstrued hyper-reaction of the church officialdom betrays its insecurity born of spiritual debility than the true extent of the dangers the church is facing from sources external to itself.

Regrettably, no sign is in sight of any willingness to re-examine the spirituality, theology and psychology of confession, despite what has happened. If anything is afoot, we have no information about it. The church has got used to seeing religious practices and rituals as its entitlements, or the stamps of its authority on the faithful. This is unspiritual and biblically indefensible; and it flies in the face of the teaching of Jesus that man is not made for religion, but religion is made for man. I do not belong to a tradition that practices individual confession. Yet, I am convinced that confession, if understood and practised aright, can meet a profound and imperious need, the value, and need, of which can only increase as years go by. But the same practice, mediated by priests who are worse sinners than the confessants, will be a spiritual aberration that no invocation of tradition or constitutional rights can, or should, defend.

I am reminded of an Italian film produced half a century ago. A teenager goes to a priest to confess. All the while the confession, rich in prurient details, is in progress, the camera focuses on the face of the priest-confessor. He grows visibly and increasingly uneasy. Then, at a climactic point, he springs up from his seat and screams at the teenage confessant, “Are you saying your confession, or mine?”

Fifty years ago, it made the audience laugh. Today it would wring, at best, a wry smile even from many Christians. If, in fifty years, the distinction between reel-life and real-life seems poised to blur, the thing to do is not to sabrerattle at enemies out there but to put the surgeon’s scalpel to the wounds festering within. There is no escape from the universal principle: those who abuse a facility activate the logic for its annulment. Believers of all denominations have a duty to re-examine, in fidelity to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the life, culture and practices of their churches and refuse to be cowed down by any authority or argument. Clearly, all is not well with the church. And the need to cleanse church life of its unspiritual accretions is greater for the laity than it is for the religious establishment; for, like in politics, preserving the status quo is more appealing to those who run the show than its reformation. It is the customers who end up cheated and jeopardized, if the wares stacked on shelves are adulterated or past the expiry date.

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