Dr Rosemary Varghese
The Catholic Church is under a dark shadow with the unfortunate series of events that have followed in quick succession. On the one hand, a Bishop stands accused of a heinous crime and on the other, nuns come out of their cloisters for the first time in the history of Kerala to stage a protest against the Bishop on a public stage in the town centre.
The story has all the ingredients of a juicy bestseller, and indeed, news channels, print and social media have capitalized on this rare opportunity to break viewership records with unending discussions on the unfolding drama. To put the story in a nutshell for anyone who may have missed the sequence of events, it all started with a nun accusing Bishop Franco Mullackal of the diocese of Jalandhar, India, of having raped her several times over a period of two years. In spite of her complaints to higher authorities in the Church, she claims that she did not get any response. She then filed a police case in June. Due to the slow response, five nuns defied convention to stage a public protest till the Bishop is arrested. The Bishop has consistently denied the charges made against him. However, he has been brought in for interrogation and further action on the basis of the findings.
Needless to say, public opinion has already been captured by the daily dose of discussions and debates on media that are heavily biased against the Bishop, and on the side of the nun, who has also been supported by various groups with religious, social and political affiliations. At this point of time, one cannot say who will be found guilty. We can only wait and watch as the law takes its own course.
What is in question here is whether the actions taken can be considered right from a Christian point of view. On the face of it, it seems absolutely justified. Our Lord Jesus never hesitated to stand up for the truth. Matthew 23:27 resounds with the sharp accusations He made against scribes and teachers of the law whom He describes as whitewashed tombs that cover up decaying flesh and bones. The cleansing of the temple premises (Matthew 21:12) sees the Lord in a rage against moneylenders who had destroyed the sanctity of the place of worship and turned it into ‘a den of thieves.’ Jesus Christ was never one to mince words when He faced wrongdoing. The nuns may be taking a cue from this in their public protest for justice.
There is, however, a fundamental difference in what is recorded in the Bible and what we see today. Newspapers informed us that the nuns continued their relay fast and satyagraha till the Bishop was arrested. This action is against one individual and not against a system, and the Bible clearly teaches us the difference between the two. Jesus Christ threw out a number of conventions regarding Sabbath, fasting and sacrifices. His religion is centred around love. And this love includes enemies and strangers. Never once did He advocate social condemnation of individuals however sinful they were. John 8:7 speaks of the woman accused of adultery being brought to Jesus by the crowds. He requested the person without sin to throw the first stone. We have never been given the mandate to judge others and punish them. In the case of the Bishop, media has influenced public opinion to such an extent that people have already judged him and found him guilty before any court verdict condemns him.
Our Lord Jesus was the most powerful agent for change. He shattered the glass ceilings that society had erected to exclude lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. When Mary washed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume (John 12:3) there were whispers among the crowd doubting the credentials of the woman at the Lord’s feet. But Jesus accepted her in much the same way as He accepted Zachcheus and the tax collectors and sinners who invited Him to their midst. He lashed out against the conventions of the Jews that rejected compassion and emphasized rituals and social norms to reconcile themselves to the Almighty.
As the followers of Jesus, we too are called to be agents of change rather than judges of fellow humans. The nuns are fully justified in choosing this non-violent form of protest. But should it be against one man? Or should it be against a system that has made gender exploitation possible? If we are to believe the nun’s accusation for a moment, we ought to be fighting against the ‘whitewashed tombs’ in our society that traps nuns into merciless subservience and leaves no escape routes from its stinking interiors.
If we claim to be Christians well-grounded in the Word of God, we should be very clear about why we are warned against being judgemental in the Bible. While the law works at one level, (and we are all subject to the law of the land). St Paul’s oft quoted message in 1 Romans 3:21 clearly tells us that since all of us have sinned in God’s sight, we can be redeemed only through our faith in Jesus and through the free gift of grace that He bestows on those who believe. Christ’s judgement does not rest on the depth and gravity of the sin committed. Rather, it rests on our commitment and faith to God, which is the only way we can become reconciled with God. This is precisely why St Paul sternly warns us against judging others “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, to judge others, for in passing judgement on another, you condemn yourself” 1 Romans 2:1. When the Lord has revealed His particular mode of judgement, we cannot be justified in His eyes if we follow another path that has been prescribed by worldly wisdom.
Two outcomes can result from the present proceedings against the Bishop. The first is that he is exonerated of all charges. Technically he is free but his state will be much like a wounded tiger in the jungle who stands little chance of survival. His reputation and self-respect will be lost forever. The nuns would also suffer a loss of face that would have repercussions on their whole community. However, if the court convicts him, he will be duly punished by law and will have to bear the punishment meted out. The nuns protest would come to a successful end and all those who have supported them will share their joy. But will all this bring in a new system which ensures safety from exploitation in future? The problem with the present protest is that it does not ask for a solution or a systemic change. It only asks for punishment of the accused.
All over the world, there are problems within the Catholic Church which need to be addressed. Earlier this month, the Pope called for a meeting with the World bishops to address the problem of sexual abuse of minors among clergy, and, more importantly, the common practice of covering up these issues, which has earned the ire of the global community and shaken their faith in the papacy. Solutions are slowly pouring in to set up secure processes that will help contain the problem and reduce it to the minimum. Catholic bishops in the US have planned to set up a hotline for victims of sexual abuse that will help nuns and other victims to get immediate help without having to depend on the existing chain of command. If we have to challenge society, let it be for changes in the long term than for an immediate act of retaliation.
This is not to defend anyone’s actions. At this point, all we know is that a heinous crime has been committed by one of the two main protagonists in the entire episode. The court of law will pronounce its judgement in course of time. Whatever be the verdict, Christian salvation is to be sought in the words of St Paul. Each one has to ensure their own spiritual reconciliation with God through their faith and commitment to Jesus.“For no human being will be justified in His sight by deeds prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:20).
(The author is Professor, Rajagiri School of Management, Kakkanad. Your feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org)