For more than 20 years, some members of the Catholic Church in Kerala have been protesting against the complete control of the clergy over the administration of the Church’s properties and affairs.
The protests by several Catholic groups have centred on the demand for a Church Act to govern the operations of the Church, much like the Religious Endowments Act or the Wakf Act in other religions. The demand for the legislation received a fillip with the recommendation for a Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill by the Kerala Law Reforms Commission, headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, in 2009. A report by the commission sought “to enact legislation to control the ownership and management of all forms of properties movable and immovable owned by the Church, or diocese”.
Various canons, derived from similar sources, govern the operation of the daily affairs of the Church. An example is the Code of Canon of the Eastern Churches written in 1992. The Syro Malabar and the Syro Malankara Churches in Kerala are among the followers of the Code in Kerala. Critics of the Code argue that many of its provisions threaten the integrity of the nation.
“Traditionally, each Church was independent and their administration was handled by elders in the Church. Priests were only spiritual mentors. But this was changed later,” said Joseph Pulikkunnel, director of the Indian Institute of Christian Studies. “The Pope of Rome is now the supreme steward and administrator of the Church. India is an independent State. How can the Pope declare that property of Indian churches is under his control?” asks Mr. Pulikkunnel.
M.L. George Maliyeckal, secretary of the central executive committee of the Catholic Laymen’s Association, points out other provisions in the Code of Canon that he feels are against the country’s sovereignty. Mr. Maliyeckal has written the foreword to ‘Swasthi’, the autobiography of a former nun Sister Mary Chandy. In it, he alleges that the Code contains a provision for ‘secret marriage,’ which goes against the country’s laws as it does not have to be revealed to the laity or registered in government records. The provision for secret marriage, detailed in the 840 canon of the Code, allows a Bishop to keep a marriage secret under special conditions. Mr. Maliyeckal alleges that the provision is against the country’s Constitution.
“The provision is only for very special conditions,” said Fr. Paul Thelakkat, spokesman of the Syro Malabar Church. “If a couple have been married under civil law for many years and want to formalise their union in the Church without the embarrassment of doing it publicly, they can be married under this condition,” says Fr. Thelakkat. He said the secret marriage was not legally valid, but was only a social contract under the Church.
Mr. Maliyeckal, however, alleged in the foreword that the provision was being misused by members of the clergy who wished to have sexual relationships. Fr. Thelakkat said the Church took a strict view of clergymen breaking their vows of celibacy. “If any priest wishes to get married, he will have to leave the clergy,” said Fr. Thelakkat.
Mr. Maliyeckal’s organisation and other faithful, however, are firm in their demand for a law to govern the activities of the Church. “To evade income tax, the Church says that its commercial establishments are for religious and charitable purposes. But when our association questioned some of their expenditures in court, the Church replied that their income was not for charity or religion. There has to be more accountability on these things,” he said.