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Bishop Mulakkal case: a protest by nuns that challenges the patriarchal values of the Catholic church

Sister act: nuns in Thiruvananthapuram.

Sister act: nuns in Thiruvananthapuram.   | Photo Credit: S.Gopakumar

Nestled between coconut, yam and tapioca groves on one side and a rubber estate on the other, the convent at Karakkamala, in the high ranges of Wayanad, looks straight out of a picture postcard. Emerging from the spartan building, Sr. Lucy Kalappura instantly puts you at ease with her genial mien and smile. But behind the affable exterior is a woman of iron will, which becomes evident the moment she begins to speak about the church and about society.

The seventh of 11 children of a well-to-do farmer family in Karikkottakkari, Sr. Lucy is bold, articulate and does not mince her words; qualities that have put her in direct conflict with the authorities of her church. She became a nun under the Franciscan Clarist Congregation in 1985 and has since waged a battle against congregation and church on various points of principle. “I do what I strongly believe is right,” she says.

Historic protest

Sr. Lucy hit the headlines when she stood in solidarity with the protest held by the Missionaries of Jesus nuns in Kochi, demanding the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who was accused of raping a nun from his order. The historic protest has challenged not just the authority of the Catholic church, but also its deep-rooted patriarchal values. At no point in the history of the Syro-Malabar Catholic faith in the country, which claims the apostolic legacy of St. Thomas, have nuns taken to the streets seeking justice, never mind in as disturbing a case as that of an alleged rape committed by a bishop. The office-bearers of the church, the nuns and priests are brought up on the canon of ‘Infallibility of the Church’ — the Church is never wrong.

“I consider my presence in the agitation very important. No one from the 50,000-strong nun community came to support them. They knocked on every door of the church. The powerful patriarchy used every power to silence them. Even their congregation openly stood with Bishop Mulakkal,” says Sr. Lucy.

Sr. Lucy works as a high school teacher at Sacred Heart Higher Secondary School in Dwaraka, Wayanad. When she came home to her convent in Karakkamala, her Mother Superior said she could not be part of the religious services at St. Mary’s Church, to which the convent is attached. “She said there had been an oral direction from the vicar, Fr. Stephan Kottakkal, to bar me from religious service,” says Sr. Lucy. But the ban was lifted when the parishioners, most of them poor settler farmers for whom Sr. Lucy is like a family member, protested. But on social media, Sr. Lucy continues to be trolled. “Each attack only strengthens me,” she says.

Pray and serve

Both Catholic nuns and priests take three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. In practice, however, these vows are enforced far more strictly on nuns than on priests. Gender discrimination in the Catholic church is extraordinary, and begins right from the training stage. Priests are trained to be administrators, orators and managers, and given full charge of parishes; while nuns are taught to be obedient and service-oriented: ‘pray and serve’ is their motto.

Priests become doctors, lawyers, bishops and professors, while 90% of nuns become either nurses or teachers or serve in organisations under the Church. In the Catholic system, nuns are the “unpaid labourers,” says George Pulikuthiyil, a former Catholic priest, lawyer and founder of the Thrissur-based Jananeethi, an organisation that provides free legal support to the poor.

Most nuns work in hospitals or schools run by the Church, with no formal appointment, salary, pension, retirement age or working hours. “Even the little they earn — roughly ₹2,000 a month — must be given to the superiors. They then have to ask for money even for minor needs,” says Pulikuthiyil.

In a smaller diocese like Missionaries of Jesus, which was founded by the accused Bishop Mulakkal, nuns get ₹500 a month. Only those who work in government schools or hospitals can hope to make more money, even though they too have to give their salaries to their superiors. “Nuns are entirely dependent on the church. It’s this that leads to harassment,” says Pulikuthiyil.

In contrast, priests not only get allowances, they are allowed to manage establishments that generate revenue. Priests wear robes during mass but can wear street clothes at other times; nuns must wear their habit at all times. Some convents restrict nuns from television and newspapers. None of this applies to priests.

Sr. Lucy tells the amusing tale of a nun who, persuaded by her family to watch a film, ran into a priest at the theatre. When they returned, the priest complained about the nun, who was punished with two days of rigorous prayer and penance. Nothing happened to the priest.

Sr. Mary Rosarita, a former principal of St. Joseph’s Anglo Indian Girls Higher Secondary School, Kozhikode, strongly refutes these charges. “In the 150-year-old history of our congregation, I have never heard complaints of exploitation,” she says. As for financial freedom, Sr. Rosarita says, “We have taken the vow of poverty. I have never felt the need to accumulate personal assets.”

Vows violated?

According to Pulikuthiyil, the three vows are redundant. “Compulsory celibacy has been violated rampantly,” he says. Sexual violence in the Church goes largely unreported “because the patriarchal hegemony is very strong and nuns fear ostracism. They have been trained to be silent and obedient,” he says.

The problem might lie in how nuns and priests are ordained. Earlier, taking orders was strictly voluntary; nobody could be asked to do it. But for some three decades now, the Church has faced a severe shortage of nuns and priests. So, at the awareness classes for Class X and XII students that the Church conducts during vacations, students are strongly motivated to join the church. Any student showing the slightest interest is then chased by practically every congregation. This means that boys and girls aged 16 to 20 enter the order.

“The government must make 21 years the minimum age for ordainment of nuns and priests, so that they can make an informed decision,” says Sr. Lucy. Equally, they must be allowed to give up their robes without any difficulty. Today, it is practically impossible for nuns to leave the order, although it is easier for priests to do so.

Maria, an advocate and women’s rights activist from Wayanad, says nuns are afraid to leave the order despite adversities. “Except for a few in government jobs, nuns don’t have financial security. They don’t have property rights at home. Social stigma against a woman who leaves a convent is high. It forces them to stay.”

A third change should be in the training, suggests Pulikuthiyil. “It needs a total revamp. Outdated concepts like “the world, the flesh and the devil” — traditionally described as enemies of the soul and sources of temptation — should be changed. The religious training should empower nuns and priests to survive in the contemporary world.”

The Bishop Mulakkal case has opened up a can of worms, but it could be the beginning of change. It has been a long haul to bring charges against a bishop in Kerala, where 18% of the population is Christian, where the Church holds considerable socio-political and economic power, and where the Catholic church is a citadel of patriarchy. But the nuns at the forefront of the agitation believe that this case could initiate reform in the role and dignity of women in the Church as well as in society.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 4:46:24 PM |

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