By Robin Gomes
The Catholic Church of India has expressed shock that the government’s National Commission for Women (NCW) has called for abolishing the Sacrament of Confession, saying it is undue interference in a sacred an vital issue of Christian life.
The NCW made the demand to the government of India following a scandal that surfaced last month in southern India’s Kerala state involving 4 priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church who are accused of using a married woman's confession to blackmail and sexually abuse her.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) issued a press release on July 27 saying the demand by the commission is absurd.
Sanctity of the Sacrament
Speaking to Vatican News on Monday, the cardinal, who also president of Conference of the Catholic Bishops’ of India (CCBI), which comprises India’s Latin bishops, as well as the president of the Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC), repeated his press statement saying the “demand by the commission betrays a total lack of understanding of the nature, meaning, sanctity and importance of this Sacrament for our people.”
NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma recommended that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and some of his cabinet ministers take steps to abolish the practice of confession in Christian Churches.
Infringement of rights
Cardinal Gracias said the Catholic Church is “careful and has strict laws to prevent any abuse of the sacrament.” Such a ban, he said, will be a direct infringement on the religious freedom which guaranteed by the constitution. “I feel it is an infringement of our human rights.”
According to him, “millions of people all over the world, over the centuries, have testified to the spiritual benefits after having received the Sacrament, and the grace, pardon and peace they have experienced as a result of going to Confession.
Church and women's rights
Calling it an “absurd demand”, Cardinal Gracias hopes the government will surely reject it.
The 73-year old cardinal noted that NCW’s call was based on a few incidents in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, but there are many more issues concerning women in the country that the Church is working on and would like to work with the commission in matters such as women who are treated badly, safety of women, prevention of domestic violence, building women’s capacities and rescue systems for battered women.
Even though Sharma has not withdrawn her demand, Cardinal Gracias felt upbeat that the “atmosphere is much better now”, as commission chairperson has not repeated and insisted on the ban. “Even a government minister has come out in the open saying he does not agree with this demand,” the cardinal added.
Chorus of protests
A chorus of other voices have joined Cardinal Gracias in protesting against the demand for scrapping the Sacrament.
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, the Major Archbishop of Trivandrum, said nobody can question the constitutional rights of minorities and tamper with their religious customs.
“You can’t generalize things citing some incidents. If there is a crime, the law of the land should deal with it. You can’t blame religious customs citing this,” said the Cardinal Cleemis who is the head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. “It is a sweeping statement. We would like to know what the Union government says about the NCW chief’s opinion,” the Cardinal said.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC) also said the NCW demand has hurt the religious sentiments of the nation’s Christian minority.
"It is an attack on the Christian faith and spiritual practice. We strongly feel that the recommendation is unwarranted and violates the honour and credibility of the Christian community," said KCBC spokesman Father Varghese Vallikkatt.
Latin-rite Archbishop Soosai Pakiam of Trivandrum said the “NCW chairperson should not dictate that you abolish this (religious practice of confession).”
Sharma, who was in Kerala last week to meet the victims of alleged sexual assaults by priests, said many told her that confession was often misused by some priests to exploit believers, especially women.
Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said the commission has no reason to call for the "abolition of something Christians consider sacred just because of an aberration."
George Kurian the vice-chairman of the government’s National Commission for Minorities also criticized the NCW demand during a TV discussion saying the Indian Constitution “guarantees certain rights to minorities and nobody can take them away.” He asked persons holding high constitutional positions not to make such statements that could create “misunderstanding among minority communities”.
Syro-Malabar spokesman Fr Jimmy Poochakat criticized Sharma questioning how a person with a constitutional position could raise such a recommendation. “She can’t hurt sentiments of another community like this. Hope the government will reject her recommendation with the contempt it deserved,” he said.