In a letter dated October 8, the Apostolic Nunciature in India — the Vatican’s envoy to New Delhi — has directed the Tamil Nadu clergy to stay away from holding positions in independent trusts and NGOs.
It has asked the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC), which consists of 18 bishops, to take corrective and regulatory measures to ensure that the clergy is not associated with standalone trusts or societies without the consent of the diocesan ordinary. It said the clergy’s association with independent entities outside the church, even if they are to provide assistance for those in need, makes them “financial and political power bases…”.
The letter quoted the Canon Law 286, which says “clerics are prohibited from conducting business or trade personally or through others, for their own advantage or that of others, except with the permission of legitimate ecclesiastical authority”.
According to a top source in the TNBC, Pope Francis had been receiving complaints from Tamil Nadu and Kerala about corruption and other aberrations in the lives of the clergy. “In Tamil Nadu, there happened to be some priests who aspire to control the church, lobby for bishop posts and use their political and money power to bully serving bishops for vested interests,” the source said.
“Priests become powerful when they are spiritually strong, not economically or politically…,” another member of TNBC said when asked about the development.
The sources mentioned a few incidents which they felt may have led to the Vatican’s decision to issue the directive:
* A former bishop of the Diocese of Kotar, in southern Tamil Nadu, faced allegations over a trust he had floated to start a medical college by raising funds. Later, when the new bishop came to take charge, the former bishop claimed it was his private trust. The medical college project, however, never took off.
* Emergence of a priest in Tirunelveli as a political leader of a Tamil nationalist party. He started addressing political gatherings and poll campaigns wearing the cassock in the recent elections. A TNBC source said the priest had canvassed for that party even among the clergy.
* A powerful priest, who is also running a trust backed by huge funds in southern Tamil Nadu, was arrested over a hate speech against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The priest was also at the centre of another controversy — for allegedly forcing a bishop to resign to assert his power in the local diocese.
The clergy in Tamil Nadu
The Kerala church, their bishops and senior clergy, who wield great influence in a highly institutionalised church system older than Tamil Nadu’s, has been at the centre of controversy for several years over sexual harassment charges, land scams, collusion with political parties, bishops making statements attributing communal motives on other communities, and over restoring certain “puritan” practices from the pre-Portuguese era.
In contrast, the Tamil Nadu church has traditionally been less controversial. Unlike in Kerala, followers in Tamil Nadu come largely from the lower-middle-class sections. The Tamil priests, too, were known for their selfless lives and roles in leading public protests on larger causes that benefit the oppressed. During the Kudankulam protests and other public protests, and even during the war in northern Sri Lanka that ended in 2009, Tamil priests were working with and standing by the people
There are mainly two categories of the clergy in the Catholic church — religious and diocesan. The Apostolic Nunciature’s directive has been aimed at the diocesan clergy, whose vows are only for the obedience to the local bishop, unlike the religious clergy — Jesuits, Capuchins or Missionaries of Charity — who take vows of obedience, chastity and poverty.
Unlike the religious clergy, the diocesan clergy are allowed to have private bank accounts or even own property. The church sees that this is a liberal aspect that was misused by a few individual priests by running trusts and NGOs.
Sharing his thoughts, a senior clergy member said the directive may be able to deal with the specific aberrations that may have led to the move, but added that caste issues also play a “major villain”. He cited rivalry between devotees who failed to wash off their previous caste identity — depending on who converted from Hindu OBC, Hindu Dalits, or other Most Backward Classes.
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