A historic struggle is underway in Kerala, with Sister Lucy Kalapura as the pivot. The issue at stake is simple. Isn’t a nun also a citizen of India, entitled to personal freedom and justice? Or, is she only a religious slave? Can an Indian citizen be punished for writing poems, publishing books, learning driving or supporting struggles for justice? Can the Indian court disown her, if she is? Can laws enunciated from Rome override the Indian Constitution? Should religious laws enjoy exclusion from the ambit of the Constitution of India?
Personal liberty is a relative newcomer in the history of civilisation. As regards the majority of the people in history, slavery, not liberty, was the norm for long. Though slavery is abolished in theory, servitude survives in innumerable pockets, big and small, in diverse modes. A glaring instance is that of nuns. None less than Pope Francis said a couple of years ago that thousands of Catholic nuns live in sexual slavery under the umbrella of the church. They endure their privation meekly because they know how impossible it is to struggle and secure justice for them. While Christendom as a whole has turned a deaf ear to the anguish of the Pope, a lone nun is waging an unheard-of battle to ensure that this inhuman condition is challenged.
Young, naïve girls are lured into convent life, when they are in no position to know what they are getting into. Most of them hail from poor and large families. Poverty, aggravated further by unsustainable family size, sustained by the church’s objection to family planning, drives girls to convents. Seen through eyes of deprivation, a nun in her habit, with an aura of respect and sanctity, becomes an irresistible allurement to girls. To poor Catholic families languishing in insignificance, having nuns in their ranks serves as the high point of parochial vanity.
Class difference is blatant in the way nuns are treated in convents and institutions. Nuns from poor families are made to do mostly menial work. The socio-economic elite among nuns, a tiny minority, live and work honourably. Nuns of the former kind are vulnerable to be abused and exploited. Several have “died in mysterious circumstances”, or been killed, as in the case of Sister Abhaya, or lapsed into mental ill-health. None of the alleged suicides in the last two decades, in which the bodies of nuns were recovered from convent wells, has been investigated and the truth about these unnatural deaths established. There is only one reason for this. They were poor. Their life did not matter. Justice for them was junked in order to avoid embarrassment for the church.
It is against this background that the significance of Sister Lucy’s struggle for justice, not so much for herself as for nuns as a whole, needs to be viewed. Consider a couple of aspects in her case. Her expulsion from the convent is clearly a punishment for expressing solidarity with the victim in the Bishop Franco Mulakkal rape case. As a nun, should she have no freedom of conscience to demand justice for an outraged fellow nun? Consider again. Sister Lucy worked as a high school maths teacher for 30 years. Her salary income was appropriated by the convent. Now, in her retirement, should she be thrown out of the convent, and onto the streets, without a rupee in compensation or financial support? That is what the canon law says. Why such a heartless law? Clearly it is meant to make it impossible for the frustrated nuns to exit convents. Why is this necessary? Well, because, if it becomes financially viable to leave the convent, thousands of nuns would. This would be not only a huge economic blow but also a setback for the institution of priestly celibacy in the church. But for the comfort and consolation of the convents, the mental health of priests could be at peril. The liberation of long-oppressed nuns, the religious sex-slaves as Pope Francis describes them, is the last thing the church will brook. It sees Sister Lucy’s struggle in this light. Hence the eagerness to crush her under its iron heels.
Regrettably, the Kerala High Court has taken the stand that Sister Lucy can be provided physical protection only if she leaves the convent. For the court to take this stand, which may be consonant with the letter of the law, is to take a partial view of the matter. Even if that is not the intent, such a stand on the part of the court reinforces the vindictive posturing of the church, and frustrates the hopes and aspirations of the thousands of nuns who long for emancipation. The least that the court could have done was to maintain, together with the stand it has taken, that the convent has a duty to give back to the nun her lifetime’s earnings. Anything short of this is tantamount to robbery by other means. A nun works all her active life and, at the end of it, she is cast away without a rupee! Surely, this falls short even of the crudest idea of justice in a civilised society. Only slaves could have been treated so; and that, too, in the distant past.
The Sister Lucy case urges the nation as a whole to decide if exclusive religious laws should continue to subvert the spirit of the Indian Constitution. Perhaps, the time has come to address the need to legislate a common civil code so that the indefensibility of exclusive religious rights encroaching on the domain of civil and constitutional rights is firmly established.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 16, 2021 under the title ‘Standing with Sister Lucy’. The writer was principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi.