Saturday, September 5, 2009

Closing the Doors to Democracy, Opening them to Tyranny: Responding to the Thomas-Faleiro Arguments – Part 2

In the initial part of this phased response, I had suggested that the Thomas-Faleiro argument represented both an opening up and a closure. The argument operates to prise open domains, currently under the traditional leadership of the Catholic communities, to the State. In this concluding portion of the response, I would like to suggest that the opening up is especially dangerous for the simultaneous closures that such a move would result in.

Allowing us to see this closure as a movement akin to suffocation, we should not forget that the suggestion for a State law regulating Church properties first emerged in the distinctly hostile (towards religious minorities) State of Madhya Pradesh, and Kerala where the Church has a major clout through its moral power in political history.

The initial attempts in these states now seem to have led to a nation-wide attempt to regulate the management of Church assets. This move is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it repeats the primary mistake of the Indian polity, which is to see people as comprising essentially of monolithic religious groups, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth, since these communities are fractured by class, caste, language and many other factors. In the case of the Catholics, for sure there is no such thing as a uniform Indian Catholic. In Goa, despite our best beliefs, the Church is in reality fractured along lines of caste, class and language. While the erasure of these differences is necessary if a State is to create a monolithic ‘community’ over which it will legislate a uniform law, this action not only lays the ground for the communalism that this country suffers from, but also for the suppression of marginal and subaltern voices within these ‘communities’. The creation of the monolithic identity, leads to a closing of spaces for internal dissent and reform within these ‘communities’, empowering conservative tendencies within them. Take a look at the Muslims in the country, where progressively over time, the space for internal dissent and reform has been quashed given that conservative clerical groups are recognized as leaders of the community. Within the Catholic faith, it would in fact be the Clerical hierarchy that would see eye-to-eye with the Indian State (and its minions) on the matter of consolidating the community (even as it would oppose any control over its functioning). The former are congenitally blinded to this complex social reality, since they are committed to the spiritual fiction of being one united (and Catholic) Church. And yet this is not social reality, which is marked by numerous dissensions and divisions.

There is without doubt a need for greater transparency and accountability in the management of Church properties. I also agree that this management must be in conformance with Constitutional principles. The issue on which I differ however is that of the means of implementing this agenda. It is precisely because of its colonial heritage that Goa has a social and cultural infrastructure that allows for the radical realization of democracy through decentralization. The Portuguese structured colonial power in Goa through the recognition of the powers of villages to regulate village economies. The Church followed a similar pattern, leading to each village contributing its properties to erect and maintain the village church, establishing a trust, the Fabrica, to control these properties. Like the Communidades however, these Fabricas too were by and large controlled by the gãocars, village elites, often from the dominant families and castes of the village. When one speaks of Church property today therefore, one refers to not just property of the Bishop (as representative head of the Diocese) but properties of a plethora of individual churches who hold these properties as autonomous owners.

Religion is not merely a disciplining of the soul, but a disciplining of material practices as well. The Bishop exerts therefore a disciplining control over these Fabricas and their material transactions. To manage these affairs, the Catholic diocese in Goa has already got in place a management system that allows for decentralized control. This management system is regulated by a written (and published) Code. This Code refers to the provisions of Canon Law and shares in spirit and procedures the form of State Law. We should remember that Canon Law and State Law both have common roots in Roman law and are siblings in many aspects. The bases on which they depart, are the sources of power that ensure their continuity. The power for one is the power of the State, the other that of the Tradition and moral weight of the Catholic Church. A significant feature of the current code that governs the Fabricas is to liberate these bodies from the control that dominant castes in the villages had in the days of the Portuguese. The properties of village churches is now returned to the spirit of early times, and held by the community of the faithful together, represented by the local Parish Council. Nothing could be closer to the spirit of the Constitutional values of equality, accountability and transparency.

As should be obvious by now, a realization of the Thomas-Faleiro formula would ensure a closure at all of the levels above, laying the foundation for greater communalism, encourage conservative leadership, and smooth over the nuances of local history and in this process close the plural legal spaces that exist at the Catholic grass-roots, allowing for vesting of absolute power in the State. Absolute power as we know, corrupts absolutely.

Rather than this route therefore, what we require now is, in the presence of the Code, located within a venerable body of Canon law; the engineering of a grass-roots constitutionalism that will allow members of the parish to demand and realise greater accountability. Grass-roots constitutionalism being the fomenting and realization of Constitutional values within grassroots institutions. In short, while we need a reform of the management of Church properties, we should be clear that it is one that strengthens the laity, not the hierarchy and the State at the expense of laity. To pose again the question asked at the presentation of the Thomas-Faleiro argument, whose property are we saving, and from whom?

There are many of us in Goa who have pledged our strength to the movement for greater decentralization and democratization of power in the State. This battle with the State is necessarily part of one within Society as well. It cannot be therefore, that we argue for greater decentralization on the one hand (an opening up), and argue for centralization (a closure) on the other. Such an argument is logically fallacious, socially disastrous and opens the doors to tyranny of the State.

Thomas and Faleiro would do better to engineer their movement toward a strengthening of, rather than the closure of proto-democratic decentralized spaces that they are attempting. Their actions are in fact the result of out-dated legal understandings of society, designed further the imperial interests of the Indian State (and its beneficiary class) at the risk of doing great damage to the health of the Constitutional experiment that is our Republic. No, the Thomas-Faleiro proposals as they stand are not in the best interest of the average lay Catholic and should be opposed by any sensible mind, Catholic or otherwise.

(Published in the Herald, Opinionated, 4 Sept 2009)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From Dan Driscoll:

Have read them, in Herald. I am of course 'out of my depth' so far as the whole subject is concerned, but must commend you on some very subtle reasoning.

It took three readings for me to begin some degree of comprehension, but it may be that a goodly number of among Goans have sufficient grounding in the subject matter as to become quite enlightened by those pieces. You must of put a lot of effort into the composition. Good job, well done!