Monday, June 13, 2022

Responding to the Desiring God


In 2017, while sitting in the Jardim Munícipio in Panjim and discussing ecclesial and liturgical matters, a priest friend expressed a fairly popular idea. He asked me: “Have you noticed how it is often it is priests who are gay who are overly interested in liturgy?” My response at the time is the seed for the thoughts that I write here, which I believe allow for us to put desire within a Catholic frame.

My first response suggested that to speak about celibates – as priests are required to be – as gay was incorrect. One could possibly refer to these people as having homosexual inclinations, which is perhaps what most people suspect when they link a fascination for liturgy with aberration from a heterosexual norm. However, to confuse this predilection for liturgical beauty with being “gay” would be a categorical mistake. To be gay is to occupy a political position. A political position, which despite its widespread global occurrence, is located in a certain cultural milieu – one which could be described as predominantly white, in particular Anglo-American and Northern European, and segments of the national(ist) elites that articulate with this cultural group across the post-colonial world.

 This is not a novel argument, but has been made by a number of queer activists and academics, among which I could point to Jasbir Puar’s argument in Terrorist Assemblages. The problem that gay culture and politics poses is especially visible to me, a Catholic in an increasingly Hindu majoritarian India. In a recent essay, I have pointed to the subtle, and not-so-subtle ways in which gay politics aligns with Hindu nationalism. As such, I can quite literally see how gay agenda poses a threat to my own life, and the communities I belong to.

I continued to counter my priestly interlocutor by going on to point out that the association of an appreciation of beauty with homosexuality draws upon a recent and modern tradition which has reconstructed masculinity. A tradition that associated men with brute power, and the appreciation of beauty as effeminate. I wasn’t satisfied in simply denying an imposition of a gay identity ; however, I suggested that the sexual frame was one that we were imposing on them. Perhaps, in other times, when the sexual frame was not the primary frame of reference that it is today, similar men would have been understood differently, seen as having gifts, or graces, from God which were being put to good use.

My rationale was, and remains, that our selves are composed of desires that we are unable to interpret, and the hermeneutical framework arrives from outside of us, from society. It is the singular tragedy of our times that our primary frame of reference in contemporary times is, and has been since at least Freud, sexual. Thus, we tend to interpret things sexually, rather than being open to other, particularly transcendental, frames of reference.

I am not unique in feeling this distress with the primarily sexual way of understanding the world. In How Catholic Art Saved the Faith (2018), art historian Elizabeth Lev contests the largely sexual reading that Bernini’s famed sculpture of the ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila has received ever since the Enlightenment: Bernini was not representing an embodied spiritual experience, but sneaking a profane, erotic, work into a sacred space. Lev argues that Bernini was doing was nothing of the sort. Rather, he had offered a “compelling” and “powerful argument for the Catholic experience of divine love” (150).

Lev suggests that the secular world is unable to comprehend this interpretation, because we have lost sight of the spiritual and our relationship with God, in other words, the divine love that God has for us. She argues that, “Teresa’s Face, emulating that of Christ in Michelangelo’s Pietà, is the ultimate image of total self-offering to God, as well as the knowledge, through these moments of ecstasy, that the love is requitted” (150). I would like to work with this idea, that the total self-offering to God is a valid sexual response to the desire that God expresses for us.

Before developing ideas about the love of God, it would be useful to point out that contemporary sexual politics has problems with understanding celibacy as a valid sexuality. In Celibacies, Benjamin Kahan notes how “even champions of sex and advocates of sexual diversity like Alfred Kinsey feel free to denigrate” celibacy as part of a trio of “the great distortions of sex,” including it alongside delayed marriage and asceticism and suggesting celibacy to be a “cultural perversion” (1). Two of these practices, celibacy and ascetism, are not unique to Catholicism, but are typical to it. The hostility towards these practices is not coincidental, but part of a larger culture of anti-Catholicism (13-16) motivated by the threat perceived by Anglo-Protestant middle class national elites of the USA.

The Catholic tradition is redolent of God’s love for humanity. This love is often represented in particularly spousal terms. Indeed, as the first letter of John teaches us, love is not that we love God, but that God loved us first (4:10). In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (2005) Benedict XVI boldly links this love not only to agape, as is often done, but also to eros (9). Calling for an attitude that unites the body and the soul, Benedict XVI suggests that “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (4). This approach provides the possibility of integrating a transcendental framework into our all too immanent frames.

This suggestion is not too different from that offered by St. John of the Cross. In his biography of St John, Peter Tyler, a psychologist concerned with holistic approaches that are not restricted merely to the immanent, points out that “rather than seeing sexuality as separated from spirituality” St. John acknowledges the intimate connection of the two whilst at the same time being able to distinguish their different properties”. Tyler quotes from St. John’s opus, The Dark Night of the Soul in support: “‘Both the spiritual and the sensory part of the soul receive gratification from that refreshment, each part experiences a delight according to its own nature and properties’ (DN 1.4:2)” (90). 

Unlike a Freudian approach where sexuality comes first as the wellspring of many aspects of the personality, including spirituality, Tyler notes that “in [St.] John’s schema we can almost say that sexual desire derives from spiritual desire” (90). St. John highlights that “’it happens frequently so that in a person’s spiritual exercises themselves, without the person being able to avoid it, impure movements will be experienced in the sensory part of the soul, and even sometimes when the spirit is deep in prayer or when receiving the sacraments of Penance or the Eucharist’ (DN 1.4.1)” (91).

St. John suggests that we should not panic in such situations. Rather, he offers an appealing explanation: “As we are full of joy by spiritual delights so… it is inevitable that the bodily passions will be excited too. It is not bad as such, just taking its share according to its mode” (91). In making this argument, Tyler points out, he is quoting Aristotle: “Whatever is received, is received according to the mode the receiver” (91). These challenges, however, are to be subjected to purgation, in St. John’s words, or to the discipline that Benedict XVI refers. The primary principle of this discipline and purgation is that the desires and senses are not bad in themselves, but need to be ordered towards our first principle, God. It is when they are disordered, or directed away from God, that they become concupiscible desires which cause us to push away things for God (89).

It is through this broad context that I investigate the experience of same-sex desire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that same-sex activity is disordered (CCC § 2357). This is because it teaches that sexual activity must be exercised within the bonds of the sacrament of matrimony, and directed towards confirmation of conjugal love and procreation. This teaching has understandably caused much hurt among those who experience same-sex desire, and have understood this desire within the framework offered by gay politics – a politics which is, as I have indicated above, racially, economically, and geographically marked. However, we need to appreciate that this teaching comes within a context – that of natural law, Thomism, and above all one that is actively transcendental in its imagination of the political – which – once we appreciate the nuances of this context – does offer space for dialogue.

Further, this teaching does not, as I will continue to argue, necessarily turn what manifests as same-sex desire as manifestation of a disordered nature. On the contrary, it could be argued that what is understood as same-sex desire is in fact the result of our inability to understand the movements of our hearts moved towards wholly returning the love of God by living a chaste life directed toward the service of His community. We are unable to understand this desire precisely because of the sexual frame that contemporary society places over us, and the lack of a transcendental framework to guide the stirrings of our hearts. I believe that it would be worth contemplating the idea that a numbers of persons confessing a same-sex attraction are the result of a larger social and personal inability to interpret the call of God to himself. As should be obvious, what I am trying to do here is affirm “queer” sensibilities, while pointing that understanding ourselves, or labeling others, as being gay is not the only option available.

With this argument in place, I would like to suggest that this requires us to broaden Benedict XVI’s understanding of the direction of eros, which he indicates is directed towards marriage (11). It would be more appropriate to indicate that eros directs us towards the sacraments at the service of communion, i.e. the sacraments of matrimony and holy orders. One could argue that the sensibility of homosocial company, even desire for homoaffective intimacy is, in fact, the result of graces granted to enable one to live in a religious community. Communities which have traditionally been, and still are, ordered by gender.

I recognize that there are many who argue that the priest must be heterosexual, i.e. able to feel physical desire for women to be fit for the priesthood (see for example the discussion Why celibacy? reclaiming the fatherhood of the priest 101 – 105). However, I wonder if this response to contemporary sexual politics is not as trapped within the frame of the immanent as sexual politics itself. For example, the arguments of Carter Griffin, the author of Why Celibacy? referred to above, make no reference to grace, but rather seem to smack of an immanentist psychology and cultural politics unmarked by the operation of grace. As Patrick Hannon points out in “Can Gay Men be Priests?”, such a response is not restricted to theological and religious conservatives. On the contrary, he offers examples of persons who position themselves as liberals, a notable example being James Martin SJ, who seem to exclude the possibility that what are experienced as homosexual tendencies may in fact be mistaken readings of our feelings.

What I suggest, however, is that they are not gay, nor are they in fact, homosexual. I am opposing any idea that the sexual desire they may be experiencing is, in fact, a permanent part of their nature at all. I argue that such persons are unable to discern the movements of their heart, and it is being determined for them by a hypersexualised society. I am suggesting that we simply do not know enough, and may be guilty of a mistaken analysis – when looking at this desire as homosexual in the first place.

In conclusion, I would hazard that the issue that was first broached between my friend and I in a public garden in Panjim, is not about merely homosexuals or gay men at all. Rather, the question is a larger one about sexuality itself, a question that impacts all of us. To this extent, we must recognize that what we see as homosexuality and the cause of disorder, is in fact a gift, which urge us to reconceive the world outside of the straightjacketed modern frameworks that have been dominant thus far. As such, I propose that we approach the issue of (sexual) desire with humility, acknowledging that despite our arrogant post-Enlightenment scientism we still simply do not know enough about workings of the human psyche. What we do know, however, because it has been revealed to us, is that God loves us (first) and that He calls us all to Himself. We are all fundamentally attempting to respond to his call. After all, St. Augustine astutely observed so many centuries ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

(A version of this text was first published in the blog of the Political Theology Network"

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

PM Modi meets Francis: On the possibilities for Catholic politics in India

Prime Minister Modi’s recent meeting with Pope Francis in Rome, prior to the former’s participation at the G-20 meet in the same city, generated huge amount of concern both prior to and after the meeting.

Initially there were suggestions that the Pope not meet with the Prime Minister because to do so would legitimize a regime that has put the persecution of minoritized groups in India into overdrive; that too immediately prior to critical elections in the states of Manipur and Goa in 2022, as well as in other locations with dominant Christian groups like Kerala. This was exactly what seemed to happen after the meeting. With photographs depicting apparent cordiality between the two splashed across the Indian media, and the invitation extended to Francis to visit India, it seemed as if Modi had triumphed, while the concerns of the minoritized lay in the dust.

Contemplating this episode a while longer, however, we realise that in meeting with Modi, the Pope was possibly offering Catholics in India an opportunity to show Christian witness, and a way to craft a new front for Christian politics in an increasingly troubled country.

To appreciate this possibility, we need to first take a hard look at the state of Catholic politics in India. Writing in 2012, the social scientist Aparna Sundar suggested that various factors lead the Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu “to articulate a secular, even radical politics as its primary mode of religious engagement.”

Making a similar argument in The Print, Jaithirth Rao darkly suggested that Catholic politics in India ought to restrict itself to “old-fashioned parish work”. 

Indeed, one could suggest that Catholic politics in India broadly inhabits two locations in the political spectrum: either it limits itself to “old-fashioned parish work” that seems disinterested in larger questions of justice, or engages in secular, even radical politics, as its primary mode of religious engagement.

Both approaches fail to consider the transcendental dimensions that must inform Catholic politics, which indeed are the crucial contributions that Catholics can make to India at this present moment. 

We need to go back in time to three incidents to appreciate my argument for privileging the transcendental in our political engagement. The first incident is a letter written by Thomas Macwan, the Archbishop of Gandhinagar, in November 2017; the second, a letter by Anil Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi, in May 2018; and the third, a letter by Filipe Neri Ferrão, the Archbishop of Goa and Daman and Patriarch of the East, in June of the same year. All the prelates urged Catholics to pray that the elections – the elections to the State Assembly of Gujarat in 2017, and the elections to Parliament in 2019 respectively – result in the selection of persons true to the values of the Constitution and the dignity of the human person.

A furore was raised in all three cases, largely by supporters of the BJP, based on the assumption that the prelates were instigating a political action against the BJP. In doing so, they made a fundamental error in appreciating the nature of Christian prayer. 

Directed by no less than Christ himself, the Christian does not, indeed cannot, pray against persons, even if they may be enemies. The Christian is obliged to pray for persons. To quote from the Gospel of Mathew when Christ preached the beatitudes, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” for, he reasoned “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” What no one seems to have told the BJP at the time, was that Christian prayer was most certainly not directed against them, rather if the BJP was in fact guilty of acting against the values of the Constitution and the dignity of persons, then the prayers were probably for their benefit.

This insight into Christian prayer would have determined how Pope Francis responded to Modi’s desire to meet knowing full well the possibility that the request was born of cynical intentions. Carrying over prayerful love into action would first require showing courtesy; for did not Christ promise “knock and the door will be opened to you”? Indeed, a perusal of the Gospels demonstrates that Christ was attentive to courtesy – considerate to the cries of those who called out to him, and even chastising those who sought to shoo away those who, like the repentant woman who anointed him with nard, sought to do him honour. 

And it is not just Christ who stressed courtesy. The Bible is peppered with instances of courtesy as a mark of Grace. Courtesy, as a gospel and biblical value, urged, therefore, that the Pope meet with Modi, even though he was not obliged to. Such courtesies are, as per protocol, extended to Heads of State, which Modi is not. The meeting was, in fact, a break with protocol. But if a break with protocol can open the door to a personal conversion, this protocol is worth breaking.

But practicing Christianity is not simply about being courteous. It is also about being honest to the truth, even if it requires plain speaking. Christian love is not so much an emotion, as it is a process. In December 2015, Pope Francis inaugurated the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy; and significantly, one of the spiritual acts of mercy is correcting the sinner. Receiving someone with courtesy does not mean simply papering over the problems with them. On the contrary, especially if our action is directed towards our brothers’ personal conversion, it obliges us to demonstrate how they have violated the higher laws of God. 

One hoped, therefore, that Francis would have seized this opportunity to communicate to Modi his concern over the fact that the Government led by the latter has failed to secure the bodily integrity of the various minoritized groups in India; to also communicate the anxieties of multiple religious orders and congregations whose representatives are often denied visas to enter the country, especially if these orders and congregations are seen as too critical of the State; the concern over how the rights of Overseas Citizens of India are being constrained by requiring that they do not engage in any missionary work;  and over how conversion to Christianity, especially by those marginalised by state and society, is being effectively criminalised in India. The impending survey of churches and conversions in Karnataka would have been another crucial issue to address; and the construction of detention camps in India; finally, how callously the late Fr. Stan Swamy, the Pope’s Jesuit confrere, was treated by the judicial system.

However, these issues do not seem to have emerged during the audience granted to Modi. Perhaps it was too much to expect otherwise, especially since such meetings are formal and bound by protocol. However, refusing Modi the dignity of an audience, on the basis that such conversation would be impossible, would not only extinguish the possibility of such a conversation on another occasion, but would be tantamount to not showing the love that Christ demands of us even in the face of those who wish to destroy our physical presence. 

 In acting with the law of Christ, Pope Francis could offer a useful measure for the politics of Christians in India: pray for those who persecute you, love those who hate you, refuse to dismiss them as incorrigible enemies, but create the situations so that we can fearlessly correct them in charity, as indeed has been attempted, as we have seen, by Catholic prelates in India.

Indeed, the meeting has already borne fruit in terms of allowing Indian citizens the space for prophetic witness. Various commentators have been quick to point out that the Papal gift to Modi, perhaps not coincidentally, referenced Isaiah 32:15: “The wilderness will become a fruitful field.” This chapter speaks of just governance, and the eventual triumph of the truth over the villainies of tyrants; many saw this reference as a reproach from the pontiff to the politician. Indeed, there are portions of Isaiah 32 that echo the exultations of the Magnificat, not dissimilar to the words of the Urdu poet Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhenge” which, it can safely be said, is a sub-continental hymn protesting iniquity, quoted in recent times by those protesting the actions of the incumbent government. 

Other commentators on social media were quick to contrast the egalitarian hug between the Pope and Prime Minister, and images of the latter’s interactions with Brahmanical pontiffs, like the Shankaracharyas, in India, marked by servile body language, and an inability to touch, leave alone hug, indicating that this hug alone referenced the affirmation of the dignity of every human person which is the undeniable patrimony of the Abrahamic religions to the subcontinent. While the BJP may cynically try to use the papal hug to woo Christian voters, these images are not univocal, but on the contrary testify to the real victory that has been accomplished, and which is the daily Christian contribution to India.

All of this suggests to us that we can, and must, shift our understanding of the ‘political’. The cynicism of contemporary politics has ensured that we harshly condemn those who have made mistakes, or even committed crimes. An obsession with optics has demeaned politics to petty games of tit-for-tat. In the clamour for vengeance, and the ardour of self-righteousness, there seems little space to extend common and basic courtesies, or indeed a desire for fraternal correction. 

Christian teaching is based, however, on the idea that vengeance is the Lord’s, not ours, and that violence to our physical bodies is not as harmful as is the violence to our souls. What Christian teaching brings to politics, therefore, is the suggestion that there is something more important than immediate payback, since everyone will be judged fairly at the end of times, and what we ought to focus on is the love of our neighbour, and a concern for their eternal soul, even if the neighbour proves oneself an enemy. To the politics of cynicism, we bring the politics of hope, which rests on the Christ’s promise of life eternal.

The tendency of Catholics in India to articulate a secular, even radical, politics as its primary mode of religious engagement, needs to be recognised as a problem, because it often, if subconsciously, denies the fundamentals of the Catholic creed. 

We need to return to understanding Catholic politics as one that works between the realms of the natural and the supernatural. Only with a firm belief in the supernatural, and the promises of Christ, would we be able to articulate genuinely Catholic politics in India. And this is precisely what, at this troubled moment, India needs.

(A version of this text was first published in Jivan Magazine issue Dec 2021- Jan 2022)

Modi meeting Francis: On the possibilities for Catholic politics in India

 On the night of the twenty-third of October I was woken up by a rather agitated message which read: “I hear that Modi is meeting the Pope…It legitimises what is being done to minorities – Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, and Dalits and women.” “The Holy Father should not meet him” a second message continued. These messages were referring to Prime Minister Modi’s now confirmed meeting with the Pope in Rome on the thirtieth of October, prior to the former’s participation at the G-20 meet in the same city.

My agitated friend was not the only Christian in India to so respond. However, there is no reason to react in such a manner. Contrary to the suggestion from the Indian media, the meeting is a routine encounter between heads of state. Pope Francis will also be meeting with President Biden of the USA as well as the Canadian Prime Minister.

Nonetheless, contemplating the unease for a while longer, I realised that there is an opportunity for Catholics in India to show Christian witness. Thus, not only must Pope Francis meet with Prime Minister Modi, but in doing so the Pope might possibly lead the direction for a wholesome Catholic (and Christian) contribution to politics in an increasingly troubled India.

We need to go back in time to three incidents to appreciate my logic. The first incident is the letter written by Thomas Macwan, the Archbishop of Gandhinagar, in November 2017, the second, the letter by Anil Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi, in May 2018, and the third, a letter by the Archbishop of Goa, in June of the same year. All the prelates urged Catholics to pray that the elections – the elections to the State Assembly of Gujarat in 2017, and the elections to Parliament in 2019 respectively – result in the selection of persons true to the values of the Constitution and the dignity of the human person.

A furore was, surprisingly, raised in all three cases, largely by supporters of the BJP, based on the assumption that the prelates were instigating a political action against the BJP. In doing so, they made a fundamental error in appreciating the nature of Christian prayer. Directed by no less than Christ himself, the Christian does not, indeed cannot, pray against persons, even if they may be enemies. The Christian is obliged to pray for persons. To quote Christ from the Gospel of Mathew when he preached the beatitudes, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” for, he reasoned “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” What no one seems to have told the BJP at the time, was that Christian prayer was most certainly not directed against them, rather if the BJP was in fact guilty of acting against the values of the Constitution and the dignity of persons, then the prayers were probably for their benefit.

This insight into Christian prayer must then determine how Pope Francis might respond to a desire of the Indian Prime Minister to meet with the Pope. Carrying over prayerful love into action would first require showing courtesy; for did not Christ promise “knock and the door will be opened to you”? Indeed, a perusal of the Gospels demonstrates that Christ was attentive to courtesy – considerate to the cries of those who called out to him, and even chastising those who sought to shoo away those who, like the repentant woman who anointed him with nard, sought to do him honour. Christ’s chastisement focussed precisely on the fact that these hosts did not show him the courtesy due to a guest, which this woman was now showing him. And it is not just Christ who stressed courtesy. The Bible is peppered with instances of courtesy as a mark of grace, and indeed, as in the case of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were violently punished for violating the code of courtesy to a guest. Courtesy, as a gospel and biblical value, demands, therefore, that the Pope meet with Prime Minister Modi.

But practicing Christianity is not simply about being polite and civil. It is also about being honest to the truth, even if it requires plain speaking. Christian love is not so much an emotion, as it is a process. In December 2015 Pope Francis inaugurated the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy; and significantly, one of the spiritual acts of mercy is correcting the sinner. Receiving someone with courtesy does not mean one simply papers over the problems with one’s brother. On the contrary, it obliges us to demonstrate how our fraters have violated the higher laws of God. Pope Francis will have much to communicate in this context to Prime Minister Modi, and we know that he will seize this opportunity.

He will perhaps communicate his concern that the Union Government presided over by Prime Minister Modi has not been doing enough to secure the bodily integrity of the various minoritized groups in India. He will also express the anxieties of multiple religious orders and congregations whose representatives are often denied visas to enter the country, especially if these representatives or their orders or congregations are seen as being too vocal in their critique of the state-of-affairs in the locations they visit, or work in. The Pope would also have to express his concern of how the rights of Overseas Citizens of India are being constrained, by requiring that they do not engage in any missionary work. Then there is the question of how conversion to Christianity, especially by those marginalised by state and society, is being effectively criminalised in India. The impending survey of churches and conversions in Karnataka is another crucial issue to address. And then there is the entire matter of detention camps being constructed in India.

Pope Francis would also, no doubt, like to discuss how his Jesuit confrere, the late Fr. Stan Swamy, was callously treated by the judicial system. In discussing this matter, the Pope will be aware, no doubt, that while Fr. Swamy died under the BJP’s control, the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act) that was eventually responsible for Fr. Swamy’s death was articulated by the Congress government in 2008 – pointing to the deeper lack of justice in the Indian state. None of these difficult, but necessary, conversations would be possible without the extension of the basic courtesy and hospitality.

No, Prime Minister Modi must have audience with the Pope, for refusing him this dignity would be tantamount to not showing the love that Christ demands of us even in the face of those who wish us dead. In acting with the law of Christ, Pope Francis could offer a useful measure for the politics of Christians in India: pray for those who persecute you, love those who hate you, refuse to dismiss them as incorrigible enemies, but create the situations so that we can fearlessly correct them in charity; a situation that, as we have already seen, the Catholic prelates in India have systematically been attempting to articulate. All of this requires that we shift our understanding of the ‘political’.

The values of “woke politics” which harshly condemns those who have made mistakes, or even committed crimes, has taken too strong a hold on contemporary politics. In the clamour of vengeance, and the ardour of self-righteousness, there seems little space to extend common and basic courtesies, or indeed the desire to correct the individual fraternally. Christian teaching is based, however, on the idea that vengeance is the Lord’s, not ours, and that violence to our bodies is not as harmful as is the violence to our souls. What Christian teaching brings to politics, therefore, is the suggestion that there is something more important than payback in the immediate, since everyone will be judged fairly at the end of times, and what we ought to focus on is the love of our neighbour, even if the neighbour prove oneself an enemy.

Writing in 2012, and studying the Catholic Church and political practice in Tamil Nadu, the social scientist Aparna Sundar observed on the various factors that that “lead it [the Catholic Church] to articulate a secular, even radical politics as its primary mode of religious engagement.” This tendency needs to be recognised as a problem, because it often, if subconsciously, denies the fundamentals of the Catholic creed, and we need to return to understanding Catholic politics as one that works between the realms of the natural, and the supernatural. It is only with a firm belief in the supernatural, and the promises of Christ, that we would be able to articulate a genuinely Catholic politics in India. This we need to do, because at this troubled moment, this is precisely what India needs.

(A version of this post was first published on the ezine Raiot on 28 Oct 2021)

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Language and Education: Refuting the lies on forked tongues

An easy way to respond to the small, but very vocal group, that insists that all state-supported schools in Goa impart education in the vernacular medium would be to point out that this group is animated essentially by Hindu nationalists. Their dangerous ideology is perilous to the health and well-being of all in this country, as is being demonstrated in the criminally negligent way in which the ongoing pandemic crisis is being managed.

Such a response is not, however, sufficient to understand why this group gets adherents, even among those who may not overtly identify with Hindu nationalism; and to offer a reasoned rebuttal of their problematic arguments.

The primary, and perhaps the best, argument of this group is it claims to offer a scientific reason, but which is best described as pseudo-scientific. They argue that young children are best educated in their ‘mother-tongue’. Prima facie this is, in fact, a logical argument. A young learner, especially a first-generation learner, would perhaps learn best in their first language, rather than through a second language for which they have no support outside of the classroom. The fundamental flaw with this argument, however, is the assumption that the vernacular medium is the first language of the student.

Take the case of Konkani, or even Marathi, as taught in schools. Highly sanskritised forms of dominant caste version of the languages, they bear little resemblance to the language spoken by the student in the home. We are familiar with the argument of the many Konkani-speaking Catholics in Goa who argue that as adults they have difficulty in understanding the Sanskritised Konkani that is introduced to their children in school. The response to this argument is to challenge the validity of the Konkani spoken by Catholics. And this is exactly the problem with the insistence that the medium of instruction necessarily be in the vernacular, that this vernacular is actually not a vernacular at all, i.e., it is not the language spoken by the child in the home. It is the official state language, which is very often quite divergent from the natal language of the child. In effect, with instruction being provided in the official language(s) of the state, the child still has to struggle with a second language.

If such is the case, then the valid counter-argument is: why should the parents not decide which (second) language to have their children educated in? Surely it is the right of the parents to decide what is best for their children? The state cannot be said to enjoy this right; it merely has an obligation to enable the parents to exercise their rights. To not recognise this fact would push us towards authoritarianism, which as we see from the experience unfolding around us, is exactly the kind of political regime that Hindu nationalism is comfortable with.

Equipping their children for social mobility is one of the aims of all parents – including those who cannot afford private education. It is primarily for this reason that parents opt for English as a language of formal education. They know for a fact that an international language opens up wider vistas for their children. The vernacular languages, on the contrary, tend to limit the capacities of their children not simply because these languages are restricted in scope, but also because these idioms are tied to the very local casteist social regime. The fact is that the official languages of states in India, and especially in Goa, are largely pegged to the linguistic form of the Brahmin, which in Goa means the Gaud Saraswat brahmin. As such, no matter how well a person learns this form, the ultimate arbiter of the perfection of the language will always be a Saraswat, and all others, will be seen as trying to reach the ideal. In other words, with an education in the official language of the State, not only are one’s horizons limited, but one is also chained to subservience in a grossly unequal socio-political order.

The argument of those demanding compulsory education in the vernacular also draws on the emotional charge of respect for the mother-tongue. Capitalising on the love that one feels for one’s mother, and the desire to show her respect, these activists suggest that a desire to be educated in English is to show disrespect for one’s mother-tongue. We have already seen how the medium of instruction used in schools is not the mother-tongue of students, but in fact a second language. The concept of the mother-tongue is an invention from the late-eighteenth to nineteenth century. This was the period when both in Europe and subsequently across the colonized world there was an attempt to build national states.

Language was used to build national communities and for this reason language was represented as a mother, and individuals presented as children of this mother with a duty to protect her. The relationship with language was more complex prior to this period. One did, of course, belong to a language group, but one’s socio-political relationship was not entirely determined by belonging to one language group, or any single social group. On the contrary, a person belonged to multiple groups. One could speak one language to one’s caste group, for example, and another language in the bazaar. For those who belonged to elite groups, or merchant groups, the number of languages that they could speak increased. Take the Saraswats who operated as translators (Dubash) for the regional courts. They spoke their caste form of Konkani within the home, spoke Marathi in the Maratha courts, and Portuguese in the Portuguese establishment for which they worked. It is inconceivable that these men, who benefited in all these situations, would argue that they did not belong to these multiple worlds. The argument of respect for the mother-tongue, therefore, is merely a cheap exercise in sentimentality, which cannot and must not, be allowed to trump the rights, and the futures, of persons.

(A version of this text was first published in Fr. Agnel's Call, Vol.56, June 2021, pp. 10-11.)

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Reflections on the second Sunday of Advent

 

Sometimes you can clearly perceive a theme in the readings of the day. For us today, that theme is quite easy to define, for it is the first word that we encounter in the reading from Isaiah: “comfort.” We also encounter comfort at the end of this reading, when we are assured that the strong-armed shepherd God will gather us in his arms, carrying us in his bosom, and lead with care. And finally, in the Gospel too we have a sentiment of comfort in the message that John the Baptist bears, there is one worthier who is coming, and “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


 

If we look closer, however, we realise that the comfort that we are being promised is most certainly NOT the cosy comfort of the commercialised Christmas seasons we are offered. On the contrary, it is a comfort that is entirely unlike the warm, cuddly Christmases we sing about.


To appreciate the comfort promised, we need to pay attention to John the Baptist, the biblical actor offered us today as a model, and the meaning of the symbols used in the readings for today, and especially in the Gospel. John the Baptist, it says, appeared in “the desert”, and not just that, he eats desert food – locusts, and wild honey.  More importantly, John is fulfilling the prophesies of Isaiah and the prophesy is quite clear about what John, and consequently, what we too, must do: “in the desert prepare the way of the Lord!”

It is only if we do this, that the promised comfort will be ours. If not, we need only reference Peter’s letter which is quite explicit about the fiery ways in which we, the unrepentant, will perish.

And so, to benefit from the promised comfort, it is to the desert we must go – that place of waiting, the antechamber as it were, where the Jews were purified before entering the Promised land, and where we too must go while we await salvation. We commonly treat advent like it were already Christmas season. But in fact it is the waiting room to Christmas, the desert where we ritually await the coming of the infant king. It is a ritual that opens our eyes to the fact that our own lives are suspended between two comings. The first coming of the king in Bethlehem, and His second coming at the end of time, which Peter promises us will be terrible. Suspended in this way, we are also like the Baptist who we have to emulate: St. Augustine tells us that “The prophets before John were given the grace to foretell the coming of Christ, but to John it was given both to foretell Him in his absence, and to behold Him in His presence.” There is no doubt that Christ is present with us in the blessed sacrament, but we nevertheless also do wait to see him in flesh and bone and await His final coming.


And so, what do we do in this time of waiting? The prophesy of Isaiah is quite clear, we turn the world upside down, we fill in valleys, we lower hills, we ensure that, in the words of the psalm, that when He comes, “Justice shall walk before him” because we will have, as in the words of the psalm prepared the way of his steps. And this preparation is hard work, because though we don’t get that sense in this translation of the scripture, other translations suggest that what we have read as “prepare the way of the Lord” is “beat straight the road”  referring to the tiring, backbreaking work of preparing a new road, by literally pounding it.

John also offers us a superficially discomforting vision of what the beating of this road will be. “One mightier than I is coming after me” he says. And what happens to him when Christ appears? He is thrown into jail, and beheaded. This fate, this after, is similarly experienced by Jesus, who is arrested, tortured and crucified, the apostles, and so many of the early Christians. And yet, the resurrection of Jesus offers us the comfort to this apparent discomfort. We know for a fact that this straight and narrow path of material discomfort ends not in death, but in the promise of the resurrection and life ever-lasting.

Our comfort, this season, and in the rest of our Christian lives, must be that we know that He is coming, that we have been called to prepare the way before Him, and that through our works we will be ready to greet Him when He comes.