Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Church and Property: Locating the appropriate forum for debates

Starting in the Herald and spilling into the internet, a debate has been raging since the past couple of weeks on the issue of the ownership of land by the Church and issue of its accountability.

The issue is fairly straightforward, one with which there can be no real and material disagreement. The Church (the aggregate of individual parishes) is the owner of vast tracts of property in Goa, properties which, like that of Conego Souto Maior in Caranzalem (Taleigao) have been sold to real-estate developers, when in fact these properties were entrusted for the welfare of churches and chapels and the communities that benefited from this. How is one to create a climate of accountability within the Church, such that there can be transparent dealing in the Fabricas and Parish Councils in the diocese of Goa, and how can we prevent this land from being illegitimately alienated at the negative cost of the parishioners across the diocese of Goa.

The location of the debate, in the secular public space, provides for us an interesting starting point to contemplate the issue and examine the possible problems that emerge from such a space.

To begin with, it is significant that this debate is actually taking place in the secular public space. One would not find such a debate among say the Muslim communities in India taking place in public. If there were such a debate it would happen within the closed doors of the community’s discussion spaces. A perfect example would be the issue of women and veiling and their other rights. Muslim groups will very often say, that this is an internal matter, and indeed every effort it made to contain external discussion. That such a discussion about the Church is happening where it is therefore, is possibly indicative of a certain confidence that the Goan Catholic enjoys in his own centrality in the Goan universe. No place for the insecurity of the Indian Muslim for the Goan Catholic. This confidence however, is not perhaps one shared by other Catholic groups in India, the Mangalorean Catholic, or the Catholic communities in north India.

This self-confidence however is one that needs to be checked, given that the ‘dominance’ of the Goan Catholic, is really one of self-perception alone, devoid of any material basis for it. On the contrary, the growing majoritarianism both in Goa and the rest of India, would persuade us to be more circumspect in the manner in which we hold up institutions such as the Church, for review.

This is not to say that there is no cause for debate. There is indeed, and without doubt. The question is where is one to have it, or how, and why has this debate spilled into the secular public space. Some blame for this could definitely be laid at the door of the Church. Its monthly magazine Renovacão is largely perceived to be closed to matters that the hierarchy of the Church would not like to debate. Personal experience has also indicated that social groups –largely Catholic – that wished to debate this issue with the Archbishop received no response. In the absence then of an ‘internal’ space to debate and dialogue, where are the disgruntled to go but the secular public space?

In India however, the secular public space, is very often the site where the ambitions of the nationalist project highjack the genuine need for debate within a community. Take once again the example of the case of Muslim women. Once the debate reaches the secular public space, the debate quickly becomes one of saving Muslim women from Muslim men. A genuine concern for Muslim women being abandoned for the larger interest of ‘disciplining’ the Muslim man into being more ‘Indian’. The fact that veiling may not be the most pressing issue for Muslim women, or indeed their own priorities hardly figure in these debates.

When examining this debate regarding the ‘Political economy’ of the Church in Goa, one should examine the ideological location of those who have initiated this location. Does the mere fact of their bearing a Christian name shield them from operating as nationalists? From a quick review of the debate, it appears that those who initiated and sustained the debate, see the Church primarily as a hierarchical institution. What they don’t seem to see is the Church as a social institution; and this is perhaps because they stand outside of this institution in many respects.

Another possible reason, for what may be an analytical error, is a unreflexive replication of European models of understanding society. The strong tradition of anti-clericalism was popular in Portuguese-India as well. In Europe, and Portuguese-India, it may have had a place, given the nature of Church-State relations. However in the colonial context, and especially in post colonial times that this understanding of the Church blinds us to complex realities. The Church in the colony, is more than the hierarchy, it is in fact the social safety-net (the social world) for a large number of Catholics in Goa. Pull apart the structure of the Catholic Church in Goa, and a good number of Goan Catholics would flounder, given the absence of other institutions that knit disparate groups into a society. Impetuous and ill-conceived attacks on the Church could therefore, actually result in greater harm to the average Catholic, than the accountability that this debate seeks to engineer. The question then arises, do these initiators of the debate seek a disciplining of the hierarchical Church, or more accountable social systems operating for the greater good of the people? Are they working for a system in which they will cooperate and exist, or merely see it as the disciplining of a public institution? The question is directed not at the active consciousness of these individuals, but at their unconscious, where they are merely acting out their parts in a larger social project, i.e. nationalist consolidation of society.

Conducting debates such as that of the relationship between Church and property in a society fraught with other tensions is not easy. The answer does not lie in pushing the discussion entirely within the realm of the community, since this is the perfect way for the debate to be quashed, and dissidents silenced. Discussing these issues, and engaging in mud-slinging (as is the wont in any debate in Goa) is not the answer either, given that it leaves the field even more open to capture. The way forward therefore seems to be in the initiation of genuine discussion and debate initiated (no seized, and immediately) by the hierarchy of the diocese toward a resolution of a problem, that in truth has been kept of the back-burner for way too long.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 10 June 2009)


augusto pinto said...

Jason in that awful convoluted style of yours, you are saying that it would be better not to conduct this public debate regarding how Church property [and btw you seem to have completely overlooked this - temple property too] should be handled. Why? Because Hindutvavadis will take advantage of this. How amusing. I got a call from a Church official who said exactly the same thing. Strange bedfellows do politics make na ;-)

augusto pinto said...

You would actually make a good CHURCH SPOKEMAN, you know. However Jason, in the last paragraph you do make a U-turn of sorts from your generally conservative commentary prior to that. OK Here's a little tidbit for you to chew upon. A Church official gave me a ring. Said I should not wash dirty linen in public. Well I said, if the linen wasn't dirty no one would have needed to wash it. Said he, you should discuss these in the appropriate place? Like where I said. Renovacaao he replied. OK I'm sending an article to Renovacao, can you make sure it will be published without being censored? NOOOOOO!! he replied. O dear I said, had. Ciao

fredericknoronha said...

This is like the approach journalists take towards a code of conduct. When left to themselves, they don't deliver one. If the authorities try to work out one, they howl blue murder.

So change won't happen from within, and it's too threatening from without! Stuck nicely where we are...

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

Dear Fred,

Rather than be an apologist for the Church, your position is exactly what I have been trying to indicate. We are in fact stuck between a rock and a hard place, and before taking any position, we need to be aware (which is what I think most of the persons in the debate are not) aware of what exactly we will be getting ourselves into.