*Fr Cedric Prakash SJ
‘Apolitical’ is both a word and a concept; it is reflective of one’s attitude and behaviour towards the realities that grip people anywhere. It essentially means having no interest in or association with politics. It is also defined as ‘politically neutral; without political attitudes, content or bias’. In ordinary parlance, for the ones who cry hoarse about being ‘apolitical’ it just means not getting involved in politics; because politics is ‘dirty’- and any involvement would mean repercussions on oneself or family or the institution one represents. The fact however, is that every single human apart from being a social being is also a political being; not being involved in politics is also a political statement. The pretence is that if one says one is ‘apolitical’ then the idea communicated is that one is ‘not’ taking sides. This is a bluff. One needs however, to differentiate between ‘politics’ (which is about people: their rights and duties; governance; fair and equitable distribution of resources, justice) and ‘political parties’ which (in a very basic understanding) is about particular groups/ideologies which seek/work for power in order to control the lives and resources of others.
In 1971, the Synod of Bishops released a landmark document entitled ‘Justice in the World’. It was pathbreaking in every sense of the word. The Synodal document in the section on ‘The Gospel Message and the Mission of the Church’, offered a new understanding of sin "in the face of the present-day situation of the world, marked as it is by the grave sin of injustice, we recognize both our responsibility and our inability to overcome it by our own strength. Such a situation urges us to listen with a humble and open heart to the word of God, as he shows us new paths toward action in the cause of justice in the world." It further stated, "while the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and the life style found within the Church herself."
Fifty years ago, the Bishops of world used an idiom and response which makes tremendous sense in the context of India today. In no uncertain terms, they stated that the Church is and can never be ‘apolitical’. The Church has to take sides in exactly the same way that Jesus took sides with the poor and the marginalised, the exploited and the excluded, the outcasts and ostracised of his time. The Bishops declared, "even though it is not for us to elaborate a very profound analysis of the situation of the world, we have nevertheless been able to perceive the serious injustices which are building around the world of men a network of domination, oppression and abuses which stifle freedom and which keep the greater part of humanity from sharing in the building up of a more just and more fraternal world."
That Synod was the logical outcome of a significant period in the history of the Church. In 1959, when St. Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, he emphasised that he wanted it to be a Pastoral Council, not necessarily creating new definitions in doctrine but an ‘aggiornamento’ which was essentially an updating of what the Church is all about, in order to communicate more effectively the values of the kingdom with the men and women of the modern world. The key question which was therefore raised at the Vatican Council was “what does it mean to be the Church of God in the modern world?” The path-breaking Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world ‘Gaudium et Spes’ was a fitting response to what St. Pope John XXIII wanted as the sum and substance of a historic intervention. Earlier, in his Encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ he underlines the inviolability of human rights and the four non-negotiables of Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty which are fundamental for sustainable peace; and with that profound statement “There is a saying of St. Augustine which has particular relevance in this context: "Take away justice, and what are kingdoms but mighty bands of robbers "
Given the renewal that was taking place everywhere, because of the Church ‘opening its doors’ post-Vatican II, St Pope Paul VI convoked the 1971 Synod. The Synod document’s message can be summed up in one well-known sentence, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation”. The promotion of justice therefore, is essential to the mission of the Church. There simply is no sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ if the commitment to justice is downplayed or eliminated. Since then, all the Popes have reiterated the Church’s position for a more just society. Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical ‘Caritas in Veritate’ puts it very strongly, “Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace”.
Ever since he was elected in March 2013, Pope Francis has not lost any opportunity of insisting that political engagement to counter the rampant injustices in the world, is an essential part of Christian discipleship. He addressed this theme with his trademark directness and charm during a daily Mass homily in 2013. “Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!” he said. “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern.” In ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ Pope Francis says, “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.” He adds, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets… I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”
He goes on to say, “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure, which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle, which others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.”
We are in the special ‘Laudato Si’ year; many do not realise that the greatest challenge of this Encyclical which Pope Francis gave to the world in 2015, is to look into the endemic issues which impact on the environment. Pope Francis is direct, “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s good… it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.”
In his Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis speaks about the growing impoverishment of the poor, their cries, their rights. Pope Francis begins the part of the ‘Social Dream’ on the right note. He challenges one and all to have the courage to read and respond to the cries of the poor. Times have changed and we are called to make a paradigm-shift in our response. The traditional benefactor approach (which in the past was the hallmark of the response of the Church) is no longer accepted and will certainly not be an effective response for a change which is sustainable. We need to look into issues which are endemic (the root causes of poverty). This is all easier said than done – because in doing so we will have to take on the powerful and other vested interests; these could be the Government, the corporate sector (the ones destroying the livelihood and lives of our farmers) and the mining mafia. Whether it is in the countries of the Amazon or in countries like India, confronting the powerful on behalf of the poor means that one has to pay a price. There are no short-cuts – we witness the downward spiral of how the poor become poorer and how the rich (at the cost of the poor) amass a scandalous amount of wealth. This is all far from the Gospel of Jesus and for that matter from Christian discipleship.
Pope Francis is particularly strong and unequivocal in ‘Fratelli Tutti’ “the Church, while respecting the autonomy of political life, does not restrict her mission to the private sphere. On the contrary, “she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines” in the building of a better world, or fail to “reawaken the spiritual energy” that can contribute to the betterment of society. It is true that religious ministers must not engage in the party politics that are the proper domain of the laity, but neither can they renounce the political dimension of life itself, which involves a constant attention to the common good and a concern for integral human development. The Church “has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities”. She works for “the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity” She does not claim to compete with earthly powers, but to offer herself as “a family among families, this is the Church, open to bearing witness in today’s world, open to faith hope and love for the Lord and for those whom he loves with a preferential love. A home with open doors. The Church is a home with open doors, because she is a mother”. And in imitation of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, “we want to be a Church that serves, that leaves home and goes forth from its places of worship, goes forth from its sacristies, in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be the sign of unity… to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation”.
Even before Pope Francis assumed office, the Bishops of India were already using rather similar words and tone. In 2012, at the XXX CBCI Meet in Bangalore on the theme ‘The Church’s Role for a Better India’, their statement was addressed “to all people of goodwill”, saying, “We sensed in our hearts our country’s yearning for a Better India. Our country has been noted for its deep spirituality, its saints and sages, its rich diversity of cultures and religions. People yearn for the ideal enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India of a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic which will secure for its citizens Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. But this yearning has remained largely unfulfilled. Economic development has brought about increasing inequities, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor with consequent tensions spilling over into violence. We see around us a betrayal of the poor and marginalized, the tribals, dalits and other backward classes, women and other groups who live in dehumanising and oppressive poverty. We witness rampant exploitation of children. There is disappointment with those in public life for whom ethical concerns matter little. The Church does not wish to rest on her laurels. She recommits herself to being a prophetic Church, taking a decisive stand in favour of the poor and marginalized “We envision an India with more attributes of the Kingdom of God such as justice and equity with its consequent fruits of love, peace and joy.”
In February 2014, just before the National General Elections, the CBCI Meet in Palai, Kerala on the theme, ‘Renewed Church for a Renewed Society – Responding to the Call of Vatican II’, the Bishops statement was even more emphatic, “When we look at our country, we see corruption plaguing every sphere of society. In such a scenario, Church institutions must be an example of transparency and probity. Another phenomenon is that of internal migration which, while opening opportunities to people, has torn the cultural and religious moorings that sustained them. Globalization too has brought in its wake problems like prolonged working hours which have disrupted family life. We witness the trend to fundamentalism which seeks to dilute the secular character of our nation. Against this trend, we stand by the values upheld by the Indian Constitution and appeal to governments to respect these values” …. “The experience of God will lead us to involvement in and solidarity with the marginalized and the exploited, those suffering from disabilities, those living in the peripheries of economic, cultural and social spheres. We will speak out against all forms of injustice meted out to them and we will defend their rights. We listened to the call of Pope Francis urging us to “work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 188). We want the Church to be truly a Church of the Poor.”
Sadly, times have changed; today, being ‘apolitical’ and ‘diplomatic’ are apparently the buzzwords in the Church of India. Actually, they are sinful forms of escapism into one’s comfort zone; a clear betrayal of the person and message of Jesus. Being on the right side of the powerful and vested interest means that our privileges and possessions are seemingly ‘secure’; the internal corruption and scandals are not ‘touched’ and brought to the fore and above all, the ‘witnessing’ dimension of Christianity is effectively negated. It is so obvious that Church teachings on the social realities of today have not been studied and reflected upon; promulgated and internalised by a fairly large section of the Church in India today. They rarely form part of our Catechesis, our homilies, talks and writings; most Church media are muted on matters of national importance clearly apathetic forgetting the opening words of ‘Gaudium et Spes’, the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. In his message for World Communications Day 2021, Pope Francis makes it clear that communicators must ‘hit the streets!’
The Catholic Church is clearly not apolitical! But where then are the official statements by the Church in India on the current protests of the farmers demanding the immediate revocation of the three anti-farmer laws? Or in keeping with the letter and spirit of ‘Rerum Novarum’ and ‘Centisimus Annus’ is there any challenge to the recent anti-worker Labour Codes? Or in keeping with the mandate of ‘Laudato Si’ what’s the official stand against the destruction of the Mollem reservation, and what is happening to the Aravalli Hills and the Western Ghats and the greater use of fossil fuels through the auctioning of coal blocks? When a climate change activist Disha Ravi is arrested for sedition – what should the Church’s stand be, in keeping with ‘Laudato Si’? What about the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the sedition and other draconian laws and for those framed and incarcerated under them – are we visible and vocal demanding the immediate repeal of such antiquated and anti-people laws and for the unconditional release of all those illegally jailed?
What about ‘love jihad’? The well-known human rights group the ‘Citizens for Justice and Peace’ (CJP) has recently filed an application before the Supreme Court of India seeking to amend its original writ petition that challenged the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand anti-conversion laws. The group now also seeks to incorporate the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance, 2020 and the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019 in its petition. In a statement CJP says, “The illusion of ‘Love Jihad’ has led violence and intimidation by police and non-state actors. The ‘Love Jihad’ laws legitimise un-constitutional, anti-minority and misogynistic beliefs, and help further the hateful, communal agenda of extremists. CJP is challenging these laws as they impinge upon the privacy, freedoms and autonomy of consenting adults”. Some High Courts have already declared it unconstitutional. On 14 February the Chief Minister of Gujarat announced that Gujarat would soon have a ‘love jihad’ law on the lines of UP and MP. That some Church hierarchy can blatantly support such a law (‘political’ or ‘apolitical’?) is downright immoral and certainly against the teachings of Jesus. An adult has a right to marry the person of one’s choice and also to embrace the religion of one’s choice. There are sufficient provisions in the CrPC to address any force or fraud.
What about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)? or for that matter the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 A, where Kashmir is concerned? Is there any statement on the stifling of freedom of speech and expression in the country, the consistent attack on freedom of religion or for that matter, the all-pervasive denial of most human rights in the country? Migrants and refugees suffer very much (we have seen this during this pandemic); in keeping with the Church directives have we been only their benefactors or have we truly accompanied them in the protection of their rights? Already last week (Feb 7) following the military coup in Myanmar and in the wake of the massive protests Pope Francis expressed "solidarity with the people of Myanmar”. He said, “I pray that those in power in the country will work… towards the common good,” and he called for "social justice, national stability and harmonious democratic coexistence".
True there are several Catholics: laity, nuns and priests (and even some bishops!) who have taken a stand on some of the issues! Many, are at the forefront and even at great risk. That however is not enough! Pope Francis constantly reminds us that when rights and values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised. Jesus was deeply concerned about the deep- rooted injustices of his time and took a visible and vocal stand against them. The Catholic Church in India can no longer remain a silent spectator, stand on the sidelines and pretend that it is apolitical! Jesus was never apolitical; the Catholic Church is not apolitical!!
15 February 2021
*(Fr Cedric Prakash (GUJ) is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: email@example.com )