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Chhotebhai Chhotebhai
01 Mar 2021

Once again this heading challenges us to sit up and take note. We know that the term “Love Jihad” has been coined by ultra-nationalist right wing forces that have used it to push through stringent legislation against forced conversions in U.P., M.P. and Uttarakhand, all BJP ruled States.

In BJP lingo it implies that Muslim men, hiding their religious identity, are luring gullible young Hindu girls into marriage and conversion to Islam. This, despite no real evidence of the same. The word “love” does not require any definition here, but “jihad” does; more so since it is often used to describe violent acts of certain Islamic groups. However, the original Arabic word means to struggle or strive for a noble cause. It could be for the defence of Islam or for a spiritual struggle against sin. According to the Holy Quran it is a defensive, not aggressive act. However, like all noble acts, it can be misused. The closest Christian equivalent would be the much maligned Crusades. In Hinduism it could be termed Dharamyudh. 

Where is the Catholic angle in all this? A recent case was of two doctors (the man was a Muslim and the woman a Catholic) getting married in a church in Kerala. Even a retired bishop participated in the nuptials. A section of the church in Kerala vehemently protested, leading to Cardinal Alencherry of Ernakulam declaring the marriage null and void, apparently because it had not followed canonical procedures. Even the participating bishop issued an apology, obviously under pressure.  Earlier too the Catholic bishops of Kerala have spoken out against love jihad for Catholic girls, drawing howls of protest from the Muslims who accused the bishops of cozying up to the BJP, to protect their financial and institutional interests. 
When I went to Agra last month to attend the installation of Abp Raphy Manjaly, a priest of that diocese rushed up to present me a copy of his book “Pastoral Care of Mixed Marriage Families in the Agra Ecclesiastical Region: Challenges and Response”.  The book is the doctoral thesis of Rev Dr Maxim D’sa.  It is 386 pages with 1100 references.

Since youth and marriage counselling has been an area of special concern for me, I felt compelled to put aside other reading and study this first.  This piece is not a book review (it is available at the Agra Archbishop’s House) but a reflection on some of its salient observations and its message for the church.  Nevertheless, I would first like to place on record my appreciation for the stupendous work undertaken by D’sa.

We need to understand what is meant by the Agra Ecclesiastical region.  The first seeds of Catholicism were planted here over 500 years ago during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.  Akbar’s church, built in memory of his Christian wife, is well preserved adjacent to the existing Cathedral. D’sa states that the Region has the lowest Catholic presence in the whole of India.  According to the Census of India 2011 all Christians (not just Catholics) in U.P. are just 0.37% of the population, 0.18% in Uttarakhand and 0.14% in Rajasthan. My guess is that Catholics are between 10 to 20% of the Christian population.  From them again, some 75% could be migrants from outside the region.  In sum total then, the local Catholic population in the Region is miniscule, and the Catholic Church has nothing much to show for its 500 year presence.

This, despite there being 12 dioceses (10 Latin and 2 of the Syro-Malabar Rite).  In sharp contrast the number of educational institutions in the Region is in inverse proportion to the Catholic population.  The Cathedral compound in Agra alone has about 8 educational institutions.  It is a veritable concrete jungle.

The official data on Mixed Marriages (MM) is an eye opener. Canonically, MM refers to a marriage between a Catholic and a Christian from a sister church; as distinct from a marriage with a non-Christian, that is referred to as disparity of cult. However, the MM data includes both categories.  In the 5 years between 2013-2017, there were 3269 marriages in the Region. Of these 1393, or 43% were MMs.  This is going only by church records.  If we take into account Catholics who get married in a ceremony not held in a Catholic Church one may safely conclude that every second marriage in the Region is an MM.  This gigantic phenomenon (not problem) cannot be wished away.  It needs to be addressed hands on, with sensitivity and humility.  This has not always been the case.

There are three Cs that portray the Catholic Church’s attitude to MMs.  They are Control, Conversion and Concern.  This is part of Church history.  Before Emperor Constantine’s edict of Milan in the 4th century, the church was being persecuted.  One form of protectionism therefore was to ensure that Christians did not marry non- Christians who were considered either heretics or pagans.  D’sa therefore says that the attitude of the early Church Fathers to MMs was harsh and prohibitive, aided by their being celibate.  However, after Constantine, and the advent of Christendom, later writers like Augustine and Chrysostom had a milder approach.

We need to here recall that in 1302, the 189th pope, Boniface VIII, had summarily declared that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church.  In effect all others were going to hell and any association with them, marriage included, was a passport to down under!

This attitude of supercilious superiority pervaded the Church till the far reaching reforms of Vatican II (1962-65).  So understandably, the Old Code of Canon Law (1917) reflected the church’s ecclesiology.  For brevity’s sake I shall henceforth refer to it as OC. Hence MMs were “most severely forbidden” (OC 1060).  Granting of dispensation was reserved to the authority of the pope.  Here too this was mostly granted to the nobility!  So there were different norms for the rich and powerful, while the cry of the poor man went unheeded.  Even today we find that parish priests are more accommodating when it comes to the well heeled (or high heeled as the case may be)!

Under the guise of safeguarding the “true faith”, the Catholic Church was actually coercively controlling the personal choices of its people.  However, over a period of time societal pressures were brought to bear on the earlier rigid and sanctimonious stand of the Catholic Church.  From Control it now switched gears to Convert.  So “the Catholic party is bound to prudently procure the conversion of the non-Catholic party” (OC 1062).  For this reason the Catholic party also declared that the children would be brought up as Catholics, and the non-Catholic party would have no objection to the same.  Obviously this went against all norms of freedom of choice, and could jeopardise MMs, or even be an occasion for the Catholic to marry under less restrictive circumstances outside the Church.  The Catholic Church’s rigidity was being counter-productive.

To dissuade MMs, they were not to be held in the church but in the sacristy.  D’sa states that the priest could not wear sacred vestments, and no publicity was to be given to such marriages to avoid setting a bad example.

For those of us who take Vatican II for granted, or were born in the post Vatican II era, we need to remind ourselves of how stifling the Catholic Church was before that.  Its Decree on Human Dignity states that there should be no coercion (DH No 2).  Post Vatican II ecclesiology is reflected in the New Code of Canon Law of 1983 for the Latin Rite and of 1990 for the Eastern Rites.  Now it just asks the Catholic party to make a sincere effort to baptise the children as Catholics (Latin 1125:1/ Eastern 814).  There is no compulsion on the non-Catholic party.  He/she only needs to be informed about this, and instructed accordingly (Latin 1125:2+3).  Now marrying a fellow Christian is not an impediment that needs dispensation.  It only requires permission.

However, I object to this for the same reason that we object to anti-conversion laws that state that a person seeking conversion must obtain permission from the District Magistrate.  If choosing one’s religion is an inalienable right, then so is choosing one’s life partner.  As we are seeing in Kerala, especially among the Oriental Rites, bishops and priests can be quite sticky about granting permission or dispensation.  It is time that this proviso is also removed.  All that should be expected in such cases is that the Catholic party be properly instructed and gives an assurance that it will abide by the faith of the church and make a sincere effort to bring up its offspring in the same manner.

From Control and Conversion the church should now move to Concern.  Earlier its concern was for safeguarding the faith.  Now its concern should be the welfare and happiness of the couple.  By default that will also be the best way of protecting and nurturing the faith.

Instead of blaming the couple (D’sa has identified 28 very valid reasons for MMs), the church needs to look within itself for the reasons.  I quote some of the observations D’sa makes.

He says that there is no community feeling among Catholics ... parishes are ritualistic communities that gather every Sunday ... the faith is based on novenas and pilgrimages and the homilies have little relevance to the people ... evangelizing activity has grown cold ... priests are reduced to ritual performers and running English medium educational institutions ... Catechism ends with High School ... The church in the Region failed to permeate the ethos of North India.  It stagnated in the field of education and social works!  This is a scathing indictment from a priest, not a disgruntled layman.

Added to that, the arrival of Syro-Malabar missionaries without adequate preparation resulted in exaggerated claims of identity and competition among the three Rites.  This is downright shameful.  He therefore observes that the Catholic community in the Region is “Hindu in social life, Christian in religion and Catholic in worship”. Is this good or bad? I am inclined to believe that this is God writing straight with crooked lines.

Mixed Marriages are here to stay, and will probably increase by leaps and bounds.  Instead of perceiving this as a threat, the Catholic Church needs to see it as an ecumenical opportunity, that all may be one, as Jesus prayed before his imminent death (cf Jn 17:21). Let us hope and pray that the bishops, priests and even the young people of the Region will heed what the Spirit is saying to the Churches (Rev 3:22). This would indeed be Love Jihad, Catholic style!

•    The writer was the founder Secretary of the U.P. Regional Youth & Vocations Bureau and later a Resource Person for the CCBI Family Life Commission.


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