Father, what would you say of the Catholic Church’s explicit political stance in Kerala? Facing this rather embarrassing question I felt I was being tested as was Jesus by the Pharisees. The question was raised soon after a lecture I delivered to a group of priests in Faridabad diocese on Mercy and Communication.

The tantalizing question of the young priest intrigued me. He explained, as the Assembly election was drawing closer in Kerala, many Catholic Bishops are making unequivocal public statements. “When the bishops directly involve in politics, claim for constituencies, isn’t the Catholic Church being reduced to communal party than being a religious force,” he asked.

In Kerala, bishops are perceived as playing pressure politics at the threshold of the forthcoming assembly elections. Thamarasseri Bishop Mar Remigius was relatively successful in pressing the Congress led United Democratic Front (UDF) to reconsider its candidate in Thiruvambadi. Cardinal Baselios Mar Cleemis unleashed sharp criticism on the Government accusing it of the betraying the Nadar Christian community with regard to the promised reservation. Trivandrum Archbishop, Dr. Soosai Packyam, a relentless promoter of liquor ban in Kerala also urged people to consider their political choices based on the liquor policy of the contesting parties.

A high profile meeting between Mar Andrews Thazhath, the Archbishop of Trichur and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the CPI(M) secretary captured considerable media attention in the pre-election scenario. Soon after the meeting, the Catholic Congress, reportedly released a statement asserting that the Congress could no longer take their support for granted unless adequate representation is given to the Catholic community.

God’s and Caesar’s

Should the Church involve in politics is a pertinent question. Read through a political optic, the Bible, especially the Old Testament presents a historical narrative of God’s creative intervention among the people of Israel making them a politically organised nation. “Thy Kingdom come” is our daily wish and prayer. Nevertheless, we all know that God’s Kingdom is neither political nor temporal (Jn. 18:36). Considering the fact that the Kingdom is within us, it is our responsibility to turn this world an epitome of that Kingdom (Lk. 17:21). The signs of God’s Kingdom are manifest where the deprived, disabled and marginalised sections of the society (Ref. Lk. 7: 20-22) experience peace, righteousness and joy, along with the mainstream (Ref. Rom. 14:17).

The Church, commissioned by Jesus to continue His mission of establishing God’s Kingdom on earth cannot keep itself aloof, but should legitimately intervene in the affairs of the world, with a primary focus on service to humanity. As such, the Church understands politics as principles of absolute value precisely because these are at the service of the dignity of the human person and of true human progress (The Participation of Catholics in Political Life #5).

‘Church in the Modern World’ (Vat II) encourages everyone to “participate in public affairs with genuine freedom.” This goal is largely achieved through careful education and training of the youth “to a higher degree of culture” with a futuristic conviction that “the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping” (GS 31).

Political and Media Lessons from Francis

Pope Francis is not only intelligently attentive to the concerns of global humanity but also takes care not to miss any opportunity to actively engage in public affairs, especially those affecting the marginalised, those in the periphery. There are umpteen examples to quote including global and local issues of humanity – European refugee crisis, protection of Amazonian forests in Ecuador, promotion of the dignity of slum dwellers in Nairobi or Paraguay, fostering harmony between religions as well as nations etc.

I quote a typical example from Pope Francis, which could also be an inspiration to the Indian Catholic leadership to chart a productive political participation as well as media strategy. Bernie Sanders, a potential US presidential candidate for the 2016, was trying to avail an audience with Pope Francis a couple of weeks ago, which obviously would boost his political mileage. Sanders is not only a fan of Francis, but has immensely filled his social-media accounts with quotes of the Pope because Sanders actually believes in his messages. In spite of Sanders having Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, his host at Vatican and a close friend of Francis, the meeting did not seem probable.

However on Friday, a personal secretary for Francis informed Sanders that he could have the chance of a brief meeting with the Pope in the foyer of the Casa Santa Marta at 6 a.m. the next day, before Francis leaves for Lesbos, Greece. A Pope who is joyful and humble enough to pose for selfies with young people and families, however did NOT allow any photos of the encounter. Later in the in-flight interview by journalists the Pope, clarified that he was simply being polite, not political. “I shook his hand and nothing more,” Francis said. “If someone thinks that greeting someone means getting involved in politics,” he added, laughing, “I recommend that he finds a psychiatrist!”

Politics in ‘God’s Own Country’

It is difficult to derive a shared political program for the Christian community in Kerala as it is divided among various churches, rites, and socio-cultural subsets. While the needs and demands of each community are variedly different it is hard for the leadership to frame a common minimum political agenda. The faithful cannot be blamed for having a sceptic eye over the petty interests of the leadership and their auxiliaries who ally with one or other political party.

As I write this piece, from Kerala comes the news about the contradicting statements from Catholic Bishops, which not only leave qualms about a unified Christian voice, but also unveils the disquiet among the leadership. While bishops uphold their personal political views, to claim that they represent the voice of the community cannot not be democratically fair. Nor do the bishops have the right to bargain in the electoral politics on behalf of the community without having a social mechanism to seek the opinion of the community.

Politics of Humanity

Church’s political stance shall be illumined by the light of the Gospel and motivated by Christian charity. It should seek the truth and justice of God’s Kingdom (Laity in the Church #7).

Church has only one political motive: Human promotion, especially that of the poor and the marginalised (EN 31). This implies whenever and wherever human dignity is violated, human life is at danger and human rights are denied, the Church should stand up and speak up. Let the Church rise in solidarity with the suffering humanity and not with political parties. This will help the whole society including the Christian minority to progress; a progress founded on peace, harmony and human dignity.

Human promotion is not exclusively charitable works. It includes development of a socio-political consciousness in the society. It would encourage as well as empower people to a greater political participation. The awareness building and training for this process can be done in a major way, through Church’s scholastic institutes, the communications media, and rural and urban outreach projects.

It thus becomes a moral obligation for bishops and pastors to prepare and empower the laity with a political awareness of this degree. Let the pastors serve the spiritual realm while they help the laity sanctify the secular sphere, consonant with our venerable Indian tradition of church administration. Time is more that due that we take our laity seriously. There are plenty of them quite erudite and wise with experience in different fields.

The ecclesiastic leadership shall wake up to the awareness that any political bargain contrary to this spirit and prospective will only weaken the pluralist fabric of our society and aggravate communal polarisation, which is creeping in at a greater speed than we are aware of. The Church need not be a catalyst in the process as it is against the Christian spirit – the mind of Jesus.

The present engagement of Church leadership with vote bank politics is no less than challenging a politically conscious and educated people. It disregards their citizenship and is contrary to democratic spirit.

Good politics comes along with refined discipline. While the bishops themselves lack accord no one would expect any better fruit from them than the rotten political participation usual to the populist politicians. Good politics is nothing more than being politically correct.

Published in Indian Currents on 9th May 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 19