Indian sisters confirm Vatican magazine's 'painful truth' of exploitation

by Jose Kavi

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Matters India, a news portal focusing on religious and social issues in India. It is reprinted with permission.

A recent article in a Vatican magazine on widespread exploitation of nuns in the Catholic Church has found many supporters in India, home to the world's largest number of women religious.

"A welcome statement but late in coming," said Sr. Teresa Kotturan, former vice president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, about the March 1 article in the monthly Women, Church, World.

Fr. Paul Thelakat, who has arbitrated several disputes between nuns and priests in Kerala, southern India, said the "cry of the magazine from Rome is too late."

Nevertheless, the fact that an official Vatican publication has "come out with some painful truth within the church" has cheered Presentation Sr. Shalini Mulackal, the first woman to head the predominantly male Indian Theological Association.

The article in the monthly women's magazine of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, is based on the comments of several unnamed nuns. It describes the drudgery of women religious who work as cooks and cleaners and who wait on tables for cardinals, bishops and priests. It also narrates how some work in the residences of "men of the Church, waking at dawn to prepare breakfast and going to sleep once dinner is served."

They also keep the house of priests and bishops in order and clean and iron the laundry for them for "random and often modest" remuneration.

The situation is no better in India, where patriarchal norms and culture in the church and society shackle women religious, said Kotturan, who once headed the Indian province of the congregation based in Kentucky. She is currently the nongovernmental representative for the Sisters of Charity Federation at the United Nations.

Mulackal said several nuns in India manage kitchen and household affairs in church-run institutions and seminaries. Seminarians who get used to sisters serving them do not grow up respecting sisters as consecrated persons like them, she added.

"Instead, they look at them as mere servants," she said. "Unfortunately, this mentality is carried on when they become parish priests. They order [them] around even if the religious sister is much senior to them."

Low wages are another area of concern. Sisters working in diocesan schools or hospitals are not paid just wages, Mulackal said: "It is taken for granted that sisters are there to serve and that their congregation will take care of their needs."

However, most congregations depend on their small working group to support the nonworking members, old as well as young, she said.

Sr. Rita Pinto, president of the women's branch of the Conference of Religious India, which represents about 130,000 women religious who belong to about 500 congregations, said most diocesan priests are wanting in maturity and priestly caliber.

"They tend to be arrogant, demanding, with little sensitivity to the sisters assisting them in the parish," said Pinto, who is also the provincial of the Society of the Sacred Heart. "Their knowledge of theology and Scripture comes to a standstill after ordination."

Many parish priests see women religious as handmaids meant to carry out orders and fall in line with their vision of what Christian life in the parish should be, Pinto said. If this does not happen, they feel disappointed and frustrated.

This negativity on the part of the priest sometimes leads to penalizing communities of women religious by criticizing them from the pulpit or refusing to celebrate Mass for them, Pinto said.

Many priests in church institutions lack administrative skills, and their manner of relating to lay staff and religious can be abrupt, condescending and disrespectful, she said.

Most parish priests do not understand the particular charisms of the congregations of religious women in the parish and do not show much interest in their pastoral and apostolic engagements, the impact of their work, or their need of support and encouragement, Pinto said.

Kotturan said diocesan orders bear "the heavy burden," as they depend on their bishops for survival.

The poor treatment of Catholic religious women in India was first raised in February 2016 by the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for religious. Its letter sent to major superiors and bishops noted that priests use their power to control the women religious. During disputes, priests deny sisters communion or confession, the letter alleged.

Forum secretary Holy Cross Sr. Manju Kulapuram said the issue was "a very serious problem" that "if it comes out, it will be like a tsunami."

Mulackal said gender discrimination is not ordained by God, and Pinto said the cultural condition in the country "automatically influences our perception of the roles of clergy and women religious as also our perception of authority and service."

A church that has succumbed to the patriarchal culture treats women as inferior to men with less value and worth, said Mulackal, who teaches in Vidyajyoti, a Jesuit theology college in the Indian capital.

"The liberating message of the Gospels has been eclipsed for long," she said.

Mulackal, a systemic theologian who has a brother who is a priest, said she often wonders why he is given "an exalted place" in the church when they both renounced everything to serve God in distant lands.

"The only difference is that I was not ordained like my brother because I happened to be born as a girl. Is my consecration as a religious less valuable?" she asked.

Thelakat said nuns do not get their share of social recognition and the rightful place in the church. They have always been menial servants and foot soldiers of the hierarchical church with muffled voices and rights.

Kotturan said both sides are to blame. However, she blames more the hierarchy and clergy who use their power to exploit the nuns' vulnerability.

Thelakat said women religious are also to be blamed for their situation. He said in his experience, when a nun voices dissent, other sisters and their superiors try to suppress her.

"The vow of obedience was abused by authorities to suit their gains with the complicity of the nuns' superiors," the priest said.

This situation cannot go on forever, said Thelakat, who edits the Sathyadeepam (Lamp of Light), an English-language church weekly that often discusses burning issues in the church.

The male superiority and hegemony, he said, will wipe out women religious from the church. The "death wind" blowing from the West has shut down churches and monasteries.

"The phenomenon of the church going away from the people started with the closure of convents," he said.

What is the solution?

Kotturan wants women religious leaders to speak up without fear. However, most nuns "are beholden to the hierarchy and clergy and are willing to follow orders," she said. They need to be true to their charism, vision and ministry, she added.

Mulackal said women, both religious and lay, should break "the culture of silence" forced upon them for centuries.

"We need to speak the truth. Christianity is about service but not about servitude," she told Matters India.

Matters India requested several young sisters to share their views on the issue, but none responded.

Those who shared their views are unanimous about bringing a paradigm shift in the training of priests to resolve the nuns' servitude in the church.

Pinto said she wants priests, seminarians and those governing the People of God to realize that "the power-driven tendencies" of the church's patriarchal mindset are the cause of nuns' servitude.

Kotturan said seminarians should be taught that priests and nuns have "different roles in the church, but not one of subservience." She said she wants the church and society to cultivate gender equality in their structures.

Mulackal said educating both the hierarchy and the sisters will resolve nuns' servitude. The bishops and priests should recognize sisters as people who, like themselves, are set apart by God for a particular mission in the church and the world. The sisters, on the other hand, should become aware of their dignity and worth, she said.

She said she also wants more women appointed as seminary professors to help future priests get accustomed to respecting women as equals and acknowledging they have the same intellectual capacity.

Pinto and Thelakat agreed that the church has many educated and talented women religious who seldom find recognition.

"Today, women are more knowledgeable, professionally better trained and experienced and their presence, instead of being recognized as strength for mission, is often seen as a threat to the male clergy, who then develop a negative stance, which ultimately becomes detrimental to the mission," Pinto said.

Thelakat said the official church never heeds the voice of many "highly talented and well-educated sisters." The Conference of Religious India and its local branches, he said, often toe the hierarchical line while female superiors fail to defend their convents and sisters when conflicts and disagreements arise with church authorities.

Pinto said she sees as "utmost importance" the introduction of various dimension of personal growth to help human formation of seminarians. This is necessary for a long-term change of attitude in gender relations, she added.

She said she wants women religious to express themselves with responsibility, affirm their understanding and wisdom in planning the church's mission orientations. The nuns have to break out of cultural norms that force them to depend on priests and silence free expression of their thought, their perception and grasp of contemporary reality, she said.

[Jose Kavi is the editor-in-chief of Matters India.]