In the autumn of their life, often Catholic priests and nuns are forced to live a life of penury and neglect. Having lived their whole life for vocation, very few religious institutions look after them well when they become old.
If anybody rebels, they are branded as outcastes and often pushed to an asylum. A sense of abandonment slowly pervades them. Since they leave their houses at a young age, they usually don’t get a stake in their family property as well.
But last week’s Kerala High Court verdict is a boon for them. The court ruled that priests and nuns cannot be denied their right to ancestral property because they entered into a religious vocation. The God’s own country, as its tourism tagline claims, is the biggest recruiting ground for priests and nuns and the verdict is a silver lining for those who are wedded to their faith.
"The Indian Succession Act 1925 does not make any distinction in the matter of inheritance or succession to a Christian priest or a nun whether or not he/she has taken a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience," a division bench ruled.
The court also made it clear that an earlier order, that priest and nuns suffer a "civil death" on joining the monastery, will be an infringement of Article 300A (Right to Property) of the Constitution.
A priest, hailing from Kochi, Father Xavier Chullickal, had moved the high court against a lower court order upholding the plea of his brother’s three children that he can’t claim right to his ancestral property as he was ordained prior to the execution of a will by his father.
Citing a 2006 verdict in Bar Council of India vs Sister Teena Jose case, in which it was held that a priest or a nun can become a lawyer, the court observed that if a nun can hold the job of a lawyer she can have the right to her ancestral property as well. Sister Teena, a law graduate, had fought a five-year-long legal battle, to get her enrolled as a lawyer in the high court.
Advocate Sabu George, who represented the defendants, told Firstpost that the plaintiffs had relied on Canon Law 282 (1) and 668 (5) to deny the priest the property willed to him by his father.
While 282 (1) stated that "clerics are to foster simplicity and are to refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity", 668 (5) says “a professed religious who has renounced his or her goods fully due to the nature of the institute loses the capacity of acquiring and possessing and therefore invalidly places acts contrary to the vow of poverty."
He said that the high court had noted that Canon law was only a body of principles, standards, rules or norms internal to the church distinguished from the civil law. It cannot be treated as customary law after its codification by the Vatican Council in the year 1918.
"It is a landmark judgment that will give a fresh lease of life to many priests and nuns," he said, adding that many priests and nuns had already filed cases staking claim in their ancestral property in various courts in the state.
While the church is guarded in its reaction, the laity and those who shed their cassocks have welcomed the verdict. A spokesman for the church said that the judgment had raised very serious issues and they can comment only after studying them in-depth.
Priests, ex-Priests and Nuns Association, which was formed in 2015 to ensure social and economic protection to the members of the clergy, who retire or quit the vocation, termed the high court verdict a big relief for them.
"At the fag-end of their life, priests and nuns, who eventually lose their say in the order, are forced to live a solitary life. Often they will be dumped at priest homes and nunneries and their families also ignore them," says Reji Njallani, national president of the association.
However, he said that his association will move an appeal in the court to remove an annexure in the verdict that says "it was the sole volition of a Hindu ascetic or a Christian priest to relinquish his right to his personal property in favour of a mutt or monastery in a manner known to the law".
"We will plead the court to make an amendment in the annexure that such properties can only be disposed of after the death of a priest or nun. Otherwise, religious institutions can force them to part with their property when they are alive. This will do more harm than any good," he said.
Association secretary Shibhu Kalamparampil, who quit priesthood in 2010 to lead a lay life, said that the church can appropriate the property invoking a provision in the Canon Law that states "whatever accrues to the professed after renunciation belongs to the institute according to the norm of proper law."
"If the church is allowed to claim the property, they don’t mind even murdering priests and nuns, who have secured their right to the property," Shibhu told Firstpost.
Though the Canon law provides for support to priests after their retirement, the church has not been taking care of them now. The plight of the old clergy can be gauged from a recent incident, in which ten nuns of St Antony’s convent in Thiruvananthapuram had approached the city corporation for old age pension granted to unmarried women.
One of the applicants, Sister Agnes, said she was forced to apply for pension – Rs 1100 a month – as she was finding it difficult to make ends meet. Later, the Thiruvananthapuram Arch Diocese of the Latin Catholic Church, under which the convent comes, directed the nuns not to pursue the matter as it will dent the image of the church.
"Since iron walls are guarding monasteries, little is known outside about the life of the clergy. Once you are young and kicking it is fine, but you fall from the grace once you attain age. Leave alone other facilities, even for medical needs we have to knock at many doors," said one of the sisters who applied for the pension, adding that they were forced not to pursue their pension cases.
Similarly, last year, a nun belonging to the Congregation of Mother of Caramel, Mary Sebastian (46) had sent a legal notice to her superiors demanding compensation to enable her to lead a financially secure and independent life.
"As a teacher, my whole salary had gone into the convent account. I don’t have a single penny to live a life outside the convent. Fearing stigma, my family is also discouraging me to shed my robe," said the sister.
Later, the convent disowned her saying she was suffering from mental ailments. Like this, there were persistent demands to grant a pension to the clergy but the church rejected them saying that service to the God can’t be gauged in monetary terms.
Many who shed their robes say the latest verdict will embolden the clergy to stand up against exploitation and harassment in monasteries.
"Behind walls, many suffer in silence. If you have an option to live outside things will be better," said Sister Jesme, an author and activist.
Her bare-all autobiography ‘Amen’, that contained explicit details of mental and physical harassment at the seminary, created a storm in religious circles a couple of years back.
No doubt the latest verdict will go a long way in assuaging mounting miseries of ripened clergymen. "This is not enough, it is time for the church to come out with a well-oiled policy to look after those who toiled their blood and sweat in service of God," says Jesme.
Wedded to their cause, Kerala's clergymen are most sought after everywhere in the world but of late, their numbers are dwindling alarmingly. The Church should see the writing on the wall and address their woes. Pope Francis had declared this year as the 'Year of Mercy'. "Let us hope mercy will percolate down to all," says Jesme.
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Updated Date: Jun 14, 2017 17:48:29 IST