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'But We Have no Right?'

    "But have we no rights to proclaim our faith, to preach Gospel? You are the editor of such a large news-paper. You express your views on issues. Do we not have the same right?" It was Bishop George Anathil, of Indore, the Chairman of the Commission for Proclamation of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

    It so happens that I am not the editor but the twice-dismissed editor of such a large newspaper! And I would certainly stand for the right of every Bishop to speak his mind, assuming of course that he too would not cavil at being dismissed!!

    In any case, no one is suggesting that missionaries should not have the right to proclaim the truth as they see it. I was talking about conversions - about how these did not harmonise with the doctrine the Church has now acknowledged, namely the possibility of salvation in every religion; about the need to heed the great anger which is building up against conversions; and about the need therefore to join in giving the State and the courts the authority to examine whether force or fraud or allurement have been used in any case to secure the conversion.

    The analogy which Bishop Anathil drew between the right to free speech and the right to practice and propagate one's religion is actually a good one: the freedom of religion guaranteed by Article 25 and 26 should be subject to the same sort of restrictions as is a secular right like freedom of speech. Article 19(2) lists the grounds on which the right of speech can be regulated. These are much wider than the grounds mentioned in Article 25 and 26.

    Furthermore, the courts have, to take one instance, specifically held that the administration of 'minority institutions' under Article 29 and 30 cannot be regulated on the ground that the regulation is required in the national interest.

    In a secular country why should the right to practise and propagate religion not be subjected to the same sorts of perimeters as apply to other secular rights? In a country the very survival of which is in such jeopardy, in a country the territorial integrity of which is being assailed by murderous campaigns stoked in the name of religion, why should the right to practice and propagate religion not be subject to the requirements of the security of the State, to the national interest?

    It is for these reasons that in A Secular Agenda I have urged that the right to religion must be placed, exactly as Bishop Anathil's analogy suggests, at par with, and no higher than other secular rights.

    "I have a comment, more than a question," Bishop Patrick D'Souza of Varanasi observed. "I know that Gandhiji said those things about the motives behind missionary services etc. But schools and hospitals set up by Christian missionaries are everywhere. If there was any truth in this view, all of India would by now have become Christian. This has not happened. Is not the accusation itself motivated?"

    My own experience would point to what you say: I studied at a college set by Christian missionaries, no one ever tried to convert me. But against that, and against what you say, we must put what the missionaries who talked to Gandhiji acknowledged. They too were truthful, and they stated in terms that the ultimate motive, or inspiration if you like, which informed such work was to convert people to Christianity. Even more important, there are the basic premises of the Church to which I drew attention earlier: that there is one Truth, that it has been revealed to the one and only Son of God, that it is in one Book etc. A missionary cannot but subscribe to these premises. And one who subscribes to them cannot but have one overriding objective: to save souls by bringing them into the Church.

    Today, spurred by the new "Liberation Theology," the Church is spurring the movements among so-called Dalits etc. But many of the leaders you have patronised by way of helping "Dalits" speak with poison in their tongue. They advocate hatred. They have been eulogizing Bhindranwale. Now, when you patronise them, why do you cavil at the charge that you are patronising them? How can you escape the constructive responsibility for the consequences of the hatred they are spreading? In a word: if you feel that you just must work among such groups because as Christian missionaries you have both some special responsibility and some special message for such groups, hold them to the means of Jesus, of Gandhi.

    "Your view that religious questions should only be addressed to those who can decide, I found patronising," a participant observed. "There is the presumption behind it that the tribals etc. are not in a position to understand these matters. But in working among them, I find that they get the central point very quickly."

    Would you concede the same discerment to "Dalits" who have "relapsed" back to Hinduism -- that they too are able to assess things? Or is it that only those who see the point of Christianity are in a position to assess religious questions, and not the others?

    As for presumptions, look at the premise behind the entire work of the Church in tribal areas. The tribals are leading a perfectly normal life with the help of their own religion, are they not? When you go in to convert them, are you not being presumptuous -- are you not presuming that you and the Church know better than them what is good for them?

    "You were educated in a Christian College," Archbishop Alphonsus Mathias of Bangalore remarked. "What aspects of Jesus strike you?"

    That he was prepared to suffer so much, that he was prepared to suffer to the end for truth. That no bitterness entered his heart even when he had been nailed to the Cross. That, when he saw wrong, he spoke so clearly -- as to the Pharisees in the temple.

    "No, I mean: What is your opinion about the Christian claim that Jesus is the incarnate God?"

    I have not the capacity to judge such a claim. But as, for the sorts of reasons I mentioned, I am not yet able to believe in God as He has been pictured to us -- All Powerful, All Knowing, All Compassionate -- I am not able to conceive of that God incarnating Himself.

    "In one of your recent articles you wrote about nanotechnology and the rest" said a participant. "What role do you think religious organisations have in such an age?"

    To remind us about, to educate us to the inner-directed search. That is the pearl of great price which the religious traditions, specially the religious traditions of India have preserved through the millennia. That is what religious organisations should direct their efforts to.

    As we dispersed for tea, the exchange continued, as did the banter: "He knows more about Christianity than your students," Archbishop Mathias of Bangal ore told Bishop D'Souza of Pune, teasing him and me. "He knows more about Christianity," said the latter who overseas one of the best seminaries in our country, "than many of our professors!"...

    The things I had been saying were hardly the things that the Archbishop, the Bishops and the scholars assembled there agreed with, they were certainly not the things that they would find agreeable. But they heard me out in pin-drop silence, and with unbroken patience. They told me unambiguously that they did not agree with what I had said. Several of their observations left no doubt that they were put out by what I had said. But they pasted no motive. They were courteous and the very models of dignity and decorum throughout.

    I left feeling I had been among friends.

    If only we could learn at least this one thing from them: If we could only learn how to disagree, how much better off our country would be.

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