A recent letter from Indian Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi calling for a prayer campaign ahead of national elections next May has sparked a backlash, mostly from politicians ignorant of history.
The letter was branded by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as an attempt to dissuade voters from supporting it. A clear understanding of how the church has functioned over the centuries, and how it does today, could help place the controversy in context.
The relationship of priests (or sants, mahants and mullas) to politics depends on the kind of society one lives in. If one lives in a feudal society, theocracy is usually the rule, and religion and politics are blended, so that the religious values of the majoritarian community predominate, especially its idea of God (whence theocracy, God’s rule). Anyone who does not belong to this community is considered a heretic and deviant, and so persecuted.
Religious leaders (priests, sadhus, ayatollahs) play an important role in such societies. This was the case with medieval Christian Europe, and so it is in many majority-Muslim countries today. Hindu society in India is increasingly torn between a fundamentalist medieval outlook and adherence to the secularist principles of its constitution.
For India (like many countries of the West) society is officially secular, with a clear demarcation between state and religion. The legal set-up in such a society accepts pluralism, with multiple beliefs and values, over which the guiding norm is the common good guided by reason, and not religious creed. Such societies, which define themselves as modern, generally oppose priests meddling in politics or politicians meddling in religion.
However, there is usually a wide gap between the ideal enshrined in the constitution and the reality on the street. Even more, in secular states even today, human rights are denied to certain groups based on ideology, race and gender.
Christian society in antiquity and in medieval times was theocratic, where a Christian king or emperor ruled, and his decisions were final. For centuries in Christian Europe it was the kings who chose bishops, and through their bishops, controlled the election of the pope.
But things were to change. Steadily, through manipulation, forgery and deceit, and sometimes by outright violence, the popes established themselves as the supreme arbiters in religious and political matters in Europe. This is a fascinating, if somewhat uncomfortable history of papal control, both of territory and status, and it culminates in the infallibility doctrine, the last vestige of an absolutist monarchical system.
So today when Rome decrees that priests shouldn’t take part in politics, it is trying to establish something new: the exclusive right of the pope to arbitrate in matters of politics and statecraft, a right which is not to be shared with any priest or bishop.
But throughout history, priests have always taken part in politics, usually as advisers and ministers of royalty (Cardinals Richelieu, Mazarin, Ximenez, Wolsey); occasionally as princes ruling over a fiefdom (the prince bishops of central Europe), and as popes claiming the right to select and reject kings.
At present, the leaders of the church in every country are not laymen/women, but the hierarchy. They are really religious leaders who have a political voice. Usually they are lacking in political savvy, but as they command the total veneration and obedience of the Catholic laity, they are assumed to be its leaders by government.
From what we can ascertain, in the church of the first centuries (of Palestine, Syria and the Greek cities), the leaders were charismatic prophets. Side by side were the elders in the community, presbyters, who, assisted by deacons and deaconesses, cared for the community in routine matters. From these elders came the episkopoi, the supervisors, bishops.
As the centuries rolled on, charismatic prophecy receded as the church became an institution. And in this institution, pride of place was given to the clergy and hierarchy. The laity existed only to promote and support this hierarchy.
But the prophetic spark, though diminished, was never quite extinguished. The charismatic and prophetic element in the church now expressed itself through the religious reformers, especially in the great founders of religious groups of the medieval ages, almost all of whom did their greatest work as laymen and women.
So, can we foresee a time when the Catholic community will be governed by a council, and not by an absolute leader (like a pope or bishop)? In this council, lay men and women, priests and bishops, both married and single, will speak for the local church to society at large and to governments of the day.
The leaders (whether by election or nomination) will be merely “first among equals.” The question of a religious leader engaging in politics (or in theology) then becomes a redundant question.
To sum up, religious leaders have always taken a role in politics, and — as Gandhi said, one who argues that politics should be divorced from religion, knows nothing of either — it is foolish to argue that priests should be packed off to the sacristy and given no public forum.
The issue for debate is; what kind of society does one wish to live in? A theocratic society or a secular one? And related to this, what kind of Christian church structure is one looking at — a modern one with complementary roles between clergy and lay, men and women; or an archaic model in which a monarch makes all the decisions in the name of God?
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.