NEW DELHI: A confrontation between leaders of the Catholic Church and the LDF government is brewing in Kerala following the recommendation of a government-appointed panel for transparent audit and accounting of Church assets. The recommendation was made by the Kerala Law Reforms Commission headed by Justice V R Krishna Iyer.
Leaders of the church have expressed disapproval of 'attempts' by the state government to 'exercise control' over assets of the church. Resistance from church leaders is likely to increase in the coming days.
However, the recommendation found the support of some leaders of the laity, already antagonised by the absence of a law to govern what they claim are common assets of all members of the church. These laity leaders have now demanded that the government frame a civil law for administration of assets. The administration of assets of all communities, barring Christians, are overseen by civil laws. Laity leaders have termed this as discrimination.
A bill to constitute Christian charitable trusts and trust committees at parish, diocese/district and state levels for governing the resources and finances and for the management of properties of the churches had stirred a hornets' nest in Kerala earlier this year. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference had said in this regard that what mattered was Canon Law and not laws framed by the state.
The wealth of the church, at present, is managed by bishops. There are claims by the laity that it is they who enjoy the benefits too. Under Canon Law, the Pope is technically the supreme administrator and steward of all the wealth. For administrative purposes, his representatives, namely the bishops, are the ones who control the wealth.
The Christian Action Council led by Mr Joseph Pullikkunnel and retired Justice K T Thomas argue that the Pope 'owning wealth' of the church in India violated national sovereignty. They also claimed that it violated the paramount authority of the state. They point to Article 26 of the Constitution, which gives the state the power to regulate financial matters of religious communities. The leaders said that 'accumulation of wealth by priests' was against the sovereignty of India.
The leaders say Canon Law — which deals with constitution of the church, its relationship with other bodies and matters of internal discipline — is being used to prevent the laity from seeking transparency in governance of church assets.
This, the leaders alleged, was worse than the Satyam scam, although the church is not a listed company with shares.
They alleged that Canon Law, more than twelve papal centuries old, defied laws of the Indian state. The church, the biggest landowner, has seen its coffers overflowing since Emperor Constantine, who blurred the distinction between church and state. The accumulation of wealth in ecclesiastical hands calls the need for a law, they said.
The bishop himself is for administering goods of the whole diocese or hold the goods in the trust in the name of the diocese. Though the bishop can hold and administer church property in his own name by an absolute and full legal title, he is only procurator by the sacred canons, the laity leaders said.