Church’s Engagement in Civil Society, a New Way of Being Christian in India Today

1. We, the members of the ITA, had come to St. Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary, Carmelgiri, Aluva during April 26-30, 2008 to deliberate on the ITA’s annual seminar theme: “The Church’s Engagement in Civil Society: A New Way of being Christian Today.” The contents of this document reflect some significant questions and concerns that were pondered over and the proposed courses of actions arrived at by the assembly.

2. Society in India is getting increasingly polarized on the basis of religion, ideology, class and caste and the lofty human objectives enshrined in the Indian Constitution are in danger of being neglected. In this scenario, the Catholic Church’s mission of serving society needs to be rethought. The Church exists in a pluralistic society in which all are meant to enjoy freedom, development, opportunity, equal dignity and an enhanced quality of life. Rather than confining itself to a closed-in space, as in a ghetto or sacristy, the Church can play an appropriate role as one among equals and an agent of prophetic collaboration with all who make up civil society. The role of the Church was the focus in the papers presented, the discussions conducted and the conclusions arrived at in order to clarify the Church’s engagement in civil society and articulate a new way of being Christian in India today.

3. The Church is called to encounter others with love and respect, not as a superior agent but as a humble ally. Along with others, the Church looks for answers to questions raised by civil society. More than proclaiming doctrines or outlining a cultic identity, the Church must commit itself to practise and share human values and to build up an egalitarian society where all people experience their identity as God’s children. The new way of being Christian is not a repudiation of the past but a call to reinterpret the Christian vision so that it brings human fulfillment to today’s men and women.


I. The Context of India

4. Today’s Indian context is highly complex. On the one hand, many positive events have taken place: our growth rate has touched 9 % for two years running; we have successfully put satellites into space, and India is an acknowledged economic power in today’s world. Yet, we need to critically analyze today’s society that keeps persons and communities divided on the basis of class and caste. Economic security is enjoyed by a select few but there are many who have to accept insecurity, ostracism and even death for no fault of their own. Since Indian society is not monochromatic but composite, its richness lies in the variety of the different segments that make up the whole. The richness is present in the wholeness when one accepts unity in diversity!

5. As we scrutinize Indian society, we discover many forces and movements that buffet it. The tribals of Central India face the threat of being displaced from their homes and land, being caught up in fratricidal conflict because of movements like the Salva Judum and being forced to accept Hinduisation. Those of the North East have to contend with insurgency, violence from terrorists and even the state, a sense of being rootless and intra-tribal conflict.

6. Democracy itself is under strain because of explicit fascist methods and tactics used by right wing parties ruling over particular states and, on occasion, the nation. Often enough there is violence of a planned nature on minority religious groups like the Christians and Muslims.

7. Peace continues to elude the people of Kashmir who live with the constant presence of armed personnel. In addition, the instances of persons who disappear without a trace, the destruction of property and the desecration of women are factors that add to the anxiety and fear of the local people. India’s policies of non-alignment and non-violence have given way to a course of action that includes armament build-up and the consequent diversion of resources that would have supported universal literacy and primary medical care. Finally, even among those serving society in the fields of education and health there are some who follow a hidden agenda or who work for selfish interests.

8. The continuing practice of untouchability has been not only institutionalized but also sanctified by caste ideology. Unfortunately, even though Christianity does not accept such an ideology in principle, in practice, we find that caste, even though it militates against human dignity and basic equality, exerts an impact on some Christians greater than that of the Gospel values! Such practices are diametrically opposed to the Creator’s design for an egalitarian society as proclaimed, inaugurated and fostered by Jesus Christ.

9. We live in a society where men wear a patriarchal lens and look down on women as inferior. Gendered socialization has created a patriarchal mindset in men and women. There is an urgent need to address the challenges experienced by migrant women and those victimized in human trafficking, to work for women’s emancipation, and to create gender-justice both in the Church and in society.

10. Today’s educational system by and large mostly preserves the status quo in society. Besides, education is seen more as a lucrative business rather than a means to build the human person. Some Christian educational institutions too have succumbed to this temptation. There is a real need for basic, informal, liberative and alternative models of education geared to personal as well as social transformation.

11. Politicization of criminals and criminalization of politics have increased. Exploitation, oppression, and dehumanizing praxis occur partly because the state machinery permits power to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Building people-based movements from the grassroots level is a task that remains to be done.

12. Mass-media was meant to establish communication, to facilitate human relationships and to empower the masses to assert their dignity. However, today’s information technology has become a commodity to manipulate the masses and fashion their values. Often enough it creates behaviour patterns primarily to support the market economy in its profit-making objectives. To offset the evil effects of information technology, media education and a prophetic critique of modern media need to be seriously explored.

13. While acknowledging some of the positive consequences of globalization, one recognizes that the capitalistic mode of development takes place at the expense of an ecological crisis, e.g. the rise in the ocean level and increased global warming. Further, the unrestrained use of natural resources and non-renewable sources of energy portend a bleak future for the world as a whole. Besides, globalization has fostered interests that favour mostly the elite groups in the world. Today we face the challenges posed by an ever-pervasive market economy with its neo-liberal capitalistic ideology propelled by globalization, liberalization and privatization. We experience the ever-widening disparity between the rich and the poor, and individual groups and nations. The vast majority of people in our world lack basic needs. The price rise of basic food commodities has created an intolerable situation for numerous governments and their people.

14. The impact of globalization has affected the Church in India yet the Church is seemingly unaware of it. It still thinks of itself as a religious entity that must keep its distance from the goings-on in civil society. Yet, it is only when the Church gets involved in civil society, that it will be able to witness to Gospel values (e.g. human dignity, justice, truth, love, etc.,) and serve God’s Kingdom on earth.

15. The ever-growing democratic aspirations of suffering people to build a new society (an alternative world as spelt out by the World Social Forum) are the hopeful signs of today. Many common people have been protesting against the New Economic Zones. Many groups of women, tribals, Dalits and fisher people are fighting for their due rights. The Right to Information act, employment guarantee act, forest act and the umbrella legislation for the unorganized workers are very encouraging signs of the times. Through these, the Divine powerfully calls people to join the marginalized and engage in civil society critically and creatively so that humankind truly becomes one family as envisaged by Christ.


II. The Theological Vision

16. The common political unit today is a nation. A group of people constitute themselves into a nation. A nation like India is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious. A nation is governed by a state. A democratic state is constituted by the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Liberal political theory sees the nation as constituted by individuals based on a social contract. But experience as well as conflict have made us realize that the nation is not only a gathering of individuals. There are also various ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious groups that are voluntary associations pursuing chosen goals; there are also non-governmental organizations.

17. The life of the people in these groups is conditioned by social institutions that concern education, socio-political action, the media of communications, art and literature. These groups and institutions interact among themselves and play a mediating role between the individual and the state. It is this social reality between the state and individuals that we call civil society. It is also called the public space. It is at this level that socio-cultural, ideological and religious movements function. In a democracy, active exchange, discussion and interaction take place at the level of civil society. While the state can look after law and order, it is in civil society that social change and transformation take place leading to a change of mindsets, perspectives, attitudes and relationships. If Christians want to transform people and the world then they have to be active and engaged in civil society.

18. Christians or the Church are the symbols and servants of the Kingdom of God and should be involved at all levels of society including the civil. The ITA meeting on Christian commitment to nation building in 2002 said: “Christians have to realize that participating in civil and political life is an essential expression of Christian faith. This will call for a faith formation that encourages participation in the civic-political life of the nation, openness to other faiths and promotion of human rights” (Final Statement, no. 37). Such involvement implies empowering people and facilitating their active participation in mechanisms of policy-making and decision-taking through advocacy and lobbying.

19. That Christians should be active in civil society can be taken for granted today. Yet such engagement in civil society demands a new way of being Christians. Traditionally the Church sees itself in the world as the agent of the sacred confronting the secular reality of the world. The sacred is identified mostly with the clergy, and the laity is expected to get involved in the world. But insofar as the Christian laity is truly God’s People they constitute the Church and, at the same time, they are really a part of the world. It would be helpful to distinguish between the church-institutions and the church-community (people). We are focusing here primarily on the Church community that is in the world and a part of it.

20. The Church is aware of itself being the mystical body of Christ, a mystery celebrated in the sacraments. But this does not set it apart from the world. The sacraments are celebrations of life-in-community in the world. It is life that is primary, not sacraments. It is life that makes sacraments meaningful celebrations while the sacraments ground life in the Christ event.

21. The living Church is meant to be a prophetic movement of the people living in the world—the sacramental symbol of the Kingdom. Hence, the Church should focus attention on the Kingdom that is being realized in the world in keeping with the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ dynamic. The Church community must desist from seeing itself as superior to the world. It speaks correctly of the rightful autonomy of the secular sphere. In fact, today it is the secular state that accords religious freedom to different faith groups in civil society.

22. The Church is primarily the people of God within which the clergy, the religious and the laity have their respective roles. The clergy are the ministers or the servants of the community and they receive a special charism to offer this service; they also act as functionaries of the community in the area of ‘faith and morals’. They are not automatically the representatives of the church-community in civil society and they do not play this role in many European countries today. But in India where they are seen as representing the Church community before the state authorities, they are perceived as acquiring and exercising economic, social and political power. This need not be nor is this inevitable.

23. Vatican II’s document Lumen Gentium viewed the Church as the people of God participating through baptism in Christ’s dignity as priest, prophet and king; the sensus fidelium was given prominence and also the universal call to holiness. The focus was on people called by God to be his people. But this theme has not been developed sufficiently after the Council. The Basic Christian Communities are often looked at with suspicion whereas the doctrine of the essential difference between the common and ministerial priesthood is reiterated in the magisterial documents. Should not the people of God be full participants in the life of the Church both in its decision-making and in its actions? The clergy have the role of coordinating a leadership of service rather than being seen as merely exercising power and control.

24. Christian tradition teaches us that it is God who chooses a people. While we are aware of having been chosen by God, we need not exclude the possibility that God may have chosen other peoples with other roles in history. Could not the Christian people of God be interlocutors with the other groups in civil society, participating fully in a secular order? Civil society is pluralistic. The people of God are called to dialogue and collaborate, persuade and serve, and deal with others as equals, always with humility. In this process, a common inspiration for social transformation in civil society will emerge. Openness to pluralism does not mean relativism. The Church may fight for its principles and convictions, but, avoiding authoritarianism, it should have recourse to persuasion through rational and reasonable argument.

25. Finally the best way that the church-community can engage in and transform civil society is by living in communion with others. The people of God will seek to enlist the agents of social change (social and political leaders, community animators, creative artists, writers and people in media) in the struggles of the poor and marginalized. Liberative struggles may be inevitable, but they will have to be non-violent. Positive non-violence is inclusive and productive of social transformation by appealing to the humanity of the others and challenging them to change.


III. Religious Faith in Civic Space

26. To live the Christian faith in civic space means interpreting the Gospel for secular society to understand and appreciate. New challenges raised by civic culture offer opportunities to find gospel-inspired responses in varied contexts: education, political involvement, church organization, ethics, media, etc.

27. From the very beginning, the Indian Christian Missions were involved in education and provided it to all irrespective of sex, caste, and religion. Those educated improved their economic status and social standing. Rural-based schools and boardings catered to the weaker sections and offered Tribals and Dalits opportunities for growth. The Christian presence will be more effective in India’s civic space by continuing its service to the marginalized, promoting quality education especially at the primary level, supporting non-formal learning systems and strengthening pluralistic culture.

28. Christian commitment to civil life must be shown through political involvement. In the pre-independent period, Christians not only welcomed the nationalist movement but also played an active role in it. In the Madras session of 1887 of the Indian National Congress (INC3) 35 participants were Christians, out of the total of 607 registered delegates. The Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 granted Christian representation in the new legislative councils of Madras, Bombay, and Bengal. But during the process of Constitution-making, Christians opted against communal representation in the post-independence government.

29. In independent India many Christians have been serving the nation as governors, chief ministers and ministers. A large number of them are found in government services, both civil and military. Christians have influenced public life through organs like the National Council of Christians in India (NCCI), the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), and the Catholic Union of India (CUI). These bodies should work for the rights of Indians in general and Christians in particular regarding education, religious freedom, empowerment of Dalits, tribals and women, and fight against religious communalism.

30. In the light the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, Christians are called to build a humane and just social order. This does not necessarily imply the formation of an exclusive political party for the Christians alone. Furthermore, the political mission that would require organizing action and networking is not to be undertaken directly by the hierarchy but through the participation and the leadership of the laity. The Church authorities have the duty of giving the lay people prominence in the official decision-making bodies, training them for professions (e.g., IAS, IPS, and IFS) and assisting them to enter the field of political involvement.

31. The laws of globalization and privatization govern today’s economic field. It would seem that the objective of business organizations is to maximize the wealth of the stockholders. All other goals are subordinated to this capitalist interest. In this setup, persons are treated as one more resource like that of land, machines and capital. Since maximizing the wealth of the shareholder is the overarching concern, commercial establishments often do not feel responsible when they destroy life and/or nature or even when life-supporting systems are transformed into repositories of waste.

32. The fostering of ethically sound business practice is a serious task for the Church to take up. The Church’s engagement must ensure that business serves civil society and that civil society is not used as a mere instrument for profits in business. The aim of commercial firms/organizations is to serve civil society and bring about the integral development of persons living in community.

33. While working for the Kingdom of God in the world of business, one needs to work in solidarity with all persons for the common good. In keeping with the demands of social justice, decisions should be made that further public interests, especially those of the workers and the poor. The Church can conscientize firms to share their profits with those in need. In addition, the principle of subsidiarity should be observed in commercial establishments and ventures. When autonomy is given to an individual person, he/she discovers more easily the necessary motivation to realize his/her full potential.

34. To become the leaven of Christ in civil society, the Church has to engage in the media, the IT fields, and ‘google-culture’. India makes a sizeable number of films in most of the main Indian languages, and publishes very many dailies and periodicals. All India Radio keeps the nation informed of happenings and government has permitted many private FM radio channels in a number of cities cross the country. In addition, new modes of communication through computers, internet, websites, blogs, friendship networks, podcasts, video-sharing portals, mobile communications, etc., have been introduced throughout the country. But the impact of the media has not been wholly positive. City youth are threatened by boredom and seek escape through activities that bring about cyber-sexual addictions, depression, indecisiveness, insomnia and frustration.

35. Engaging in civil society means that the Church enters into a dialogue with it concerning issues and questions arising out of ‘google-culture’. Not only must the Church use mass media to communicate a Gospel-inspired hope, but it must also learn to integrate the message of hope into the new culture. It has to use this technique in faith-formation and the public has to be educated to use the modern media that moulds their moral life. These are placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth.


IV. Practices to be Church in a New Way

36. The new way of Christian engagement in civil society calls for a new understanding of ecclesiology. In the first place, it will mean a participative Church where power is decentralized. Secondly, Baptism makes all equal in Christ and equips the laity to fulfil its legitimate roles in regard to decision-making and leadership. It is unfortunate that ecclesial spirituality—with excessive importance being given to those in Holy Orders—is equated primarily with that of the cleric or monk. Could this be the reason why very few laypersons in secular professions are canonized as compared to the great numbers among the clergy and religious? Spirituality for the faithful is a spirituality of communion based on the paschal mystery and celebrated in the Eucharist where bread is broken and shared symbolizing how Christians should serve others. A collective Christian consciousness must be fostered by the official Church and sustained efforts made to revive groups like the Catholic Union of India.

37. With regard to the creation of new structures, great care should be taken to ensure equality of relationship between men and women at all levels. Church bodies will fulfil their purpose better when there is adequate representation from all sections in the Church: clergy, religious, secular institute members and laypersons for decision-making in the Church. Church leaders should recognize and support the many new ways in which different groups (e.g. prayer groups, charismatic groups, BCCs, Bible sharing groups, Jesus Youth, Couples for Christ, etc) respond to their Christian vocation and mission. All structures should be built on the firm foundations of Gospel values. Greater honesty, transparency, and openness will result in the functioning of these structures at the level of the parish, diocese and nation. Appropriate forums are to be created for legitimate dissent and constructive criticism.

38. In conformity with a new way of being Church, theological education and reflection should focus on contextual realities. Secular disciplines (economics, ecology, ethics and political science) should have a place in programmes of theology. The laity should have access to such theological education as part of their faith formation. Finally, those who teach and those who are taught should be aware of present-day needs and the implications of systemic change.

39. At the extra-ecclesial level, the Church needs to participate in people’s movements. At the time of its origins, the Church was often seen as a movement of the poor or marginalized gripped by the Spirit. It would seem that by participating in people’s movements (like NBA, Nandigram, Chengara, World Social Forum, etc.) the Church would be continuing a tradition that is rooted in its origins. Such participation will enable the Church to network with like-minded NGOs and people of good will in advocacy and lobbying for changes in anti-people policies and social evils (caste discrimination and patriarchy). The setting up of anti-corruption cells at the parish, diocesan and national levels would help bring integrity into public life as a whole.

40. Since the new way of being Church focuses on its role as servant and prophet in civil society, there is need to safeguard secular and democratic values, to get involved in vital issues affecting people’s lives and to empower subaltern groups in the larger project of nation building. Since the danger of the Church becoming partisan and embroiled in politics exists, careful discernment must precede its involvement in the political arena. Even so, the Church must always try to be an instrument of reconciliation and initiate dialogue among the various groups in civil society. The Church could create the cyberspace that enables it to be an effective interlocutor in civil society—allowing itself to be challenged while also being a prophetic voice to all.

41. Education has been one of the main areas of involvement of the Church in civil society for long. While accepting that the Christian community has done much in the field of education, there is growing awareness that many of our educational projects are outdated and do not sufficiently address the complex eco-politico-social evils that affect the nation. The whole field of non-formal education provides us with many opportunities to serve the poor and the marginalized. We note with alarm that many corporate bodies have entered the field of education and have so commercialized this service sector that basic education especially is beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. In recent times, a number of Christian institutions have followed those corporate bodies and paid scant attention to the ‘least’. The attitude of these institutions is not in line with the Gospel. While ensuring education for the disadvantaged and the poor, Catholics should not be denied admission to Christian schools or institutions on specious grounds. Moreover, the Church should make concerted efforts to support and strengthen the existing government schools and aided schools.

42. It is important to realize that persons in our educational institutions are a precious human resource. Rather than expecting students to complete merely the minimum basic examinations (S.S.C., H.S.C, etc.), they must be trained for professions that will enable them to contribute to civil society, e.g., IAS, IPS, UPSC, etc. From the primary school stage, children must be familiarized with the media, and they should gradually be made aware of larger issues that arise because of pluralism in cultures, faiths, and social and political realities.

43. Globalization tends to see human persons as either consumers or mere material resources among many others. Yet, the biblical teaching—in fact the teaching of monotheistic religions—claims that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Situations of gross exploitation demand that the Church undergoes a communitarian process of introspection. First, there is need to retrieve the honour and dignity due to every person who is a child of God. Second, we need to ensure just wages for all, especially for women whose work often goes unnoticed and unrewarded. Third, since land is God’s gift to all people, its privatization can never be at the expense of the common good. Fourth, human beings have a natural right to live life fully both at the individual level and in community. In virtue of these rights, all cultures and religions must be safeguarded and preserved. Finally, the revitalization of the family is crucial for value-based action affecting all peoples.

44. Society today is being moulded by the media that form public opinion and affect the minds of citizens. The Church must continue to proclaim the good news by using appropriate technology and, at the same time, train persons—especially the youth—who can use the media to inculcate values that humanize persons and are in consonance with the gospel.



45. Ever since Vatican II ended, the Church has been challenged by an agenda that heralds change. The far-reaching consequences of accepting new paradigms at various levels keep the Church from embracing change. But in its history, Christianity has changed and done so radically, as when Paul challenged the Jerusalem Church to universalism as far as acceptance of a Jesus-praxis was concerned. The same occurred when the papacy was relieved of its temporal sovereignty in 19th century Europe. With hindsight we recognize those events as providential. Today, Christianity is asked to function in the civic space shared by other religious and cultural groups.

46. The Spirit of Jesus resides in the Church and calls it to accept others as partners, collaborators and fellow-pilgrims in the journey to the Kingdom. The Christian is invited to embrace the mystery of God’s fulfilling plan for the whole of humankind. We believe that the hope that guided the early Christians and succeeding generations of Christians will also strengthen believers today. The Church is asked to live out its life in a new key and to continue living in a world that has civic space shared by all men and women called to be part of God’s family and to give glory to God.

47. The promise of God to the Church that was made to the community of the New Testament continues to unfold. Today that promise is to be realized when the Church affirms other religions as worthy of respect and chooses to be involved in the joys and sorrows of all peoples. May the Spirit lead all peoples along paths that glorify God and bring wholeness and fulfillment to all men and women.

Antony Kalliath						    		Jacob Parappally
ITA Secretary								    	ITA President
April 2008, Bangalore