In the depth and breadth of its reach, the Catholic Church across the world is a recognised transnational actor, able to speak and intervene directly in issues of social justice and human rights amongst many affected populations. In doing so, it is responding to the most radical of Christ’s teachings: love, as I have loved you. Or, as the well-known Sri Lankan radical thinker the late Fr. Tissa Balasuriya would have it, the need to stand up continually to greed and structural injustice.
Importantly, what this is, is a calling to not simply perform acts of charity such as feeding the hungry and attending to the sick, but to work continually for justice, transforming systemic inequalities and, as understood by proponents of liberation theology, challenging the rapacious logic and dominion of capital.
Certainly, this article does not espouse that the Church or any actor should be allowed a monopoly or dominion in any political process. Instead, it wishes to highlight the need for a Church in Sri Lanka that humbly and wholeheartedly engages in the struggle for social justice in this post war economy.
Pope Francis, since the beginning of his papacy has demanded this change in the church, asking the leadership to ‘smell of their sheep’, to go out and be affected by the ‘wounds on the battlefield’, indeed to allow the complexity of human and natural life to breakdown the orthopraxy of indifferent religious practice. Francis, in so many ways carries on the work and voice of radical justice thinkers in the Catholic Church like Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Michael Rodrigo, Tissa Balasuriya, Gustavo Guitierrez and others who looked at the world and realised that there is too much work to do.
Fr. Balasuriya, who founded the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Maradana, and the late Fr. Michael Rodrigo are excellent examples of the kind of church activity that is needed in post war Sri Lanka.
Indeed, the nuns and priests currently involved in advocating for the rights of those affected by the port city, as well as clergy in the North and East who work tirelessly with those severely affected by the conflict are also examples of the church as it is meant to be in the world.
When we consider Sri Lanka as it now is, with a reconciliation and transitional justice process that is still struggling to gain real ground, the possible mediative role of the Sri Lankan Catholic Church is one which requires some necessary attention. This is for a few simple reasons.
The first goes to the heart of Catholic theology. Catholicity lives and breathes a sacramental worldview, one which connects the hearts and minds of its global faithful. Amongst these sacraments, is the sacrament of reconciliation. Within modern thinking, such reconciliation focuses almost reductively on the subject, and on individual healing and repentance, without allowing for such an understanding to flow outwards towards a collective process. However, the tools of the process, of listening, hearing and forgiveness, are easily adapted towards a collective process, as some of the discussion surrounding the truth and reconciliation commission in Canada has shown. In many of his speeches concerning global instances of violence, Pope Francis has called over and over again for global ‘reconciliation’. From the papal office, such language is not used lightly but looks towards a profound examination of conscience, and a culture of encounter. Indeed, he calls not only to speak but also to listen.
There is a need for better contextual theology from the Sri Lankan Catholic church in orienting itself towards what, the Catholic Church, as a transnational organisation can offer towards post-conflict processes. As an example, in a country where all were, to varying degrees, affected by the 30 year war, there could be a guided, meditative collective examination of conscience, where there is reflection on shared wounds and intergenerational violence. Theologically, reconciliation also suggests a journey, and in this case it would be a process of slowly transforming one’s mind towards coexistence.
Additionally, Christian churches in Sri Lanka have membership from across the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic divides, suggesting a unique position for churches to play in diffusing ethnic nationalist tension. Christianity, also, as part of the Abrahamic tradition, has much in common with the Muslim community and can act as a conduit between Buddhists and Muslims.
In many ways organisations such as the Sri Lankan chapter of the Ecumenical Association for Third World Theologians, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), and the engaged work of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka, as well as individual efforts by bishops, nuns, priests and lay persons is doing this work in small ways.
However, from the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, there is a sense, in what feels like a silent resistance to the insistence of Pope Francis that the shepherds of the church, ‘smell of their sheep’.
Homilies from diocesan priests on any social justice issue are few and far between. In the few months I have been in Sri Lanka, I am yet to hear the local parish priest reflect on any topic that has real relevance to his flock in terms of social justice. The rot, however, starts at the top. Few Catholics will forget the stunning photograph of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith seated in conversation with Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist organisation known for its campaigns against Muslims and Christians, a basket of wrapped fruit by their side, clearly a gift from one to the other.
Cardinal Ranjith is seen to be close to the Rajapaksa’s and, has spoken on several occasions on the need to protect Buddhism’s place in the constitution. He seems to have little feeling for his fellow Christians, causing concern amongst other Christian denominations when he is alleged to have denied the claim of lawyer Lakshan Dias with regard the high level of attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka.
This writer has been present at a conference, where, when a priest from Jaffna raised the challenges faced by war widows as something that complicates the church’s absolute stance on abortion, the said priest was told by the Cardinal, that he was “going away from the topic.”
Indeed, the problem with the local Catholic church is that its leadership is not so much silent, but actively engaged in negating minority voices and views.
Such a position is a tragic one, a foolish one, a dangerous one. Such a position is entirely contrary to the teachings of the Church, of successive Popes, and stands in opposition to the Gospel itself. Hence it is necessary for lay Catholics to take up this call, resist the ossification of the clerics, and engage in contextual, active theology and praxis that works toward effective reconciliation in the Church. After all, Christianity is and remains a social movement, a movement of the people.