By Ila Ananya
The last time Priyanka Thomas stood in line for confession at the church near her house in Hyderabad, two older women were standing behind her. They were grumbling at how long the line was taking to move — “Youngsters these days commit so many sins, no wonder they take so long for confession,” one of them said. The other woman nodded sagely. Just at that moment Thomas says that a sniffling young woman left the confessional — “See, now that their souls are purged, they’ll come back with a longer list next month,” she heard the women say.
Thomas, a 30-year-old software engineer, was reminded of this exchange when she heard that the Kerala Catholic Reform Movement (KCRM) staged a dharna in Kochi on Sunday, 19 March. They were demanding that the church allow nuns to hear confessions of women and minor girls — an unexpected demand that hasn’t been put forward in India before. Since then it’s been dismissed by Fr Paul Thelakkat, former spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar church. According to Thelakkat, the demand was contradictory to the sacraments, because, “the faculty of confession is only given to ordained priests.”
But Priyanka Thomas remains curious: would replacing priests with nuns increase the time women spent at confession?
“If you’re not disclosing all of your sins then there is no benefit for you. You can’t deliberately refrain from disclosing them,” says advocate Indulekha Joseph, also a member of KCRM. Joseph, who headed the dharna at Kochi, says that their demands are a result of the increasing number of sexual harassment complaints against Christian priests — “In this context, it’s highly improper for priests to listen to young ladies and women, especially because confession happens in private,” she says.
Joseph’s argument is that she has heard of cases where, when women are confessing anything sexual, priests demand the “minute details of the scene”. They worry about the possibility of priests using a confession like an extra-marital affair for blackmail (and Joseph claims this has happened before). It would seem that some of Joseph’s squeamishness around sexual matters seems to be of the kind the Church would, ironically, approve of. Because she nervously adds, “When you’re disclosing such sexual matters to the opposite sex, there will be some changes in the person’s body. We are living in an age when there is even phone sex.”
If you ask many Catholics, you will hear that confession is an important part of their culture. For instance, when Maria Tom, now a college student in Bangalore, was in school, she would go for confession as often as she could. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned”, she would begin, before she rattled off a list of standard ‘sins’ — “I’ve lied, I disobeyed my parents, I’ve behaved irresponsibly,” she would say. When she grew a little older, she started talking about boys she liked. Once she even ranted about her strict mother who didn’t let her go out with friends. The priest she was talking to told her it was alright for her to lie to be allowed outside the house. “I was lucky to have got nice priests. It was like free therapy,” Maria Tom says laughing and remembering that confession session with fondness.
Like Tom, 24-year-old Anushka, who is from Kerala, and currently works in a media company in Bangalore, says that confession gets more complicated when you’re older.
She remembers a “concerned” priest telling her at confession when she was 10 years old, not to wear sleeveless clothes. “But when you’re older, most people who go for confession, don’t actually confess the things they consider really bad,” Anushka says. From her experience, it’s because churches are usually tightly-knit, which means that the priest knows you and your family, and you end up not feeling comfortable talking about many things.
But Anushka also remembers being trained to see priests as being without sexuality or gender. “We’re trained to deify priests. They don’t get married, and aren’t seen as people who have familial connections. They are benevolent father figures who are there to solve our problems, bless our houses, and scold us for not behaving ‘properly’. And we give them such a huge role, we also accept that they have the divine right to hear and absolve us of our sins,” she says.
Would women be more comfortable talking to a nun rather than a priest? Anna Thomas, who recently passed out of Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, and stopped going for confession a long time ago because she doesn’t understand why people should confess to a human being rather than God, says that she thinks women might be more comfortable talking to another woman.
A Bangalore-based nun, who wanted to remain anonymous, also said she thought it was a good idea, particularly because women and young girls might be hesitant to talk to priests, even though the priests aren’t supposed to tell anyone else about the confessions.
But Anushka, like many other women, doesn’t believe that things would necessarily be better for women because a woman is hearing confession. “Nuns in my experience [she spent two years being policed in a nun-run boarding school], tend to be very rigid,” she says, “Nuns could also easily harass you in other, non-sexual ways for the things they know you’ve done. Saying that nuns should hear confession is somewhat naïve; it assumes that women are automatically a better choice.” Do we only expect nuns to be different because they are women, as if they are not stuck in the same complexities of religion, convention and power that is the Church?
If the idea is that having nuns listening to confession will reduce sexual harassment, both Anushka and Tom point out that the problem is much deeper than this. We have heard of multiple cases of sexual abuse within churches being covered up time and again. Tom says the only solution is beginning to hold people accountable, rather than this simple replacement. Anushka suggests the same when she says that we need to begin to treat priests with less of a free pass even within families—“Just suggesting that a priest is doing something wrong is something that families can’t accept. Every single time, their anger and sense of betrayal becomes about victim shaming instead,” she says.
Back in Kerala, Indulekha Joseph makes the additional argument that there should be less discrimination between nuns and priests, and that the KCRM’s protest is an argument that traditions must be amended with the times. But all of the women we spoke to had more radical ideas. Why can’t we begin to relook at the idea of confession itself, they ask? As Priyanka Thomas says, “What if confession is personal, between the woman and god?”
Co-published with Firstpost.