Sanal Edamuruku, or for that matter Rationalists International, were not names the Indian Catholic Church was familiar with before it ran into them in Mumbai, triggering an obnoxious controversy that has crossed national borders and is making news in the US and the UK. This is a purely Catholic controversy and does not touch the other church denominations in India.
Sanal of the Rationalists International movement has been a fixture on the more sensational Indian print publications and TV news channels with his exposes of godmen of which India has a large number. In the past, he has taken on some venerable names in this sector and has survived. He can, in fact, be thought of as an extremist and fundamentalist himself in his belief as the subjects of his enquiry.
On March 10 this year, Sanal was asked by the TV9 channel to investigate the phenomenon of a crucifix at the Mumbai Church of Our Lady of Velankanni which had started attracting large crowds of believers because of little droplets of water trickling from the feet of Jesus. Mumbai, like Kerala, Goa and Mangalore, has a pretty large concentration of Catholics, most of them by all accounts active members of the Church. People, and not all of them Catholics, collected the droplets as “holy water”.
Sanal, in his widely publicised findings, claimed the source of the water from the cross was a drainage near a washing room percolating through capillary action. This was the same phenomenon which made the idols of Lord Ganesh apparently “drink” milk some years ago. The laity and clergy of the Archdiocese of Bombay cried foul, describing Sanal’s statement as an insult to their faith.
Father Augustine Palett, the priest of Our Lady of Velankanni Church, and the Association of Concerned Catholics (AOCC) demanded that Sanal apologise. Mumbai Auxillary Bishop Agnelo Gracias sought to restore some sanity saying the church was “always cautious in attributing supernatural causes” to such phenomena and always striving “to find 'scientific' explanations.”
A criminal case was nonetheless filed against Sanal. The police have been going to his house in Delhi to arrest him. Sanal has mobilised a powerful international rationalist community to his aid. Not surprisingly, extremist groups in the Hindutva brigade have extended him support, presumably arguing that an enemy’s enemy is a friend, but conveniently forgetting the time they too were baying for his blood not too long ago.
As someone who is in touch both with the Mumbai church and Sanal Edmaruku, I am pleading the return of a sense of proportion in this issue. It would seem a clash of two fundamentalist groups. It also comes in the context of a satellite TV and Internet social media environment in which many prominent Hindu temples, seminaries and their leaders have been exposed, often in what are called “sting operations”.
Unlike the violence and hate campaigns unleashed on the Christian community by Hindutva strategists and cadres in many states, and by Muslims mullahs in the Kashmir valley and a few other areas in East and South India, Sanal’s is neither “persecution” nor “communalism” as we understand those terms. A section of the Catholic community is embarrassed and therefore enraged. Sanal is an extremist in his own way, especially in the manner in which he believes in his rationalist theories. To that extent, he is a bit of a social maverick. But he is “catholic” in his approach, and confronts all mythology and superstition irrespective of which group propagates it or how powerful those who believe in these superstitions and miracles are.
I believe Christ is absolutely capable of defending Himself, if perhaps not the church in India. These statements by Sanal or the probe by his Rationalists must not be taken as an attack on the church or on the community. It certainly is not an attack on the faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The faithful of Mumbai think they are defending faith when they go on hunger strikes against books of fiction or films from Hollywood and Bollywood. But in reality they are defending their own positions and constituencies and do not want them to be exposed to the sunlight.
Christ does not have to drip water from crucifixes to prove the love he has for each one of us. His healing is deeper and needs no instruments. I have experienced this in my own life. Catholics of Mumbai possibly realise the controversy is not getting the Church any new friends, nor is it adding to its lustre.
It is time the church leadership really forgave Sanal. He has learnt his own lesson – not to mock at genuine faith of the people and not confuse a passing popular fancy for a “miracle”, however untenable, to say the community is being taken for a ride by the church. The police case against Sanal Edamaruku should be withdrawn as a sign that a mature Church in India needs no props for the depth of its faith in God.