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Equal say for women in Church decisions

New Delhi, Sept. 19: What politicians won’t share with ladies, the Church will — equal space.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India, the highest ecclesiastical body of Catholics in the country, will soon come out with a policy that recommends equal representation for women at every level to “redeem” a centuries-long “injustice”.

In other words, a say in decisions.

The policy, to be announced after a meeting of the CBCI executive later this month, comes at a time India’s political parties are still undecided on leaving aside one-third of the seats in elected legislative bodies for women.

Sources in the Catholic Church, one of the most rigid patriarchal structures around, said the equal representation policy was “historic”. It would be the “first time in the history of the Catholic Church” across the world that such an “attempt” is being made, said a source.

“Women, no matter whether they are nuns or ordinary laity, have never got their due. Ours is an attempt to redeem this century-long injustice,” said Sister Lilly Francis, executive secretary of the CBCI Commission on gender policy.

The crack at the Church glass ceiling followed an all-India survey initiated by Sister Lilly’s team. Some of the bodies where women stand to get equal representation are CBCI commissions, which take decisions regarding all aspects of Catholic life; seminaries; parish and diocesan pastoral councils, which take administrative decisions; finance committees that decide diocese budgets; marriage tribunals and social service societies.

Women can “also become pastoral assistants in all parishes and take part in a common decision-making process”, says the policy, which includes a plan to ensure violence-free homes and workplaces.

“The gender policy would be a landmark,” Sister Lilly said. “It is the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that this kind of an initiative is being taken. Even fellow sisters from the so-called liberated western countries could not believe that the Catholic Church in India is going to have an egalitarian system this soon.”

The CBCI Commission, however, steered clear of the controversial topic of considering women for priesthood, which would allow them to conduct Mass.

The Catholic Church has been consistently opposing priesthood for women, though the Anglican Church has allowed women to be ordained since the ’80s.

As part of its plan to bridge the divide, the CBCI Commission has suggested gender sensitivity courses and feminist theology as main subjects in seminaries, where priests and nuns train, and also called for Biblical interpretations from women’s perspective.

According to the policy, each parish should have a women’s cell and a vigilance cell against violence. It has recommended gender sensitisation workshops for bishops, priests and other office-bearers. The CBCI has been told to condemn domestic violence and sexual abuse through church documents and homilies.

The Commission has asked the CBCI to stress on education of girls in Catholic schools and organise programmes at villages, parishes and dioceses to boost self-confidence among women.

Another suggestion is emphasis on equal partnership while conducting marriage preparation courses. “Educate men on the art of sharing power,” the Commission says.

The policy also includes suggestions to ensure equal pay for equal work for women employed in Church-run institutions, and land and property rights for women.

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