06/07/2008, 00.00
INDIA
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Indian feminist movement calls for norms to regulate vocations

by Nirmala Carvalho
The Kerala State Women's Commission asks for the "fixing of the age at which women may choose consecrated life", at no lower than eighteen. A Catholic priest says this is a baseless attack, because the age limit is already contained in canon law, and emphasises the work of sisters "on behalf of women".

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - New signs of religious intolerance are coming from India: the Kerala State Women's Commission is asking the local government to establish norms so that "girls under the age of eighteen are not forced to dedicate themselves to consecrated life".  This is at the very least an unjustified stance, if one considers the fact that - according to the principles of canon law - the Catholic Church does not permit minors to enter the novitiate.

At a recent press conference, commission president D. Sreedevi and a member of the group repeated the request to the government to "establish by law the age of which a girl may become a sister", and to create at the same time "a mechanism through which those who have abandoned their vows may be reintegrated into society".  They also add that "girls should not be forced" in their choice, and ask for legislative provisions aimed at "ensuring that family assets remain in their hands".

Fr Paul Thelakat, spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Church and director of the influential Catholic weekly Satyadeepam (editor's note: Light of Truth) responds to the feminist movement's stance with regret and displeasure: "The reason for such a step was a single complaint  the commission is said to have received. The chairperson of the commission is a retired judge of the high court of Kerala. It was an irresponsible and immature act on the part of a bunch of ladies to make such a statement. First it betrays their prejudices and callous refusal to make any enquiry into the matter". He also stresses that "it is wrong to turn an inquiry into a matter of law", and that the Catholic Church "does not permit anyone to enter novitiate under the age of 18".

In Kerala, and in all of India in general, girls can enter the convent after the age of 12, to prepare for the novitiate and consecrated life; vows can be made only after the age of 21, and in any case it is possible to leave the convent if a vocation is lacking: "It is highly objectionable that the commission has a view that in convents there is no freedom and human rights".

The controversy seems to be unfounded in a state like Kerala, where women's education and emancipation is in large part due to the Church, through schools operated by the sisters, who are often highly educated: many of them, in fact, fulfil key roles as doctors, university teachers, lawyers, and social services professionals.

In recent days, the Catholic Church has been fighting hard against various cases of prostitution-related child trafficking on the part of swamis (Hindu mystics), and therefore "it is unacceptable", concludes Fr Paul Thelakat, "that such educated women come with such  statements  tarnishing the convents and the Catholic Church and stoop to such low levels of irresponsibility".

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