Controversy about Creating Space for the Discriminated in the Christian liturgy

Paolo Aranha

Image: Balaji Malliswamy

“The assimilation of Christianity to the local social structures allowed a steady growth of the missions in South India, placed beyond the control of any Catholic power and subject to Hindu or Muslim rulers. However, it also caused the emergence of a spatial tension that is at the very heart of the Malabar Rites controversy. Theoretically, the neophytes belonged all to one and the same community: they attended the same Mass and all had equal access to the divine energy provided by the sacraments. In practice, the uniform space of faith had to cope with a fragmented social space. The low-caste paraiyar Christians were segregated in their cheris, at a safe distance from the centre of each South Indian village. In order to avoid social defilement the high caste Christians refused to attend the Mass under the same roof. The Jesuit missionaries, vocally represented in Rome particularly by their Procurator Brandolini, devised convoluted architectural solutions meant to allow the ‘plebeians’ to be separated from the ‘noble’ Christians during the Mass, even while making it possible for them to attend the sacred functions and receive Holy Communion.

The liturgical segregation of the paraiyar could remind the Roman authorities of the walls and grilles separating cloistered nuns from the laity in conventual churches; however, while those nuns held a high religious status, the segregation of the paraiyar was due to their social stigma. Particularly difficult was the problem of providing the viaticum to the moribund ‘untouchables’. The missionaries were not allowed to enter the huts of the low caste neophytes, lest they should be considered contaminated by the upper-caste faithful, who would not recognize them anymore as their own priests. On the other hand, the option of carrying moribund persons to the nearest church could easily cause death without the last rites.

The controversy about the missions of Madurai, Mysore and the Carnatic highlighted less a contradiction between the European and Indian ways of life than a more general early-modern tension between a certain Christian egalitarian space and one of social separation. As the Jesuits argued, the unity of the Church did not imply the abolition of social distinctions. Brandolini claimed even that an ‘ordered charity’ (‘ordinata carità’) could not go against the principle of prominence of the public over the private good. The distinction of an ‘ordered’ from a ‘disordered’ charity emerged within a context of involuntary irony, as it is highlighted in one of the various manuscript memoranda that Brandolini submitted to the Roman Inquisition. Brandolini claimed that the problem of providing the last sacraments to the moribund ‘Parreas’ in their huts was similar to the situation of a moribund (male) infant whose parents would not accept his baptism.

On the basis of classical theological authors who had objected against forced baptisms, Brandolini concluded that even the provision of sacraments to the ‘Paraiyar’ in their huts should be ruled out, inasmuch as the public good should be preferred to the private one. As the forced baptism of an infant could cause perturbation to his parents, so the violation of the untouchability of the ‘Paraiyar’, argued Brandolini, could cause commotion among the community of the ‘noble’ Christians and subject it to a difficult trial. The conclusion of the analogy went so far that the Jesuit claimed that the forced baptism of an infant was as sinful as the provision of sacraments to the ‘Paraiyar’ in their miserable dwellings. An enthusiastic love of paradox probably led Brandolini to justify the discrimination of the ‘Parreas’ even in the conferment of the last sacraments, on the basis of the obligation that the ‘plebeians’ had of honouring the ‘nobles’, even if the latter were wicked or non-Christian people: it was not the specific virtue of a single individual that should be honoured, but a superior quality that could be seen reflected in a person, even if only in a figurative or symbolic way. Brandolini implicitly suggested to the prelates of the Holy Office in charge of evaluating the Malabar Rites that the hierarchical principles debated in the South Indian missions were finally not so different from the ones invoked in Europe to justify the power of the aristocracy over the other social groups, irrespective of the intrinsic merits or vices that each single European nobleman could have.

The rigorous spatial separation displayed by Brandolini’s multi-view projection could then appear as a consistent understanding of a necessary and universal hierarchical organization of any given society. In this perspective it seems difficult to imagine that the acceptance by certain Catholic missionaries of Indian structures of hierarchical subjugation may be understood primarily as an effort to dialogue with a non-European culture or that the endorsement of caste segregation may have anticipated the ideas of inculturation elaborated during the twentieth century. Even more puzzling would be an interpretation according to which ‘the choice made by the Jesuits of keeping the neophytes’ community within the dynamics of Indian society, avoiding therefore the risk of triggering among the converts a sense of estrangement towards their common culture, made it possible to keep open important communication channels for the future’.

The analysis of a specific visual source has shown us, on the contrary, that the sacramental discrimination of the paraiyar was located at the crossroads between a specific European hierarchical culture and the dynamic of social conflict that characterized early modern South India. The clumsy and paradoxical arguments of Brandolini, which should not be considered representative of a unanimous position among the missionaries of the Society of Jesus in South India, provided easy ammunition to anti-Jesuit critics. At the very end of the Malabar Rites controversy, the sacramental discrimination of the paṟaiyar was described by Abbe Jean Baptiste Gaultier (1685–1755), a Jansenist theologian, as a fundamental religious flaw: ‘Il n’y a ni Dieu ni Religion où il n’y a point de charité’. As students of history, we should probably refrain from easy projections of the past into the present. However, if the expression of a moral protest is not in conflict with scholarly rigour, then it would be very difficult not to see in the paṟaiyar, segregated in less than one third of the social space, an emblem of the radical inequalities that characterize our own world.”

(Excerpt from the article of Paolo Aranha, “The Social and Physical Spaces of the Malabar Rites Controversy”, In: Space and Conversion in Global Perspective, edited by Giuseppe Marcocci et al. Brill: Leiden — Boston 2015, 228–230.)

About the Author

Paolo Aranha’s main area of research is the early modem history of Christianity in India, especially the Catholic missions to South India, the Goa Inquisition, Indo-Portuguese religious and social history, as well as early-modem Catholic representations of Hinduism. His publications include the book ‘il cristianesimo latino in India’ (2006) and several articles.