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Citizenship and Catholicism on the ground: Vignettes from the Indian field

By Rowena Robinson and Nandini Paliyath*

~ Kevin O’Neill’s City of God (2010) marked the initiation of a distinctive field for anthropological analysis: the study of Christian citizenship. He (2009: 333) quotes Philippians 3:20 (‘But our citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ’) to argue that ideas of citizenship have always had a life in Christian discourses and in Christian self-understanding. He argues that the relationship between Christianity and citizenship framed by the secularization thesis in the received literature is constructed in terms of the ‘pedagogical paradigm’: in the private sphere of the churches the clergy inculcate good character and teach their congregants to be good citizens. As learners, congregants go outside into the public sphere to practice the lessons of care, responsibility and respect for authority which make them into upstanding, law-abiding members of civil society and respectable citizens (O’Neill 2009). Thus, the church is the realm of thought and conviction, while in the outside world, the space of action, these are put into practice.

O’Neill’s study on Guatemala shows a privatized and internal production of political commitment. Guatemalians pray rather than petition, fast rather than campaign and examine their consciences in lieu of registering voters. While voting is not abjured, it is not seen to be as efficacious as prayer. Particular Biblical texts such as those already mentioned above as well as others such as 1 Timothy 2: 1-2 (‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people; for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’) or Exodus 22: 28 (‘Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people’) become helpful guides to citizenship.

O’Neill acknowledges that it is not possible to rely on the strict separation of private and public either in the western or non-western worlds, as the paradigm appears to posit. The reality is that challenges to governments from within and without may arise and alter boundaries or all may have to capitulate in some way to the logic of global capitalism. Moreover, newer forms of Christianity are eminently transnational and mega churches hardly oblige social scientists by restricting themselves within the confines of our neatly demarcated nation states. In the final analysis, O’Neill argues (2009: 340) that the pedagogical paradigm errs in taking it for granted that while Christianity may help one to think, it is in the realm of citizenship that one acts and the two are quite discrete. He contends that Christian practices themselves do the work of politics, they are perceived to act and have effects in the real world. It is important to retain his attention to everyday life and to how the Christian’s relationship with self and others in society is at once a moral and a political project.

At the same time, there are several limitations in this analysis. Firstly, O’Neill (2009, 2010) is primarily interested in looking at ‘self-to-self’ relationships as Christians engage with themselves as citizens. Further, though there is an awareness that public and private spheres are not held apart and isolated from each other, the analysis of their engagement through the practices of prayer, fasting or examination of conscience of individual Christians is surely inadequate. The analysis examines the engagement with citizenship at the level of individual persons and in small prayer cells but it does not mention the possibility of other kinds of informal associations within which participative citizenship could be exercised. It also suggests that it is within Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity (rather than Catholicism) that these ideas are more worth the study partly perhaps because such cultic movements are transnational and challenge the finitude of national political boundaries taken for granted in the ‘pedagogic paradigm’. Finally, the idea that Christians (and citizens) are not equal and may have differentiated and contesting understandings of themselves as Christians and as citizens is not realized in this analysis.

Our research took up particular Catholic associations and organizations for an analysis of interlocking themes centered around the idea of citizenship. Among others, these included the Catholic Forum for Social Action (CFSA) in Western India, and Dalit Christian Association of South India, in South India. These are movements of lay and in some cases also clerical Catholics, who also belong to various traditional parish churches. Their activities are voluntary and ‘achieved’ rather than ‘ascribed’ and these activities are considered as being located ‘outside’ the church. All straddle the presumed divide between the private and the public sphere in that their membership is restricted by religious affiliation but they are defined by their activism in issues that have wider implications. It was soon realized that CFSA was one of a clutch of associations which had networks with a range of others, with overlapping personnel, shared knowledge and some concerns held in common. Thus, the study expanded to include organizations such as the Catholic Union for Faith Renewal (CUFR), Secular Catholic Fraternity (SCF), Fraternity of Truth, and The Catholic Forum of Western India.

Three Indian Sites of Worship

Research Methodology

This was a qualitative study based largely on extensive, structured and unstructured interviews with members, leaders and clients of the units chosen for study. These interviews were conducted over a period of several months, and individuals were often interviewed or conversed with more than once. Participation and attendance at meetings of these groups and observation of engagements of members with each other, with petitioners or with other individuals or groups with whom they come into interaction aided in the overall understanding of the issues. Literature produced by these groups as well as the websites they maintain were examined. Apart from the authors, a research assistant who covered the South Indian states also helped to conduct the study. In this brief write up using oral narratives, we take up a few questions such as what understanding of citizenship do these individuals have as members of these groups? How is Catholic citizenship a form of engagement for the members? What are the differences in their understandings of citizenship identity?

Citizenship as ‘making the world a better place’

AmTa is an advocate and also interacts with several members of different Catholic civil associations. As a student she was a member of a Catholic students’ group which believed that its members ‘will not leave the world as we found it. We will make it better and that kind of touched the work that I was doing...Later we realized we cannot seclude ourselves from the rest of the world. We have to move with others. So, there were students from other faiths who came in but the ideology of Christianity remained the same’.

AmTa feels that the church is ‘gender insensitive’ particularly with regard to dealing with women in violent and abusive relationships. Women have difficulty in filing for divorce or annulment and the focus of the priests is on couseling the victim rather than the aggressor – an approach which from AmTa’s perspective, steeped in law and justice, is particularly invidious. According to her, while civil groups among Catholics particularly those concerned with women’s issued do bring transparency in the church, traditional structures remain largely impervious and impenetrable. AmTa believes that it is time to bring accountability and the law into the church. The church cannot remain secluded from the demands of equality and democracy. Indeed, she would suggest that even the right to information should be enforced within the church. According to her:

[N]ow with the concept of right to information there is accountability even within the church, be it time, resources…If the church is not there to inform, we need to rethink the whole idea of the priests being the head of the church. We have to move with times and get the law into the religion…Like our church schools…community members don’t want to send their children to such schools…You have less than 5% minority children in the schools. What is the church doing about it? Are they improving education?...

The Beatitudes, psalms and Gospels are a major influence on AmTa. She believes that being Catholic does make her a better citizen. At the same time, she feels that in a secular country the community should not shy away from its distinct religious identity but should feel free to express and publicly stand by it. For AmTa, this assertion would not be exclusionary because the Christian language and commitment to equality, peace, mercy and love is the basis for reaching out to others and enacting good citizenship in society.

St Anthony Convent, Puducherry

Citizenship as ‘civic activism’

A member of the Catholic Forum of Western India, IrAs had an early initiation into church activities as part of the youth group. IrAs says she did not have a very ‘religious’ upbringing yet daily prayers and the rosary were insisted on and they were brought up with values to be able to discern ‘what is right from wrong’. In any case, IrAs says:

What is religion? Religion is not sitting and praying the whole day. How many lives have you touched? How much change have you brought into this world? I believe very strongly that God sends each one of us into this world with a very strong purpose. Bloom where you are planted. Because I believe that on Judgement day, God will ask you for an evaluation of all we did.

IrAs clearly acknowledges how her faith and belief keeps her working in the social field and taking on new challenges. For her ‘religion’ is blooming where one is planted, contributing to the community and society, having a strong purpose in life and changing the world around us. Though her own faith moves her in her work, she argues that civic issues do not have a ‘religion’.

We take up anything related to civil political social action and as an extension to this we engage in inter religious dialogue. If it is a civic issue, it does not have a religion, it affects everyone…

The Forum takes up issues of a social character. IrAs believes that people are responsive and willing to show up for different issues and support them. One of the issues taken up was of the desecration of crosses in the city. The crosses were demolished by the civic body, though it was on private land. Five thousand people gathered against this demolishment.

IrAs’ faith is firmly rooted in certain scriptures that she touches on everyday. She mentions Psalm 97 and the line ‘I thank you father for always leading me to triumph’. This could be traced to 2 Corinthians 2:14 ‘But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere’. The relationship between politics and faith is thought about by IrAs throughthe lens of discipline. As she says:

I think it has brought in a degree of discipline because for whatever reason, the fact that we come every Sunday, whatever happens, we come every Sunday to the church that kind of discipline, praying has come in. The degree of spirituality differs. The church offers us options. Like those who are highly spiritual, they get into the charismatic prayer group, deeply into prayer and meditation. But yes, I would say being the member of the Catholic church helps you...

Being a Catholic is a form of politics one might argue, a principle of civic activism. As IrAs says: ‘One thing you could say, because you are baptized at birth, you will be a Christian by law. But for me a Christian is one who lives his faith, who lives the way Christ would live if he was here with us. When I live people should look at my action and say there is something different about her. Is she a Christian? This for me is a Christian. Not someone who makes a big sign of the cross.’

Indian Tourists Visiting Auroville

Citizenship among Dalit Catholics

Fr Y. is one of the primary architects of the Dalit Christian Association of South India. He records the poverty and discrimination experienced as a child and how his coming into the priesthood took all those experiences and his training and tried to forge them into something positive, an instrument for change for the better.

Of course, I am a Dalit and come from the village and have experienced the practice of untouchability…The other disadvantage was I came from a remote village. Till the time I joined the seminary, there was no bus to my village. Actually, I wanted to be a priest in Pondicherry diocese. The diocese they refused to take me. So, that is why I had to join the Jesuits…

The Dalit struggle to obtain some representation at the higher levels of the clergy led to the merger of several movements into the DCASI. Subsequently, internal differences led Fr Y. to part from the DCASI and work separately. Alongside the Ambedkar Movement, through the Association for Equal Rights to Dalit Christians, Fr Y. works to assert the rights of Dalit Catholics in the church. The issues for which they were struggling with when they began in the 1990s have still not receded. As he said:

When we were fighting, there were four Dalit bishops, now there are only two Dalit Bishops. In ten years, because we were keeping quiet, things have become dull. Jesuits also are reluctant to say Dalits. They strategically say ‘target people’. Who are the ‘target people’?

Citizenship, for Fr Y. is crucially tied up with dignity and with power, with the capacity to make a difference. However, he does not see this as happening through formal politics. Parties and politics are important, but they must be backed from outside by strong social movements, which can also put pressure on them to take action in favor of the deprived. Fr Y. speaks of power, justice and rights when articulating the discrimination experienced by Dalits within and outside of the church. Locating dignity as the heart of Dalit citizenship in its widest sense, he provides an understanding of his own inspiration for his work. According to him:

It is like kingdom of God, it is already defined but not yet come also. Same way, with this Dalit movement…I think the struggle has to continue. What is the alternative for the practice of casteism and untouchability? The only alternative is struggle. Liberation is a process and not a product.

There is a realistic understanding that the struggle is long and hard and there are no easy achievements. Hope is also expressed in Catholic terms through Fr Y’s understanding that this is the kingdom of God, which is already defined. It has just not been fully realized thus far.

Christian Sign on an Indian Car


As these vignettes show, Catholicism and citizenship are entangled. In contrast to O’Neill’s work (2009, 2010), this research has sought to look at informal associations (apart from prayer cells) in which Catholics practice participative citizenship and to focus on Catholicism. The study showed that lay Catholic associations cut across the private and the public sphere in that while their membership is restricted by religious affiliation, they often take on issues of wider concern. Further, they all take up a stance of critical distance from clerical authorities on a range of different issues, particularly with regard to matters such as parish trusts, participation and transparency in decision-making, gender and caste inequality in the church and the like.

Such a study of faith-based associations offers us a way to think about citizenship on the ground. What is further acknowledged is that one cannot consider the Catholic community as a monolithic entity performing citizenship uniformly. There are differentiated and contested ways of enacting citizenship. We saw an understanding of Catholic citizenship as making the world a better place and as civic activism. In comparison, we also saw Dalit Catholics asserting citizenship as dignity and power. Moreover, Catholics take ideas and values of democracy and constitutional morality to critique internal church arrangements. Thus, in contradistinction to the pedagogical paradigm, they carry their citizenship into the church rather than the other way around. Further, their Catholicism does not remain exclusive but seeks to work for justice with other faiths and denominations in a plural society.

The research shows that lay associations are significant sites of citizenship and Catholicism offers us as much of interest to study as newer Christian movements. Overall, we see the possibilities for a new understanding of the intersection of religious and social activism and the construction of citizenship in a region marked by long-standing religious plurality but also tainted by entrenched social divisions, despite constitutional and legal provisions of equality.

*Rowena Robinson is a Professor of Sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India

*Nandini Paliyath is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India


  • Banner, M. (2008). Christianity and civil society. In J. Coleman (Ed.), Christian Political Ethics (pp. 3-21). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  • O'Neill, K. (2009). But our citizenship is in heaven: A proposal for the future study of Christian citizenship in the global south. Citizenship Studies, 13 (4), 333-348.

  • O’Neill, K. (2010). City of God: Christian citizenship in postwar Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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