Catholics can sue diocese to get liturgy in their own language

Language dispute

In an ongoing liturgy language dispute, a southern Indian state’s top court has dismissed an appeal by a Catholic bishop challenging the jurisdiction of a civil court on Catholic religious matters.

The Karnataka court ruling granted lay Catholics the right to sue their local diocese regarding the use of language during Mass and other forms of worship.

The High Court in Karnataka decreed on May 26 that civil courts have jurisdiction to hear the case, which revolves around the demand that Mass be celebrated in the local language of Konkani.

Konkani is spoken by approximately two million people along India’s western coast and is one of the 22 languages in the Indian constitution.

Four lay Catholics residing in Karnataka filed the lawsuit against the Diocese of Chikkamagaluru.

“We had requested Bishop Swamy to permit us to have at least one Mass on Sundays and other feast days in our native language — Konkani, but he is not ready,” said Steven Lobo, one of the four petitioners.

Code of Canon Law

In response to the suit, the diocese argued that the matter should be governed by the Catholic Church’s internal Code of Canon Law. It contended that, although the diocese had not prohibited the plaintiffs from worship, the choice of language is a ritual question rather than a civil rights issue.

However, the high court concluded that civil courts in India have the authority to address complaints alleging violations of the fundamental rights protected by Articles 25 and 26 of the Indian constitution.

The court determined that using Konkani during worship within a church under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Chikkamagaluru cannot be regarded merely as a ritual matter.

“When the legislature enacts a law, even in respect of the personal law of a group of persons following a particular religion, then such statutory provisions shall prevail and override any personal law, usage or custom,” the high court held.

The dispute revolves primarily around three churches, including the cathedral, among the 42 parishes in the diocese. Most of the congregation in St Joseph Cathedral Church, Christ the King Church and Holy Family Church consists of Konkani speakers.

The language dispute arose initially in 2006 when Bishop John Baptist Sequeira requested parishes to use the official language of Karnataka, Kannada during liturgical practices, including the celebration of Mass. The current bishop, Anthony Swamy Thomasappa, has continued this policy.

“Civil law has power over canon law”

Swamy defended the diocese’s stance: “We are carrying on what the previous Bishops have been doing. Some people have gone to court, and the Karnataka High Court has not given any judgement as such. What it has said is that civil law has power over the canon law. That was the gist of what the High Court has said.”

A diocesan official, who did not want to be named, said the diocese was not interested in fighting against its people and has no plan to appeal against the order of the Karnataka High Court.

“Going for an appeal against the High Court order may not be feasible as other parishes are already having Mass in Konkani. Secondly, it is too expensive and not worth fighting against the people in the current circumstances in the country,” he said.

Swamy told UCA News on June 7, “I will decide about the future course of action after consulting my legal team.

“We are not interested in any litigation, we only want the bishop to permit us to have one Konkani Mass every Sunday and other feast days. We do not want to disturb anyone,” Lobo said.


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