Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics in India are watching with concern a Supreme Court case about confession. Last week, the Supreme Court of India agreed to consider a petition by three lay members of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, who argue that the requirement of mandatory annual confession in their denomination violates the Constitutionally protected right to privacy.
The lawsuit follows two criminal cases, which started in 2018, where priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kerala were accused of abusing confession to solicit female penitents into sexual relationships, and blackmail their husbands by threatening to reveal their wives’ secrets. The criminal cases are pending, with some of the priests in jail, but a parallel canonical investigation of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church concluded that the priests were guilty, and they were defrocked.
After this incident, a lay member of the Church filed a lawsuit with the Kerala High Court, asking the judges to declare that the requirement to confess one’s sins to a priest is a violation of India’s Constitutional provisions protecting individual liberty and privacy. The court disagreed, commenting that the freedom of the church members is protected by their right to leave the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and join a different denomination where auricular confession is not required.
This decision was consistent with international case law, which regards as an intrinsic part of religious freedom the principle that secular courts should not interfere on the internal organisation of a religion. Members dissatisfied with how their religion is organised may simply leave it.
Now, however, three laymen have taken the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that they have no chance to prevail in Kerala. The case accepted by the Supreme Court also includes a request to rule that the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church’s requirement that each member contributes financially to the church is against the Constitution.
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