Monday, February 27, 2012

Cardinal sin: Who’s playing with the truth, Alencherry or Vatican?

It is not nice for a cardinal to begin his newly ordained life with a half-lie. 

Or a misquote. 

But this is what Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, head of the Eastern Syro-Malabar Church, has done less than a month after being elevated by the Vatican.

On Wednesday, the Cardinal was quoted by Agenzia Fides, which describes itself as the “information service of the pontifical mission societies since 1927”, as saying that he had “contacted the Catholic ministers who are in the government of Kerala” to help out in the case involving the killing of two fishermen by two Italian naval guards on the merchant vessel Enrica Lexie.

On Thursday, the Cardinal clarifies that he has “not tried to intervene in this matter, nor have I contacted any ministers regarding this.”

Now, we have two possibilities: either the Cardinal is telling us a half-truth (or half-lie), or the papal news agency is. Or both are telling us less than the truth. 

If it’s the former, it doesn’t say much for the character of a Cardinal who begins his new job with an untruth. 

If it’s the latter, it doesn’t speak much for the reporting capabilities of the pope’s press corps.

Worse, Agenzia Fides has removed the old statement attributed to the Cardinal without any explanation. (You have no option but to read it in Firstpost now.) 

Instead, it has merely put up the Cardinal’s new statement.

Now, this is not only unethical but an attempt to obfuscate the truth. 

When major corrections and clarifications are made on the web, the ethical thing to do is to say you are replacing the old story with a new one, apologise for the error, and then put out the new version.

This is not what the Vatican’s news agency has done. 

Is this what God’s own PR agency should be doing?

Regardless of whether the Cardinal was misquoted or the papal agency was taking liberties with the truth, there is good reason to take a relook at that original statement – since it was put in the public domain. 

There are some lessons here for secularism and the rule of law.

The Cardinal, in his revised statement, said this about the killing of two Indian fishermen: “Two precious lives have been lost. Strong legal action should be taken against the guilty.”

But this is not what he allegedly told Agenzia Fides in the earlier version. 

The Cardinal said: “I learned the story of the Catholic fishermen killed: it is very sad. I immediately contacted the Catholic ministers of Kerala urging the government not to act precipitately.”

He added: “I am and will remain in close contact with the Catholic ministers of Kerala and I hope that they will help to pacify the situation. In particular, I trust in the work of the Tourism Minister, the Catholic KV Thomas, who participated in the consistory in Rome in past days and attended the mass with the Holy Father and the new cardinals: he is a man of great moral stature and of significant influence, both in the local and central government, and he assured me his maximum effort. I guarantee, in the next few days, my constant involvement with the Indian authorities on the matter”.

We have emphasised the word Catholic for two reasons: one, this is an important part of the version put out by Agenzia Fides. 

Either the agency was trying to make it an all-Catholic affair, or the Cardinal was. 

Or both half-agreed to put things this way. 

And two, if the Cardinal believes in the rule of law, it should not matter if the victims are Catholic, or the killers, or even the minister who has been roped in to help.

How does his new statement (“Two precious lives have been lost. Strong legal action should be taken against the guilty”) square up with his earlier (allegedly misreported) statement where he wants all action to be based on the involved parties’ Catholic identities?

Is this not communalism of the worst kind? 

Is this not pandering to the wishes of the Vatican’s Italian roots? 

What has the Vatican to do with Italy’s narrow nationalism?

Would we not consider this statement communal if it had come from the Sangh parivar? 

What if the above statement had been made (in another context) by a parivar member after the Kandhamal riots in Orissa?

“I learned the story of the Hindu Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati who was killed, leading to communal riots between Hindus and Christians; it is very sad. I immediately contacted the Hindu leaders of Orissa and urged the government not to act precipitately. In the episode, of course, there were errors by both sides. But the point is another: it seems that the opposition party wants to take advantage of the situation and exploit the case for electoral reasons.”

“I am and will remain in close contact with the Hindu ministers of Orissa and I hope that they will help to pacify the situation. In particular, I trust in the work of the Chief Minister, the Hindu Naveen Patnaik, with whom our party the BJP is in alliance.”

If you think the above statement can be construed as communal, why would you not think what the Cardinal is alleged to have said as communal? 

Can we have it both ways in judging communalism?

We can, of course, say that the Cardinal was misquoted. But in this case the blame must rest with the pontifical news agency of the Vatican.

So who made the communal call? 

The Cardinal or the Vatican?