A parish in an Indian archdiocese established to serve a strictly endogamous community has taken the unprecedented step of permitting a member to marry a Catholic from another diocese.
The pastor of St. Anne’s Knanaya Catholic Church in Kottody, Kerala State, reportedly issued a letter of permission April 15 to 31-year-old Justin John, who was engaged two days later to Vijimol Shaji, a member of the Archdiocese of Tellicherry.
John, who plans to marry in mid-May, is a member of the Archeparchy of Kottayam, a unique ecclesiastical circumscription in southern India for members of the Knanaya ethnic group, who for almost 1,700 years have married exclusively within their community.
Knanaya men who marry Catholics outside the archeparchy are usually no longer regarded as members of the archeparchy and are expected to join a non-Knanaya parish.
Indian media described the granting of permission to John as a historic step that could signal the death knell for the archeparchy’s marriage rules.
In a March 30 letter to John, an official of the archeparchy said that ever since the Knanaya people migrated to southern India from Mesopotamia in 345 A.D. only those born to both a Knanaya mother and father were permitted to be members of Knanaya parishes.
The official recalled that the Archeparchy of Kottayam, which dates back to 1911, was founded exclusively for Knanaya Catholics. But he noted that the practice of limiting membership had been challenged in India’s civil courts.
In April 2021, a district court in Kottayam declared that “by entering into the sacrament of marriage with another Catholic from any other diocese, a member of Archeparchy of Kottayam will not forfeit his/her membership in … the Archeparchy of Kottayam.”
Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt, the head of Archeparchy of Kottayam, is seeking to overturn the ruling. In March this year, Kerala’s high court refused to lift the lower court’s order but agreed to hear an appeal against it.
The archbishop has suggested that if a ban on forfeiting membership in the archeparchy is enforced, it could “destroy the ethnic identity of the community.”
John told the website Matters India that after searching fruitlessly for a bride within the Knanaya community for five years, he decided to look in other Catholic dioceses.
His marriage to Shaji was arranged with the agreement of both families, but when John asked his pastor for a letter of permission, he was told to contact Archbishop Moolakkatt.
Unhappy with the response, John ultimately sent a legal notice saying that “any refusal to grant permission for my marriage is a clear violation of the court order and amounts to invitation of contempt of court case,” Matters India reported.
An archeparchy official told the website that “the permission was granted in compliance with court direction.”
Sources in the Knanaya Catholic community told The Pillar that the granting of permission to John did not indicate a wholesale change in the archeparchy’s marriage policy.
They stressed that the archeparchy was obeying the court ruling while awaiting the opportunity to contest it.