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The ancient Catholic group battling to keep its unique marriage rules

In April 2021, an Indian court issued a judgment that threatened to overturn a custom practiced by a Catholic community for almost 1,700 years. 

The 155-page ruling by a district court in Kottayam, Kerala State, focused on the marriage rules of the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Kottayam, a unique ecclesiastical circumscription in southern India. 

The sanctuary of Kaduthuruthy Valiapally, a church founded by the Knanaya community in 400 A.D. in Kerala, India. Thomast48 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The archeparchy is solely for Catholics belonging to the Knanaya people, an ethnic group which traces its presence in India back to the 4th century.

Membership in the archeparchy is determined by birth into a family with a Knanaya Catholic father and mother. 

And because membership is connected to family lineage, young Knanaya Catholics are expected to marry someone within the same community, a norm known as endogamy. If they wed a Catholic from another diocese, they relinquish their membership in the archeparchy.

But the 2021 court verdict challenged that policy, with the judge insisting that in future, members of the archeparchy should no longer forfeit their membership when marrying Catholics outside the community.

Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt, the head of Archeparchy of Kottayam, is now seeking to overturn the ruling. Earlier this month, Kerala’s high court refused to lift the lower court’s order, but agreed to hear an appeal against it. 

The archbishop believes that if a ban on forfeiting membership in the archeparchy is enforced, it could “destroy the ethnic identity of the community.” 

So, who are the Knanaya people? How does the Church view endogamy? And is the community’s future in peril? The Pillar takes a look.


Thomas of Kinai receives a blessing as he prepares to depart for India. Alexander J. Mapleton via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

A dream that led to India

The story of the Knanaya Catholics begins with a group of Jewish Christians who, according to tradition, migrated from Mesopotamia to southern India in 345 A.D., led by a merchant known as Thomas of Kinai.

Fr. Abraham Mutholath, a priest from the Archeparchy of Kottayam serving in the U.S., told The Pillar that the group emigrated from the Middle East amid concerns that the Christian community on India’s Malabar Coast was shrinking.

“St. Thomas the Apostle had preached the Gospel in South India and established seven churches and small Christian communities. The church there had declined by the 4th century,” the pastor of Chicago’s Sacred Heart Knanaya Catholic Syro-Malabar Forane Parish said in a phone interview. 

“They sought the help of Thomas of Kinai, a popular merchant from Mesopotamia who used to come to Cranganore [now known as Kodungalloor] port for business. He reported the request of the Christian community in South India to the head of his Church in Mesopotamia.” 

“According to our tradition, the head of the Chaldean Church there had a dream saying that he had to support the Christian community, which was declining in South India. The Chaldean Church held a synod that sent, in 345 A.D., Bishop Joseph of Urha, four priests, and some deacons who volunteered to go to India to preach the Gospel.”

“To support these missionaries, and considering the fertility of the land, the synod sent some families as migrants to Cranganore, in the present state of Kerala. Based on the biblical numbers, they selected 72 families from seven clans, representing the 72 disciples of Jesus and the seven sacraments.” 

“According to the traditional songs of the community, these migrants were Jewish Christians who were descendants of the royal tribe of Judah. Thomas of Kinai volunteered to lead them and he got permission from Cheraman Perumal, [who was] then the king of Cranganore, for the migration.”

The king allowed the group to settle on vacant land in the southern part of his palace, Fr. Mutholath said, which led to the settlers being called “Southists,” in contrast with the “Northists,” or previously established Indian Christian community.

The Southists worshiped in the Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus. In India, they continued their practice of marrying solely within the community. 

“They kept up their Judeo-Christian identity by keeping endogamy,” Fr. Mutholath said. “Besides, in India, there was no inter-caste marriage because the local people had religious classes and each group married from their own community. That also facilitated to stay together, and keep up their faith and traditions.”

Over the centuries, the Southists remained a distinct part of the wider community known as St. Thomas Christians. They are known today as the Knanaya, a term derived from Knā’nāya Thoma, Thomas of Kinai’s name in Syriac. 

The coat of arms of the Archeparchy of Kottayam. Abraham Mutholath via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

What sets Knanaya Catholics apart

Although all Knanaya Christians belong to a single ethnic group, there are certain internal differences. Some Knanaya are members of the Catholic Church, while others worship under the auspices of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and others still are Pentecostals.

The Archeparchy of Kottayam, which dates back to 1911, was founded by Pope Pius X as an eparchy exclusively for Catholics of the Knanaya ethnic group. 

Not all members of the archeparchy are Syro-Malabar Catholics — while the archeparchy is a part of the Syro-Malabar structure, it also has personal jurisdiction over Knanaya Catholics who are members of the Eastern Catholic Syro-Malankara Church, which is also in full communion with the pope.

The archeparchy has both Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara auxiliary bishops. Its leader, Archbishop Moolakkatt, has personal jurisdiction over all Knanaya Catholics living in the Syro-Malabar Church’s proper territory (territorium proprium) — a kind of jurisdiction similar to that of the head of a local personal ordinariate for ex-Anglicans.

The archeparchy’s proper territory is limited to Kerala and parts of the neighboring Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, encompassing around 133,000 Knanaya Catholics.

A further 44,000 Knanaya Catholics live outside the proper territory, in countries such as the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and the Gulf States. The Archbishop of Kottayam ensures that those communities are supplied with priests. 

While Knanaya Catholics don’t have their own liturgy, they observe other customs apart from endogamy that distinguish them from surrounding Catholic communities. These practices include a blessing that fathers give their children on their deathbeds, and wedding traditions that echo Jewish customs, such as the positioning of the bride and groom under a chuppah-like canopy. They are also known for their traditional songs, some dating back to ancient times.

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What does the Church teach about endogamy?

The Knanaya are not the only Catholics who practice forms of endogamy. Other Catholic communities may encourage marriage within the group, especially where they are an embattled minority, but they are unlikely to do so as strictly as Knanaya Catholics.

To what extent is strict endogamy compatible with Catholicism? From a legal point of view, marriage practices in the Knanaya Catholic community are governed by the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the Eastern Catholic counterpart to the Code of Canon Law.

Both codes address two impediments to marriage: consanguinity (blood relationships) and affinity (relationships established by marriage). 

The Church counts consanguinity and affinity in degrees by counting the number of generations in the lines back to the common ancestor, but excluding the common ancestor

Both consanguinity and affinity can be either in the direct line (for example, grandmother-grandson) or in the collateral line (uncle-niece).

Canon 808 of the Eastern code says that marriages in the direct line of consanguinity are invalid and in the collateral line “up to and including the fourth degree.”

Canon 809 says that “affinity invalidates a marriage in the direct line in any degree whatsoever; in the collateral line, in the second degree.”

The law governing Latin Catholics is similar. No cousins by blood can marry (though this can and is dispensed in the Latin Church, as well as the Eastern Churches), and no one can marry their sister-in-law (though this too can be dispensed). But marriage in any degree of the direct line can never be dispensed.

In a 1997 booklet, Bishop Kuriakose Kunnacherry of Kottayam argued that Knanaya Catholic marriage practices were in harmony with Church law.  

“By keeping the rule of endogamy, the Knanaya community does not break any law of the Catholic Church,” he wrote. “We do observe the canon laws regarding the matrimonial impediments of consanguinity and affinity.”

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In the same booklet, Kunnacherry described endogamy as “the raison d’etre and constitutive principle of the Knanaya community.”

“Membership in the Knanaya community is by birth, i.e., by being born of Knanaya parents (both father and mother),” he explained. “Everyone so born of Knanaya parents is ipso facto a member of the community. No one else can be given membership in the community.”

He described what happened when a Knanaya Catholic married someone outside of the community. 

“Any Knanaya person who freely and willingly decides to marry a non-Knanaya spouse knows fully well that the non-Knanaya spouse and would-be born children cannot be absorbed as members into the Knanaya community or Knanaya eparchy,” he wrote.

“He/she is also aware of the norms and formalities that are in the usual practice for such inter-marriages. Hence, by an act of free choice, the Knanaya partner to such inter-marriage requests and obtains a release from his/her Knanaya eparchy to join a non-Knanaya parish in order to marry a non-Knanaya spouse of his/her free choice, safeguarding at the same time the unity of his/her newly born family also ecclesiastically.” 

Bishop Kunnacherry insisted that this did not amount to the “exclusion or expulsion of a Knanaya person from the Knanaya community and eparchy.”

Given that the Archbishop of Kottayam has no pastoral jurisdiction over non-Knanaya spouses and their children, proponents say, Knanaya Catholics who marry a non-Knanaya Catholic in India are simply expected to join the local non-Knanaya parish.

If requested, priests of the Archeparchy of Kottayam can administer pastoral services to former members, including funeral services, with the permission of the non-Knanaya parish to which the ex-members belong. 

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Explaining the Vatican’s view of endogamy among India’s Knanaya Catholics, Fr. Mutholath likened it to the idea of separation of Church and state.  

“The Vatican can make canon law and decisions on the Church rules,” he said, “whereas the Church cannot define a community, and a community cannot define a Church.” 

He added: “The community and the Church are distinct entities. However, they should not in conflict with one another, and the Knanaya community always kept up its faith and relationship as part of the Eastern Church.”

The Chicago clarification

In the early 21st century, a dispute arose in Chicago, an important center of the Knanaya diaspora. The dispute shed light on the Vatican’s stance. 

In 2001, Pope John Paul II established the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago, giving it jurisdiction over Syro-Malabar Catholics throughout the U.S. including Knanaya Catholics. The pope asked Bishop Jacob Angadiath to lead the new diocese.

The Congregation for the Eastern Churches — the Vatican department responsible for Eastern Catholic communities — reportedly told the bishop that pastoral care should not “make any allowance for endogamy to play a role in defining the membership of faithful in any mission or parish established by the eparchy.”

In 2006, Bishop Angadiath established a Knanaya Region within the diocese, dedicated to the pastoral care of Knanaya Catholics. Fr. Mutholath was appointed to serve as its director.

On Sept. 19, 2014, the bishop wrote a letter saying that “a personal parish/mission for Knanaya Catholics will have only Knanaya Catholics as members.” 

“If a Knanaya Catholic belonging to a Knanaya parish/mission enters into marriage with a non-Knanaya partner, that non-Knanaya partner and children from that marriage will not become members of the Knanaya parish/mission but will remain members of the local non-Knanaya Syro Malabar parish/mission,” he said.

The letter triggered complaints, and in 2015, the Vatican congregation appointed the then Bishop Michael Mulhall of Pembroke, Canada, to study the situation in the Knanaya Catholic diaspora. 

Mulhall submitted a report in 2017.

On Nov. 15 of that year, the congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, wrote a letter to Kottayam’s Archbishop Moolakkatt, explaining that although the study “offered hopeful avenues to explore in the years ahead, the basic position of this Congregation remains unchanged.”

“Specifically, while the link which has developed between the practice of endogamy and ecclesial life, has been tolerated de facto in the territorium proprium — [ in India] — it is not to be permitted elsewhere,” he wrote.

Sandri continued: “Certainly, this Dicastery understands that the Knanaya community spread throughout the world wishes to find a point of unity in one figure, the Archbishop of Kottayam. Nonetheless, these are members of the Syro-Malabar or Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches before all else, and they must look to their local bishops for unity in matters of faith and morals.” 

“Other means must be sought to help Knanaya persons living far from home to retain, where possible, their cultural ties; this can certainly include visits or letters from the Archbishop of Kottayam or his auxiliary, with the prior accord of the local bishop, provided that any confusion regarding jurisdiction is avoided.”

Sandri also wrote a letter to Bishop Angadiath underlining the Vatican’s position on endogamy and diaspora communities.

“The intent of allowing so-called Knanaya parishes in the diaspora is to have a place where the social and cultural bonds of this community can be specially fostered without, however, limiting either membership or participation in the parish only to persons of Knanayan lineage,” the Argentine cardinal said. 

“You are, therefore, kindly requested to remind your people that no parish or mission is to be considered endogamous in any sense.”

The Vatican congregation returned to the topic in 2019, when it responded to a letter from the Knanaya Association of North America (KANA) sent via the apostolic nuncio to the U.S.

A letter signed by two Vatican officials said that “while this Dicastery stands by the statement that no parish or mission is to be considered endogamous, it is also our longstanding position not to pronounce on the criteria of belonging to the Knanaya community, this being a matter to be resolved within the community itself.” 

“The Congregation has therefore repeatedly clarified with the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Chicago that any faithful belonging to a Knanaya parish who marries outside the community remains a member of the parish in good standing and is to come under no compulsion to leave. Any pressure in this sense would be illegitimate.” 

“Moreover, participation in parish activities is open to non-Knanaya spouses, as well as any children born of the marriage.”

Fr. Mutholath, who is based in Chicago, noted that diaspora Knanaya parishes are defined as “personal parishes,” rather than territorial ones.  

“According to the Oriental [Eastern] Congregation, if a person marries from outside the community and if he wants to remain in the Knanaya parish, he can remain because it is a personal parish,” he said.

“The service should be open for all the Catholics. And that, we have been practicing. We never denied a sacrament or any other services of the Knanaya parish system to non-Knanaya people regardless of whether they are Latin Rite, the Syro-Malabar Rite, or the Syro-Malankara Rite. So, the service is open.”

Fr. Mutholath continued: “Being an ecclesiastical leader, the Archbishop of Kottayam, who is the head of the community, had to obey the directives of the Vatican. As head of the community, he has been raising the sensitive issue of his people to the Holy See.” 

“There are a few people who object to the stand of the Vatican and influence the majority in the community. They don’t want people who marry from outside the community to remain in the diaspora missions and parishes.” 

“That doesn’t make sense to some people, because those who are born of both Knanaya parents are Knanaya people regardless of whether they marry from outside the community. Though they have a right to marry whoever they like, it affects the preservation of the volume of this endogamous community.” 

“The community has been discouraging such marriages and encouraging those who marry outside the community to join the nearby Syro-Malabar Catholic parishes for their family membership in the parish. The community is not ready to implement the new directives of the Church. That is the current issue in the community in diaspora.”

An opposition movement

But while Knanaya Catholic leaders strongly defend the community’s marriage practices, a movement has arisen in India that seeks to challenge them in the courts.    

In 1991, a teacher called O.M. Uthup placed an advertisement in Kottayam’s daily newspaper Malayala Manorama, inviting Knanaya Catholics who married non-Knanaya spouses to get in touch. 

Uthup’s son, Biju, had been denied permission to marry another member of the Archeparchy of Kottayam in 1989, reportedly because an anonymous informant told the Church authorities that his grandmother was not a Knanaya Catholic.

A series of public meetings led to the creation of the group Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samiti (KCNS), which began to take legal action against what it saw as unjust policies.

Yet Uthup believed that, ultimately, endogamy was “a social issue rather than a legal issue.” 

“Priests with vested interest have always stood against social reforms,” he wrote. “We have witnessed the collapse of Brahmin supremacy over other factions of the Hindu religion. The weak thread of tradition and practices cannot hold them anymore. I am sure that the caste system in the Catholic Church will vanish in due course.”

Knanaya Reform, an international group, sees itself as building on the work of the KCNS in India and KANA in North America. 

“If a member of Kottayam diocese marries from any other Christian denomination or a converted Christian (non-endogamous marriage), the member is asked to leave the eparchy of Kottayam and is not granted any sacraments,” the group says.

“Their biological children and or adopted children will not be allowed to be members of the Kottayam diocese and all the sacraments are denied. Kottayam diocese expels members selectively on the basis of racial considerations and purity of blood, which is clearly unchristian, unconstitutional, and violates basic human rights.”

The opposition movement has, in turn, inspired Knanaya Catholics to push back against what they consider “falsehoods” about the community, such as that it is preoccupied with “preserving the purity of blood.”

The polemics increasingly play out online, with opponents and supporters of the marriage rules arguing back and forth.

Fr. Mutholath suggested it was regrettable that the Knanaya Catholic community was sometimes reduced to the single issue of endogamy, as if that was all that it stood for.

“We have been always generous in supporting people outside the community. For example, our charity works, our education institutions, our social service, and our welfare institutions are open for all the deserving people,” he said. 

“Most of the people who benefit out of them are outside the community. The community supplies missionary bishops, priests, and religious all over the world, and works with the local Latin dioceses.”

“We are altruistic, and not selfish at all. However, the public misunderstand us because what they hear through the social media are the issues associated with the endogamous nature of the community.”

An existential threat?

What does the Indian district court ruling of April 2021 mean for Knanaya Catholics?

The Archeparchy of Kottayam has made no changes to its present practice as it seeks to challenge the judgment in the state high court. Observers think the case has the potential to go all the way to India’s Supreme Court.

According to the order issued by Kerala’s high court earlier this month, Kottayam’s Archbishop Moolakkatt believes that if the decree was enforced it would lead to “irreparable injuries” and “great discontentment in the community.”

Although the high court did not stay the lower court’s order, it said that “in view of the substantial questions of law” raised by the case, “a detailed hearing would be necessary to resolve various issues finally.”

Asked if the case posed an existential threat to the Knanaya Catholic community, Fr. Mutholath said that it was not the most worrying one.

“The existence of the community can be threatened more by the changes in the views of the young people,” he commented. 

“If they don’t care about marrying from the community, that would be the most important challenge, and not the legal side.”

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