Authority, Community & Identity article

Which Language, Whose Vernacular?: Vatican II and Liturgical Politics in Bangalore (Part 3)

What Language Represents

While the first two demands of the pro-Kannada group in April 1990 were specifically about the issue of language in the liturgy, their next two demands reflected broader concerns: that (more) Kannada Christians be ordained priests, and that churches in villages be renovated. Clearly for the nationalists, the denigration of the status of their language is one of the key reasons for the perpetuation of inequalities vis-à-vis important roles — not only in the Church but also in a rapidly modernizing society. Even while the new archbishops have been chosen from within the state of Karnataka, the groups remain dissatisfied because most bishops chosen are not of Kannada origin (even though they may be fluent in the language).

The conflict therefore cannot be seen as purely a matter of language. To a great extent, it has to do with economics. With the shift of the liturgical language from Latin to the vernacular of the majority of every parish, Tamil-speaking priests began to enjoy prime (urban) postings, whereas Kannada-speaking priests were relegated to rural areas. So it was not simply a slight to nationalist pride in their language, but felt to them like salt in their wounds that they were also denied the privileges of city life and assigned to “backward” areas where roads and electricity were often lacking. Some priests I interviewed, who identified with neither language group though they spoke both languages, mentioned how their confreres who were assigned to these areas complained about lacking the basic comforts that they had even in seminary, and a sense of insult that they were denied this precisely because they were sons of the soil.

To attempt a resolution of the issue, one archbishop mandated a rotation of assignments so that nobody would be indefinitely relegated to a rural posting. But this apparently only brought up further complaints from priests, who were unable to adjust to either environment. The rapid modernization of the city meant having to deal with the growing prominence of English as a necessity for survival in the global economy.

There are further complications to the story. For instance, some told me that many of the so-called Kannada priests did not actually speak Kannada as their mother-tongue, but rather, Telugu, which is the official language of another neighboring state, Andhra Pradesh. This makes their insistence on the primacy of Kannada all the more peculiar, because their criterion for worth is neither mere fluency in the language, nor simply one’s having been born and raised in the state of Karnataka, but having Kannada as a mother-tongue. Their grievance is not simply against Tamils, but also against Konkani speakers (from regions like Mangalore, also in Karnataka), who enjoy positions of prominence in the Archdiocese — for instance, the past three archbishops are of Konkani origin.

Here a further issue emerges. In the principal Kannada Catholic Association’s recent complaints against the present Archbishop, Bernard Moras, it is noticeable that in berating him for not appointing more Kannada bishops (i.e., those whose mother-tongue is Kannada), they also accuse him of favoring his “brahminical community.” While many priests and religious I spoke to denied that the caste system had anything to do with the problems in this Archdiocese — they said it was certainly a more prominent issue in other places — the influence of caste may simply be less visible here. If, as some claim, the majority of Mangalorean Catholics have Brahmin roots, then their prominence in the church leadership might inadvertently reproduce caste inequalities. However, it is not clear that Kannada priests represent a caste minority.


It is difficult to offer more than a brief outline of the history of this complex problem. Most people I have interviewed about the consequences of Vatican II in Bangalore, priests and laypeople alike, considered this a lamentable episode in their history, and one that drained the Church of a lot of its energy and resources that should have been better spent addressing more serious social problems.

(Some were unwilling to speak about this openly, and were especially hesitant to go on the record. This was understandable in light of stories of nationalist groups — with the consent of priests as well — carrying out attacks on individuals and families who challenged them. Even Simo’s historical volumes, which I mentioned earlier, were forcibly confiscated from bookstores and publicly burned, because of his criticism of their behavior that he had voiced at the end of the second volume. It involved considerable effort to track them down in Bangalore, though thankfully — albeit surprisingly — there seem to be copies available in some American university libraries).

Disputes about liturgical language — and particularly discontent over the three-language formula — continue in the Archdiocese of Bangalore till today, though its principal protagonists are now older and the violence has all but disappeared. Certainly this is only one aspect of the tale of the implementation of Vatican II in this part of the world. But it is an important tale of unintended consequences, one that challenges a simple progressive vision of modernization.

Certain readings of the Council share the conceit of modernization theory of the sort developed by Talcott Parsons and others in the 1950s. As Vilho Harle notes, the pervasive assumption among these social theorists was that modernization and urbanization would produce emotionally-restrained and self-interested individuals who would simply be unaffected by racial or ethnic concerns. The various forms of ethnic and national revivals that emerged in the second half of the 20th century have proved to be one of the more formidable challenges to modernization theory. And the checkered history of Vatican II in Bangalore serves as another case illustrating the contradictions and contentions in the project of modernity.

Brandon Vaidyanathan
Brandon Vaidyanathan Chair of the Department of Sociology at the Catholic University of America. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Notre Dame in 2014. He has researched and worked on the cultural dimensions of institutions in South Asia with his work being published in journals such as Business and Society and the Journal of American Academy and Religion.

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