Dalit Catholics struggle to be represented in the Indian Church

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The issue of caste and caste discrimination against Dalits within the Catholic Church in India has existed for centuries.

This issue has often been raised by Dalit Christians. But over the past three decades, they have been vehemently vocal, especially after the emergence of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) in 1990.

They suffer from discrimination and marginalization at all levels of the Church. The biggest and most critical issue now is the gross marginalization and near exclusion of Dalit Catholics from the Indian Catholic hierarchy – the main reason for the rampant discrimination and injustice that continues at other levels.

But the response continues to be one of indifference, resistance and antagonism alongside attempts to slander and criminalize their struggle.

Thus, Dalits are forced to take to the streets. The most unfortunate thing is that this truth of caste and discrimination is hidden from the Apostolic Nuncio in India and from the Holy See. The Indian Catholic hierarchy does not tell them the truth but conceals it.

Dalit Christians should petition successive Apostolic Nuncios, Vatican Dicasteries and the Pope. The DCLM has been doing this for 30 years.

Unfortunately, instead of continuing this process, it has been reversed over the past 15 years, prompting Dalit Christians to renew their struggle

Due to the struggle of the Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry and the representations of the DCLM, some attention was paid and some concern shown by the nuncios between 1990 and 2006. Progress was made. As a result, a Dalit bishop was appointed for the first time and then three more appointed in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.

Unfortunately, instead of continuing this process, it has been reversed over the past 15 years, prompting Dalit Christians to renew their struggle.

Currently, there is only one Dalit bishop in the 18 dioceses of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. This is why Dalit Christians are now asking to appoint a Dalit in the vacant Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore, which has two vacant bishoprics. Two other positions are vacant in Tamil Nadu.

There is no justification for continuing the blatant marginalization of Dalits in the Catholic hierarchy when they make up over 70% of Catholics in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry and around 64% of Catholics across India.

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Thus, a meeting between a delegation of the DCLM and the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, on February 2, had significance and attracted the attention of the media.

The delegation asked him the question, but although he listened with an apparent concern that gave hope, his observations as reported in some news media were disappointing and rather misleading.

His observation that “there is no discrimination in the selection of episcopal candidates and in the appointment of new bishops” was inappropriate as it amounted to defending the blatant caste discrimination by the Indian Catholic hierarchy in recommending priests.

But reports of his comments could be misleading. What he really wanted to make clear is that there is no discrimination committed or intentional by the nuncio in the selection of prelates and that he is not responsible for it.

When the DCLM delegation met him, he expressed a similar view, but insisted that we only speak to the local council of bishops on the issue of the exclusion of Dalit priests. The reports should have been more explicit.

This is clear from his comment that the nuncio’s responsibility is solely to verify a candidate bishop’s priestly integrity and fitness for office by strictly following a process determined by canon law. However, we are not blaming the Nuncio, we are only asking him to raise the matter with the Catholic hierarchy in India.

The concern is that such a general statement will embolden the hierarchy to continue its discrimination, not to report it.

He only mentioned his technical role and his responsibility in the selection process. Thus, his comments should not be construed as denying that discrimination is taking place.

However, it is disappointing for Dalit Christians that the nuncio’s reported comments give reasons to justify the persistence of extreme caste discrimination instead of finding ways to change things.

Despite this, it is a positive sign that Archbishop Girelli is concerned about the issue and Dalits welcome his openness in making statements touching on caste discrimination in the Church.

There are only 11 Dalits out of about 160 Catholic bishops in India, while Dalits make up nearly two-thirds of the Catholic population. This in itself is substantial evidence of discrimination in the hierarchy.

When this is the reality, it is not surprising that Bishop Girelli’s comments can be interpreted as inappropriate and disappointing.

It is therefore curious to see how Archbishop Girelli can say that there is no discrimination in the selection of episcopal candidates and the appointment of new bishops.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) policy of empowering Dalits speaks quite openly about traditional casteism in the Church and all aspects of existing discrimination, including in vocations and hierarchy.

The nuncio says he is aware of the policy and supports and recommends its implementation. He quotes the policy: “Caste with its consequent effects of discrimination and caste mentality has no place in Christianity.”

It is therefore curious to see how Archbishop Girelli can say that there is no discrimination in the selection of episcopal candidates and the appointment of new bishops. Indeed, the implementation of the CBCI policy requires equal representation in the hierarchy.

The nuncio stressed that the episcopal ministry in the Church is meant to be a service to the people and not a symbol of power. But this is not an answer to the Dalits’ call to end caste discrimination. There should be equal representation and participation of Dalits. It’s plain and simple.

The nuncio also spoke of choosing priests with integrity and ability. Dalits are not against these criteria, but how is it that integrity and adequacy are always found among non-Dalit minority Catholics and not in the Dalit majority?

There are bound to be differences in the integrity and aptitude of individuals. Everything is relative both in perception and in judgment. This does not mean that these traits are not present in the many priests excluded from selection because the number of bishops is limited.

The Indian hierarchy uses the criteria or standards of merit, ability and aptitude as prime factors to mask the injustice of the marginalization of Dalits. But what we need to question is the integrity and relevance of the selection process as it underpins and sustains the unfair system.

The nuncio says he must strictly follow canon law in the process of determining the direction of the Church. But he should not use canon law routinely or as a matter of formality, knowing that unjust caste discrimination is involved in the process.

To put an end to such an ancient injustice requires difficult and appropriate deliberate measures, something more than the usual technicalities and procedural norms.

Canon law should not be used to legitimize a grave injustice. He has the power to suspend a list of recommended names or refer it to the Council of Bishops if Dalit priests are omitted. If not, what does it mean or to whom is it addressed when the universal Church speaks of justice, equality and human dignity?

The role of the nuncio in this regard should not be a mere formality without addressing the substantive issue of caste discrimination. Although he does not select or nominate candidates himself, endorsing a list with a caste bias is certainly conforming to it, without being complicit.

Ending such an ancient injustice requires appropriate and deliberate action, something more than the usual technicalities and procedural standards.

The apostolic nunciature says it is “aware of the contribution of the Dalit people to the Catholic Church in India” and “always considers Dalit candidates for the episcopate”. This is not really true when you look at reality.

This “consideration” must not be a form of charity, generosity or concession; it should take the form of a firm commitment to justice, equality and human dignity for historically oppressed peoples. Otherwise, the necessary changes will not occur.

The nuncio also spoke of a “mutual sense of belonging to the Church”. It is true and accepted. But it is not the Dalits who stand in the way of a sense of belonging. It is the dominant castes and the hierarchy that discriminate against the Dalits. Caste hinders a sense of mutual belonging and creates a feeling of exclusion.

What the Dalit Christians and the DCLM want the nuncio and the Vatican to understand is that the Indian Catholic hierarchy does not have the will to change the situation. He’s not even ready to talk about it. There is not a single prelate in the Indian Church who stands against caste and speaks out for justice and equality for Dalits within the Church.

The nuncio and the Holy See must intervene because the final authority rests with them to approve and announce episcopal appointments. They can no longer deny their responsibility.

Dalit Catholic leader Mary John is President of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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