India’s first Dalit cardinal opens path for egalitarian Church
Cardinal Anthony Poola of Hyderabad has a historical duty to be the voice of Dalit Christians
Archbishop Anthony Poola (right) of Hyderabad is greeted by Procurator and Chancellor reverend Father Victor Emmanuel after being named as a cardinal by Pope Francis, during a welcome ceremony by the clergy and faithful at the Bishop's House in Hyderabad on May 30. (Photo: AFP)
On Aug. 27, Pope Francis will create 21 new cardinals at a consistory at the Vatican. The new cardinals include the first Indian cardinal from the socially poor Dalit community – Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad.
His appointment is seen as historical as it recognizes the Dalit Christian community, which continues to suffer caste discrimination within the Catholic Church.
The appointment of a Dalit as cardinal comes after three decades of public struggle by Dalit Christians against continuing caste discrimination and domination. For the past four years, they have been demanding to appoint Dalit bishops, especially in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore. However, it has been prevented till now.
The struggles led by Dalit groups have been widely reported in recent times by some of the global Catholic media. And, this gesture of Pope Francis comes as a ray of hope for Dalit Christians. It also vindicates their struggle for justice and equality.
Caste discrimination against the Dalits started in the early days of Christianity in India. The early Provincial Councils of Goa in 1567, 1585, and 1606, forbade low castes and untouchables from joining seminaries.
The hierarchy continues that legacy even after several centuries.
"The appointment of a Dalit cardinal is a milestone in the history of the Church, particularly for Dalit Christians"
For instance, when the first Dalit archbishop — Marampudi Joji of Hyderabad — was appointed two decades ago, several top Church leaders in India openly criticized the Vatican.
“Rome is being taken for a ride. Rome does not know the ground realities,” said outgoing archbishop Samineni Arulappa of Hyderabad, as reported by UCA News at the time.
“If I say something, it will be interpreted as oppressing the oppressed, meaning the Dalits. Ninety-five percent of Hyderabad archdiocese’s priests oppose the appointment of Archbishop M. Joji. I give my successor less than five years in his new post. He has not remained more than three to four years in one place.” (UCA News, April 9, 2000)
Ironically, the first Dalit cardinal also comes from Hyderabad, where the first Dalit archbishop was installed 22 years ago.
The mass conversion of Dalits began already in the 19th century but only in recent decades has the number of Dalit priests increased to some extent. Dalit priests began to be appointed as bishops only in the 1990s.
For this reason, the appointment of a Dalit cardinal is a milestone in the history of the Church, particularly for Dalit Christians who still experience exclusion from the hierarchy.
"The appointment of the first Dalit cardinal is a call to India’s Catholic hierarchy, to shed its caste hegemony"
If you doubt it, consider these numbers. Of the 170 Catholic bishops in India, only 11 are Dalits, and the Church has only two Dalit archbishops out of 31 archbishops. It is so despite Dalits comprising about 64 percent of Catholics in India, according to the Indian bishops’ Dalit policy document.
The appointment of the first Dalit cardinal is a call to India’s Catholic hierarchy, to shed its caste hegemony by giving equal representation to Dalit Christians in the hierarchy. This must be the reason for the media attention the first Indian Dalit cardinal is getting across the globe.
The appointment of the first Dalit cardinal should not just be a milestone; it should also become a turning point in history.
Following in the footsteps of Pope Francis, the apostolic nuncio in India has to be progressive in his approach to the caste issue in the Catholic Church. He should not become the mouthpiece of the caste-dominant hierarchy. He should reach out to the roots of the Dalit Christians' cause, by promoting Dalit bishops and archbishops.
The first Dalit cardinal also has a historical duty to be the voice of Dalit Christians, taking up their case with the apostolic nuncio and the Vatican. That would, indeed, be doing justice to the decision of Pope Francis. India’s Catholic hierarchy should give all cooperation to him on this.
The casteism and discrimination of Dalits within the Church must be seen afresh in the context of the synodality of the Church called for by Pope Francis.
"The synodal process in the Indian Church needs to focus on listening to the critical voices of the marginalized and excluded"
The recent canonization of Saint Devasahayam from Tamil Nadu who was martyred for standing up against the caste discrimination of the ruling class of his time, also help strengthen the Dalit Christian cause.
Turning the vision of the Second Vatican Council into reality by both the global and local Churches is yet to be achieved. While the teaching of the Church is universal in nature, practicing it has to be diversified, multifarious, and contextual to the national and local socio-economic, political and cultural conditions.
Pope Francis' Apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” of 2013 emphasizes the importance of inclusion, peace and social dialogue as key elements of Evangelization. It says “our faith in Christ who became poor and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis for the integral development of society’s most neglected members.” (No.186)
This is followed by his clarion call for a synodal Church to strengthen the process of communion, participation, discernment, and mission to bring its teachings into practice.
But where does the question of Dalits stand in the synodal process in the Catholic Church in India? The synodal process in the Indian Church needs to focus on listening to the critical voices of the marginalized and excluded, especially the critical voice of the victim Dalits within.
Above all, following the historical gesture of Pope Francis, the Indian hierarchy should prove its credibility by taking expeditious steps to appoint Dalit bishops and archbishops in adequate numbers as an essential requirement or condition for a truly synodal Catholic Church in India.
Dalit Catholics in India are eagerly waiting to see the Catholic hierarchy, which has been abetting the counter-witnessing discrimination, taking the Christian path of building an egalitarian Church.
* Mary John is the president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement, an organization campaigning for the rights of socially deprived lower caste people in India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.