By Matters India Reporter
New Delhi: It is time the Church in India had a cardinal from the Dalit community, says a Jesuit scholar.
It will be a great recognition for Dalits who form more than 60 percent of Christians in the country, says Father A. Maria Arul Raja, a professor of Religious Studies at the Jesuit Theology Centre in Chennai.
The priest spoke to Matters India after addressing more than 200 bishops who represent 174 dioceses in the country at the biennial plenary in Bengaluru, southern India. He spoke about the Church and Dalits.
According to him, a Dalit a cardinal would elevate one of the most socially suppressed communities. It would be a symbolic gesture to affirm the dignity and rights of the community that has lived in “the sub-human condition imposed by the caste system on the community for centuries,” said Father Raja.
India has 13 cardinals so far starting with Cardinal Valerian Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, in 1953. They have represented various communities in the Indian Church: Goan, East Indian, Eurasian, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, Eurasian, Tamil and Tribal.
Father Raja says a Dalit cardinal will give visibility to the community and highlight injustice done to them in society as well in the Church. “It will be powerful witness to Jesus who took a strong choice for the poor, outcasts, socially excluded, the priest said.
The gesture of appointing a Dalit cardinal will portray the Church “as it should be:” the Church of the poor, the discriminated and the socially excluded. It will encourage the community to oppose injustice, share resources and inspire leaders in the Church, Father Raja explained.
However, it is the prerogative of the Pope to appoint church leaders as cardinals, he acknowledged.
Another social activist Father Ajaya Kumar Singh too agreed with Father Raja. The Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocesan priest says a Dalit cardinal overdue.
“Empowerment means being part of governance and decision-making process. Dalits are worst represented in the Catholic Church. They suffer from multiple vulnerabilities. Their representation would give an inclusive, positive and humane face to the church,” Father Singh told Matters India.
The priest also believes a Dalit cardinal would “enhance the image, reputation and credibility of the Catholic Church and prove that it is for those on the margins.”
Dalits are seen as on the margins although they outnumber others in the Church. “The Dalit cardinal’s appointment could be a course correction for historical injuries and injustice done to the communities over centuries,” he added.
Jesuit Father AXJ Bosco, coordinator of the United Front for Dalit Christian Rights, also supports a Dalit cardinal. “If Dalits have to be empowered, they must assume leadership,” he told Matters India.
According to him, leadership in the Catholic Church is with the hierarchy. “Although 65 percent of the Catholics are Dalits, not even 8 percent of the bishops are Dalits; 12 out of 183. Unfortunately, the oppressive caste system, a social evil, dominates the Hierarchy and the Church,” Father Bosco regretted.
Dalit means “trampled upon” or “broken open” in Sanskrit and denotes people formerly known as untouchables in India’s multi-tiered caste system.
The government introduced free education and a quota in government jobs for Hindu Dalits in 1956 to improve their social status. While the same statutory rights were later extended to Buddhist and Sikh Dalits, the demand for equal rights for Christian Dalits has been rejected by successive governments in India.