Synodal Church and the Dalit Christians in India

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By Prof. Mary John

It would be a farce of the Synodality Journey by the Catholic Church in India if it did not address the casteism and discrimination against Dalit Christians and end these, says Professor Mary John, President of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM).

In response to Pope Francis’ Synodal Exhortation in the Catholic Church world over, the Synodal process has been going on for the past  two years in the Catholic Church in India. This process in India must be critically looked at from the perspective of Dalit Christians and the reality of casteism and discrimination against them within the Church, though there are also other concerns.

Dalit Christians are the converts to Christianity from the erstwhile untouchable communities in India, also known as the Christians of Scheduled Castes (SC) origin.

For a meaningful “communion, participation, and mission” to create a synodal church in India, it is imperative to discern, acknowledge, and wake up to the historical caste oppression and discrimination against Dalit Christians.

But this much-needed discernment is blacked out deliberately and meticulously. The socio-religious and theological ramifications of the issue should be discerned to bring about change.

The Dalits, who continue to experience oppression within the Church, were unable to speak during the synodal gathering in India under the watch of the caste-dominant Catholic hierarchy. It is certainly against the essential purpose of the Synodal Journey.

The report of the “National Synthesis of the Synodal Consultation, 2021-2023” by the Conference of Catholic Bishops in India (CCBI) is presented to the first session of the XVI General Assembly of the Synod for a Synodal Church being held in Rome this October.

In this report, the word “Dalit” itself is mentioned only obscurely and nominally. Where is the voice of these victim Dalits in the synodality process?

This Synodality process in India has become only a further opportunity for the hierarchy and clergy to eclipse the historical caste domination and discrimination against Dalit Catholics. They repeatedly claim that the Holy Spirit is guiding them, despite this.

Their lips and tongues speak of the Holy Spirit, but their minds and hearts work with the caste spirit! That is why the discrimination against Dalits in the church continues unabated. They always think that the Holy Spirit works only through the caste hierarchy and clergy. They could not accept that the Holy Spirit works through the victim Dalit Christians and their movement seeking liberation, equality, and justice.

The Indian bishops would imitate and join in the general chorus of synodality in the “Synod for a Synodal Church” in Rome. But back in India, they will be all against applying its ideals to Dalit Christian issues.

Unless they shed their narrow and mean mentality of casteism, how can they listen to the Holy Spirit? The Synodality Process is not only a spiritual, theological, or pious exercise. It should lead to reforms, radical changes, and decisions.

With the formidable caste hegemony against the Dalit Christians, who comprise the majority section of people in the Catholic Church in India, the claim of creating a synodal church in India is a farce. There is complete caste domination, from the hierarchy to all other levels of leadership, in the clergy, administration, its institutions, and in the benefit of resources, and deprivation of their rights and representation, hurting their human dignity and life. Setting this right should inevitably start with giving them rightful representation in the hierarchy.

The hierarchy has no conscience for these people, and their rights are plundered, yet their voice for justice is maligned as a hindrance to a peaceful church. For them, peace means silence in the face of injustice.

Of course, there are other concerns, like equality for women in leadership, lay Catholics’ equal participation that are important. But the concern for Dalits’ justice, rights, and equality will be neglected, rather deliberately, as usual.

It should be known that in the early days of Christianity in India itself, the first three Provincial Councils of Goa in 1567, 1585, and 1606, respectively, forbade the low castes and the untouchables to join seminaries.

“The Fifth Provincial Council said, for the dignity of the priesthood and respect due to ecclesiastic positions, low castes should not be admitted to religious orders. Only sons of higher castes, for example, Brahmins and Prabhus, should be ordained”. This legacy continues for Dalit Christians more actively now but is undeclared and invisible. The Synod on Synodality in Rome must be made aware of this.

It is a coincidence that the present Archbishop of Goa, Cardinal Filipe Neri António Sebastião do Rosário Ferrão, leads the India team in the Synod on Synodality held in Rome, and he is also the present President of CCBI, who does not consider casteism and discrimination of Dalits in the Catholic Church as a serious issue.

This is reflected in the Report of the National Synthesis of the Synodal Consultation in India (2021-2023), which has carefully blacked out the discernment of these. The Holy See and the global Catholic community have purposefully hidden these issues for centuries and decades.

It is all very well for the hierarchy to claim that the Holy Spirit inspired and guided them. But when the question of equal rights to Dalits within the Church is raised, the Holy Spirit in them becomes “the caste spirit”! The first synod on synodality going on in the Vatican now must recognize this farce.

We talk of communion, discernment, and mission for the synodal journey. I must ask the Catholic hierarchy in India, and particularly the bishops and religious leaders from India participating in the General Synod in Rome now, where is the discernment of the Dalit issue?

Is the mission related to Dalit liberation and empowerment given due place? In the Synodality process, where is the place for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) ‘s “Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India” declared in 2016?

The following are some relevant data to understand the reality of Dalits’ oppression and the gravity of the injustice meted out to them in the Catholic Church.

First, it should be known that Dalit Catholics comprise a big majority of 12 million out of 19 million Catholics in India (that is, 63% are Dalit Catholics), even according to the CBCI Dalit policy document.

In southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (Puducherry), there is a higher concentration of Dalit Catholics, comprising more than 70%.

But, among about 200 Catholic bishops in India, there are only 10 Dalit bishops (that is, only 5%). Among the 31 archbishops, there are only 3 Dalit archbishops (that is only 9%).

There are about 400 religious congregations with more than 1000 superior generals, major superiors, and provincials. But among them, Dalit Catholics are hardly about 5%. Among more than a lakh priests and religious (both men and women), Dalit Catholics are only about 5%.

In the Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry regions, there is only one Dalit bishop out of the 18 dioceses, which is almost negligible, and no Dalit archbishop at all.

This is about the position in the hierarchy of superiors, priests, and religious because of this, Dalit Catholic representation at all other levels is also severely marginalized. In the Catholic institutions of higher and professional education, Dalit Catholics among students and the employed may be about 8% only.

Without addressing this fundamental issue, we must wonder if we can avoid the question of whether the synodality exercise in India that the hierarchy and clergy are overseeing is sincere and meaningful or even spiritual and theological. This oppression, discrimination, and exclusion of Dalits is directly antithetical to a synodal church in India.

The global as well as the country-wise Synodality exercise without addressing core issues of injustice and inequality would be only a routine, peripheral, and cosmetic exercise, with verbal rhetoric finely worded in documents. It would be a historical failure if this opportunity was missed. It is hoped that Pope Francis will give his pontifical direction regarding this.

In the Catholic Church in India, casteism is the original sin that must be addressed in this synodality journey. It is the hierarchy and clergy, rather than the lay Christians, who actively discriminate against Dalit Christians.

For more than 30 years now, Dalit Christians have been vociferously raising their voice for justice and equality after centuries of silence. They are forced to make public protests and raise money through the media. Their voice against prolonged discrimination cannot and should not be ignored in the process of creating a synodal church. It is a vital source for discernment. But instead, the hierarchy only belittles their voice and betrays their cause. They accuse that their voice for justice is a breach of peace in the church. For them, peace is silence and submission in the face of injustice.

It is an urgent and imminent need for the global Synod for a Synodal Church to address this issue. It should be a defining moment to end historical casteism as well as the gender inequality and deprivations faced by the lay faithful.

The Synodal Consultation 2021-2023 Report by the CCBI is presented in the first session of the General Assembly of the Synod for a Synodal Church, held in Rome this October.

Some statements in this report are noteworthy:

“The caution, silence, and slow response of the Catholic Church to the socio-economic and political issues of the country are disturbing.”

This statement is understandable as far as these problems outside the Church are concerned, given the minority nature of Christianity in India, often alleged to be “foreign.” But this lamenting by the hierarchy is not genuine, because it is the same case with the issues within the church, and that is most disturbing. In particular, the caution, silence, and slow response of the Catholic hierarchy against the blatant discrimination of Dalits within the Church is not only disturbing but also betraying this person and Christ’s values.

In the Synodal journey, there is no place even for the “policy for empowerment of Dalits in the Catholic Church in India” that was discerned and declared by the CBCI itself in 2016. It is completely ignored in the process, and it has not been implemented all these years.

The report speaks about „socio-political participation and the Church. It says, “The Christian community needs to address socio-political issues promptly. Training lay faithful for public life and speaking up against injustice and violations of the rights of the marginalized is a prophetic role that the Church can expose more actively.”

The Church is invited to be the conscience of society and collaborate with persons of goodwill in eradicating the evil effects of the caste system, child labor, illiteracy, and gender discrimination.

It is well said, but the hierarchy as well as clergy and religious are the ones acting completely against this observation, especially when it comes to Dalit Catholic justice, equality, and rights, and they malign their movement by demanding these. This hypocrisy is the biggest obstacle to creating a synodal church in India.

Speaking of “inclusion,” the report says, “To address issues of discrimination based on caste, gender, language, ethnicity, and social status, create a database to identify such persons and groups to give them equitable representation in participatory structures and leadership roles.” Further, it says, “The faithful have expressed a strong desire to belong to the Church and to bear witness to Christ by reaching out to the voiceless, powerless, and marginalized”. However, the Catholic hierarchy and leadership are not willing to hear the cry of the historically oppressed. Is it not their hypocrisy?

Further, the report says, “The diversity within the church—on account of caste, culture, rite, language, region, and ethnicity—must become a space for celebration instead of division.”

But how can we Christians celebrate castes as mere diversity, which divides people as high and low, which is based on inequality, injustice, and indignity, and treats the Dalits as outcasts? This statement should be seen as a veiled acceptance and assertion of the casteist attitude and mindset of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy and their domination over the Dalits. The statement is adding insult to the injury of Dalits who suffer under the caste system. The main office-bearers of the CCBI who authored the report are now sitting in the Synod of Rome. What can Dalit Catholics expect from them?

The report says, “Living a life centered on the values of God’s kingdom is the best way of evangelization… Catholic schools and institutions need to become evangelizing platforms in a new way”. But in the best way of evangelization, the Kingdom values of equality, justice, and the rights of the poor and oppressed are not explicitly emphasized in the report.

Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), emphasizes the importance of inclusion, peace, and social dialogue (as key elements of evangelization) today and 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).

Regrettably, the Catholic hierarchy in India and its institutions have not yet taken seriously this call by Pope Francis, for whom “poor means not just the economic category but first and foremost the people who remain historically oppressed and socially excluded, who are the root cause of poverty and inequality.” His vision of modern evangelization is the “inclusion of these people, both globally and in each country.”

When Catholic institutions do not adopt what Pope Francis has said, how can they become evangelizing platforms in a new way? Dalits, as well as the poor in general, are kept at the fringe of these well-established and leading Catholic institutions in the country, especially in higher and professional institutions.

It is noteworthy that, on the eve of the Synod on Synodality in Rome, a participant, Sr. Maria Nirmalini from India, raised concern in the media about gender justice, that is, women’s participation and equal leadership in the Catholic Church, and rightly so as a woman. She has also rightly expressed concern about how clericalism in the church robs laypeople of their voices, equal participation, and leadership. But she does not make even a hint at the blatant injustice, inequality, and discrimination suffered by Dalit Catholics, which is unique to the Indian context.

She is now the President of the Conference of Religious in India (CRI), which is an important leadership position. The CRI manages a vast network of educational and professional institutions, but Dalit Catholics are kept on the fringe of these.

However, she should be appreciated for raising the question of including women in all leadership positions in the church. Will she be able to or bold enough to raise a cardinal question, “Why not women bishops and archbishops in the Catholic Church?”

If this happens, it will make history during the tenure of Pope Francis. Our Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) is also concerned about the question of equality for women and the lay faithful in the Catholic Church.

However, I have to say that it would be a historical failure of this synodality journey of the Catholic Church in India if injustice to Dalits is not addressed with steps to resolve it.

The caste hierarchy has ignored the legitimate request of Dalit Christians to appoint Dalit bishops and archbishops in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry over the past three decades and has instead used all its power to silence their voices. During the past 20 years, there have been about 15 appointments of bishops and archbishops consecutively, but not one of them was a Dalit bishop. It is an insult, and it is derogatory to the faith of Dalit Catholics, who comprise more than 70% of the Catholics here.

It must be pointed out here that the last of these appointments in the Sivagangai diocese was just last September. The present President of the Tamil Nadu Bishops Council (TNBC), Archbishop George Antonysamy, who is also the present vice president of CCBI, has worked behind the scenes with the Vatican and saw to it that a priest of his caste was appointed there. He is a leading participant in the Synod on Synodality in Rome now. How can we expect him to speak for Dalit justice in the church? What is the synodality he is talking about as the president of TNBC?

It may be all right for the perpetrators to walk together in silence over injustice. But how can the victims of injustice do it? Even if they do it, is it truly synodality that the Holy Spirit inspired?

With the caste hegemony against Dalits continuing, the claim that the synodality journey is progressing well in India with the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a bare-faced lie.

We cannot create a synodal Catholic Church in India with grave injustices of inequality, exclusion, and marginalization continuing within, especially for Dalits. It will be only a hoax, a pseudo-synodality. We pray louder, sing louder, and preach louder, but keep silent over injustice and discrimination.

I do not think that this call for a Synodality journey should end up in walking together and discerning together with silence on injustice. The Catholic hierarchy is deceiving rather than discerning the truth and justice of Dalit Christians. It is not their lack of discernment, but their deliberate denial of it. The synodality process now should be a moment to discern this and vow to end it.

To conclude, the Synodality journey is a call by Pope Francis for “Communion, Participation, Discernment, and Mission.” What do all these mean for the Catholic Church in India, which is entrenched in casteism?

In this question, the victim, a Dalit Christian, stands and stares at the face of India’s Catholic hierarchy. There should be no room for pretension and make-believe exercise. The hierarchy should act with determination, deliberately and transparently, on questions of justice, equality, and inclusion, particularly in the case of the Dalits within the Catholic Church.

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