Why Archbishop Anthony Poola’s elevation to cardinal gives Dalit Christians hope

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It should be recalled that the first Dalit Archbishop was only appointed in the year 2000, although the Church has a history of hundreds of years in India.

The Archbishop of Hyderabad Diocese, Anthony Poola, will create history when he takes up his duties as Cardinal on August 27 this year. Poola is the first Dalit and Telugu person to be nominated for the post and his nomination has sparked joy among Catholic and non-Catholic Dalit Christians.

Cardinals are high priests/clerics of the Roman Catholic Church. They have immense importance since they rank just below the pope in the Catholic hierarchy and are exclusively appointed by the pope himself. Poola and Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao of Goa were the two Indian Cardinal Delegates out of the 21 Cardinal Delegates chosen across the world. India currently has four cardinals in service, and the elevation of Poola and Ferraro now has six.

The elevation of Anthony Poola was not a mere coincidence but the result of relentless struggle and affirmation by many Dalit leaders from all denominations and Church organizations. While enhancing hope and joy among Dalit Christians, his elevation also raised expectations for him to assume various responsibilities given the status of Dalit communities in the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis had also named Wilton Gregory – the first African-American cardinal – in 2020. Francis is the first pope to be selected outside Europe since the 8th century, an act that has expanded the diversity of discourse in the Catholic community. The actions taken by the pope gave Dalit Catholics greater hopes of advancing their constitutional and spiritual rights through Poola’s appointment.

“Anthony Poola holds veto power in the Church and direct contact with the Pope. We expect him to work intensively to eradicate untouchability in the Church by condemning practices like cemeteries and separate burials, enabled through generations by upper-caste clergy, and most importantly to emerge as an assertive voice for Scheduled Class status for Dalit Christians,” said Franklin Caesar Thomas, National Council of Dalit Christians Coordinator and litigator before the Supreme Court a landmark case concerning the scheduled caste status of Dalit Christians.

Dalit Christians who cross Catholic, Protestant and various other faiths have long been fighting for their inclusion in the Scheduled Caste category. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 identifies marginalized communities based on their social, economic and educational backwardness resulting from untouchability. The order, however, limits this categorization only to those on the list of communities that continue to practice Hinduism. Later, under immense pressure, Sikh Dalits were included in 1956 and Buddhist Dalits in 1990. Dalit Christians and Muslims are still fighting for inclusion in the category.

“Leadership of the dominant castes in the Christian community across denominations has deprived us Dalit pastors and preachers from expressing our despair. We are all here to serve one another in the name of the Lord. Although I be a Protestant bishop, I am delighted to hear the elevation of Bishop Anthony to the position of cardinal. We are all delighted to see a person of his ideology in this position,” said Bishop Wilson Singham, leader of the Independent Churches, Union of India and Bishop OHOG (One Human One God) diocese.” The preachers and pastors who are regularly attacked are from marginalized castes. We have been fighting for SC status for a long time. A Dalit cardinal gives us hope,” he added.

Today, Dalit Christians are denied the protection enjoyed by other Dalit communities under provisions such as the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989), making them highly vulnerable to caste and religious violence. Exclusion from the Scheduled Caste category not only deprives Dalit Christians of their right to obtain their due, but also creates a wedge between them and other non-Christian Dalits, who criticize them for their conversion. This limits their power to jointly negotiate their rights.

It is obvious that the violence against Dalit Christians is due to their caste and not only to their religion. We can look at massacres like Karamchedu (1985) where six Dalit Christians were killed and many injured due to the brutality of kamma landlords in Andhra Pradesh. The Karamachedu massacre was the result of Dalits questioning the ruthless and untouchable practices of the dominant castes. The irony is that while Karamchedu became one of the main reasons for the emergence of the SC/ST (Atrocity Prevention Act) of 1989, the law does not legally apply to Dalits, who officially registered as Christians.

Tsunduru (1991) and Kandhamal (2008)., are the most notable examples of such massacres. But the Christian identity of the Dalits of Tsunduru is not expressed by the Dalit leaders and the non-Dalit Christian leaders are silent on the Dalit identity of the victims of Kandhamal.

Following the appointment, the Cardinal, in an interview with the National Catholic Register (NCR) and the Quint, said he saw his elevation as an opportunity to speak out for the inclusion of Dalit Christians in the SC category.

The posts of bishops and archbishops across the country are traditionally awarded to people belonging to dominant castes. Only 11 out of 200 bishops across the country are Dalits, despite the group comprising about two-thirds of the Catholic Church. The selection of bishops involves a tedious process. The initial list of names for the appointment of bishops is drawn up by bishops, archbishops, eminent representatives of the Church, etc., and is sent to the Apostolic Nuncio in Delhi, who shortlists the names and transmits them to Rome. This selection process has become a means of narrowing the opportunity to many. “Non-Dalits occupy these positions of power, and they make sure to send the names of priests from their castes to the Apostolic Nuncio, preventing Dalits from being elevated to these positions. sit on these chairs to break This system of exclusivity in the clergy Many non-Dalit clergy have reportedly been convicted under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, for the persistent casteism they practice at many ways, but that is not possible since we are not classified as scheduled castes,” Thomas said.

It should be recalled that the first Dalit Archbishop Marampudi Joji was only appointed in the year 2000 while the Church has a history of several hundred years in India. Joji’s appointment came amid vehement opposition mounted by his predecessor Archbishop Arulappa and members of the archdiocese. Anthony Poola was consecrated Bishop of Kurnool in 2008 and was one of three bishops consecrated by Joji in his tenure as Archbishop. Poola’s ordination as a bishop by Joji can be seen as one of the initial and vital stepping stones for Poola’s elevation as a cardinal. This reflects the need to increase the diversity of clergy in decision-making positions willing to recognize capable members outside the bubble.

The opposition Joji faced is not a thing of the past for the Dalit clergy. Non-Dalit clergy in the Catholic Church consistently maintain restraint. The exclusion of Dalits from senior positions often affects the formation of church committees. The church board consists primarily of ward members, with designations such as president, secretary, etc. Although priests are not included in the committee, they influence the selection of these committee members. “In a parish that constitutes mixed communities, the presidents and secretaries have always been high castes. I am 75 years old. I do not think I have seen a Mala or a Madiga in these roles more than twice in my Church” , said Manoharamma, a Dalit Christian from Mahbubabad. Manoharamma and many other Dalits from mixed Catholic parishes continue to be relegated to lower positions in the committee hierarchy or are expelled. On the other hand, those at the top are always the non-Dalit members.

Although caste has its essence in Hindu society, non-Hindu religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc., are not devoid of the rigidity of caste when they are practiced in the Indian subcontinent. Dalit Christians live in an oppressive multi-layered society – a world sandwiched between oppression outside the Church and pressure within. The Catholic Church legitimized this to some extent and became an embodiment of Vedic caste society.

The Church in India, to uplift the poor, has adapted liberation theology, mainly from parts of Latin America. The upper caste guardians of the Church, applying a Marxist understanding of class to socio-economic hierarchies in India, have repeatedly failed to recognize the root causes of poverty and deprivation associated with untouchability.

Dalit Christians constantly live in a confusing dichotomy when it comes to their identities. State and Church failed to admit caste consistency regardless of religion to conveniently retain their caste hierarchy.

While opening up to layers of oppression, the purpose of converting Dalit Christians is questioned since religion has failed to give them economic and social mobility. The lack of caste recognition inside and outside the Church is one of the main reasons why people do not have definitive answers to these questions. These questions prove that society fails to understand the requirement for emotional and spiritual agency amidst the turmoil of their lives. This conversation becomes essential because regardless of the origins and beliefs of any institution, no doubt, it ends up being afflicted by caste when it sets foot in India.

“People, including non-Christian Dalits, do not understand that Dalits have the right to express and embrace their free will. As a believer and Dalit Christian, I can say that the teachings of Christ contradict these hierarchies and these retreats. We must understand that these conversions took place not only because of the need for physical emancipation from the caste, but also in the search for their emotional and spiritual belonging,” said Ravali, social worker and co-founder of Esther Foundation These sensitive layers can only be recognized when more Dalits have positions within the Church to influence and contemplate these foundations.

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