FOR THE first time in its history, the Indian Catholic Church has officially accepted that Dalit Christians face untouchability and discrimination, and that “their participation in the level of leadership… at the higher levels is almost nil”.
These admissions are contained in a policy document prepared and released Monday by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), the apex decision-making body of the community, which seeks to abolish all forms of exclusion of the socially backward section and empower them.
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The 44-page document, titled ‘Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India’, asks the 171 dioceses to submit long and short-term plans within a year to end all kinds of discrimination against Dalit Christians.
“If there are dual practices based on caste discrimination, such practices should be stopped forthwith. In case of failure to do so, stringent measures should be taken by the Church authority concerned,” says the document.
Baselios Cardinal Cleemis Catholicos, president, CBCI, told The Indian Express: “It’s a revolutionary step. We are admitting that it’s a grave social sin, an issue and a problem. It’s a sin, if you are going by the Christian spirit. This is a step to end the practice of discrimination within the church. It’s a message as well as an introspection.”
Incidentally, the Church has been fighting for years for the inclusion of Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Castes list.
But its latest policy document admits that although 12 million out of 19 million members of the Catholic Church in India are Dalit Christians, when it comes to “their participation in the level of leadership in the diocesan administration as well as in religious orders is minimum and at the higher levels, it is almost nil”.
At present, only 12 out of the more than 240 bishops in the Catholic Church in the country are Dalit Christians. There are more than 5000 bishops in the entire Roman Catholic Church.
“There is wider acceptance that the practice of untouchability and discrimination against Dalits exist in the Church and there is need to address these issues urgently,” says the document.
It adds, however, that there have been some positive changes and “more acceptance of the rights and dignity of Dalits at least at the ideological and theoretical level” due to various efforts made by the Church and Dalit outfits.
Although various levels of the Church structure have been sensitised, with the younger generation growing with a much higher sense of dignity and self worth, there are newer forms of discrimination.
“Since there is inadequate representation in seminaries in appointments to key positions and sharing of common resources in the religious orders and in the Church in general, efforts need to be made to remedy the situation given the importance of good priests… for the mission of the Church,” the document states.
It states that Dalits are being deprived of access to courses that are job-oriented or in demand.
“Despite possessing commendable credentials, the fact of being a Dalit — Dalitness — is considered as inferior. This mindset is against the core belief of Christianity, that every human person is created in the image of God. While the term caste Hindu may be justified, caste Christian is simply self contradictory, to say the least,” it states.
The Church has also admitted that instead of nurturing Dalit leadership from below, a “traditional casteist approach is adopted to divide the faithful by some vested interest groups”.
The document also claims that Dalit Christians are “sandwiched between the State and the Church”.
Criticising the Supreme Court judgment that there was no evidence that Dalit Christians remain as socially and economically backward as Dalit Hindus after conversion, the policy document contests that this position was against Article 15 (1) of the Constitution that prohibits discrimination based on religion.
In the document, the CBCI asks all dioceses to abolish “any practices of untouchability, discrimination and exclusion, especially in places of worship and burial grounds”.
It also demands that special attention be given at all levels for the promotion of Dalit Christians within the establishment, ensuring proportionate representation in church bodies and parish councils, and participation of women from the section in decision-making bodies.