Indian Catholics Threaten Caste Schism

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by Jules Gomes  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  September 11, 2020   

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CHENNAI, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - India's "untouchable" Catholics have threatened to split from the Indian hierarchy and establish a separate church if the Holy See continues to discriminate against low-caste clergy in the appointment of bishops and cardinals. 

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Dalit Christians protesting caste oppression

The "final" resolution of secession from the top-heavy upper-caste Catholic Church in India was announced Saturday by six organizations comprising Catholics who originally converted from "untouchable" or Dalit ("trampled") backgrounds from within the Hindu caste hierarchy.

"The new church will separate Dalit Catholic Christians from the Indian Catholic Church's upper-caste leadership," warned Franklin Caesar Thomas, coordinator of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC).

Although 60% of India's Christians are originally Dalit, none of India's four cardinals and only 31 archbishops come from a Dalit background. Among 188 bishops, only 11 are Dalits.

'Blocked' From Advancement

"Because of the untouchability mindset, individual bishops and regional bishops' councils are not recommending theologically qualified and morally upright Dalit priests as episcopal candidates to the apostolic nuncio for papal consideration," Advocate Thomas told Church Militant.

"Qualified Dalit priests are prevented from going to Rome for further studies or being considered for senior appointments or superiors of congregations. Currently, they exist in negligible numbers," Thomas lamented.

The hierarchy was now importing the same oppressive form of Brahmanical Hinduism under the guise of 'inculturation.'

"Dalit Catholics are very loyal to the Holy See and we believe the Holy Father would never discriminate on the basis of caste or race," he asserted.

Separate Rite Considered

Thomas clarified to Church Militant that the plan was to urge the pope to permit Dalit Catholics and priests to have their own Dalit Catholic rite and Dalit Catholic Church with all faculties under the direct control of the Holy See in a manner similar to India's Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches.

However, the Vatican has yet to respond substantively to a complaint filed in June by Dalits with the United Nations accusing the Holy See of not doing enough to curb discrimination faced by "untouchables" within the Catholic Church.

The complaint accuses the Vatican and the Indian Catholic Church hierarchy of caste discrimination by "allowing it directly and indirectly in their spiritual, educational and administrative places."


Sources told Church Militant that this was one reason Pope Francis transferred apostolic nuncio Abp. Giambattista Diquattro from India to Brazil on Aug. 31.

"If the Vatican does not immediately remove the discriminatory process of bishop selection that neglects qualified Dalit priests, we could announce our own Indian Dalit Catholic Church or the Indian Dalit Catholic rite," Thomas said.

The demand for an Indian Dalit Catholic rite comes in the wake of post-Vatican II liturgical turbulence as Indian bishops received Vatican authorization in 1969 for an "Indian rite Mass" which incorporated elements from upper-caste Brahmanical Hinduism. The Brahmins are the top caste of Hindu priests.

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Dr. Joshua Iyadurai, critic of Brahmanical inculturation

Oppressive 'Inculturation'

The new Liturgy further alienated Dalit Catholics who had converted from Hinduism — escaping three millennia of caste oppression — only to discover that the hierarchy was now importing the same oppressive form of Brahmanical Hinduism under the guise of "inculturation."

The "Hinduization" of the Liturgy and the bishops' embrace of post-Vatican II "religious pluralism" has also resulted in a "moratorium" on mission, with evangelization redefined as "making a Hindu a better Hindu."

Dr. Joshua Iyadurai, director of the Marina Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion, explained to Church Militant how "inculturation began with Jesuit missionary Roberto de Nobili's goal of evangelizing India by first converting Brahmins." 

"Since then inculturation has been a top-down model preoccupied with Brahminical Hindu symbols, rituals and practices. It has remained an exercise by the elites without any relevance to the majority within the Church," underlined Iyadurai, guest lecturer at Madras and Roehampton universities.   

"The Indian church comprises more than 60% of Dalits, and their spirituality was not taken into consideration because of the Brahminical worldview, in which Dalits have no spiritual capacity," Iyadurai noted.

"Brahminism is not India's core culture. The essence of Indian culture lies with the diversity of many cultural traditions and Dalit theology is now critiquing the Brahmanical model," he added.  

Negligible Numbers in Leadership

Although Christianity was first brought to India by the Apostles St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew, the first Dalit archbishop, Marampudi Joji, was appointed only in 2000 as archbishop of Hyderabad.

If the Vatican does not immediately remove the discriminatory process of bishop selection that neglects qualified Dalit priests, we could announce our own Indian Dalit Catholic Church or the Indian Dalit Catholic rite.

According to media reports, 95% of Hyderabad archdiocese's priests, including Joji's high-caste predecessor, opposed the appointment.

Archbishop Joji said he was grateful to God for making him the first Dalit archbishop "not only in India, but in the entire world."

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Advocate Franklin Caesar Thomas leads Dalit Catholics

"Dalit Christians are the majority [in India] in the Catholic Church. But 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," a 2016 Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) document admitted.

According to the CBCI document "Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India: An Ethical Imperative to Build Inclusive Communities," "Dalits are about 12 million out of 19 million members of the Catholic Church. However, among the major superiors, priests and religious they are not proportionately represented."

The first bishop from the Dalit community was appointed only in 1977, the bishops noted, even though "in recent years there is an increase in vocations from Dalit communities." 

Cardinal Opposes 'Marginalization'

In 2013, Cdl. Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, emphasized the necessity of ordaining more bishops from Dalit backgrounds. 

He told bishops during his pastoral visit to India:

A missionary-minded bishop pays pastoral attention to all the categories of people present in his diocese, without regard for caste or ethnicity but focused upon the love of God and the spread of the gospel. No ethnic group, low-caste group, or minority group must feel sidelined, marginalized or left out from the initiatives or pastoral works in your diocese. I am thinking of admission to seminaries, promotions to important parishes and curial duties and episcopal candidates.

Over 30 speakers and 150 participants attended the virtual meeting organized by the National Council of Dalit Christians, Dalit Christian Liberation Movement, National Dalit Christian Watch, Viduthalai Tamil Puligal Katchi, Christian People's Forum and Ambedkar & Periyar Social Justice Workshop.

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