A Dalit cardinal can help end caste in the Indian Church

In the following article which appeared in the theological magazine Jeevadhara in 2014, the Indian theologian, Father Felix Wilfred, explains the need for a Dalit cardinal and its pan-Indian ecclesial and political significance. His argument highlights the importance of Pope Francis’ announcement on May 29

May 31, 2022

Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad is to be made a cardinal in the August 2022 consistory. (Photo provided)

By Felix Wilfred
It would be good for the Church as a whole to have a Dalit cardinal. It is a community of people who are perhaps one of the most oppressed and marginalized in the world. They are more than 250 million – half of the whole of the European Union – and form the majority of Christians in India.

The solidarity of the Church with the excluded, which Pope Francis makes us realize by his words or his gestures, will find its crowning point if he elevates one of the poorest groups of the poor to the dignity of cardinalate. It will be a great witness to the Gospel and a clear sign that the Church translates into deeds what she preaches in words to the poor and the suffering. Additionally, the image of the Church as universal, inclusive, and compassionate to the last and least will come out more clearly and distinctly.

The elevation of a Dalit to the rank of cardinal will be a positive recognition and affirmation of this community which forms the majority of Christians in India. We have all witnessed what the elevation of Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo of Ranchi meant to them among the tribal peoples, and the remarkable leadership he gave not only to the tribal peoples but to the entire country as President. of the national bishops’ conference. Given the opportunity, a leader of this rank among the Dalits will bring about the renewal of the Church in India and open new avenues to the gospel.

At a time when Christian Dalits are fighting against the discrimination they face from the state, since they are denied the same rights as Hindu Dalits, the creation of a cardinal among them will strengthen the cause. and will send a clear message to the civil authorities. If a Dalit Cardinal is created, the Church will have a strong moral basis to demand the rights of Dalits from the State. She can proudly and rightly claim the rights of the Dalits because she has brought justice to their cause. Moreover, the creation of a cardinal will bring to the consciousness of the whole Christian community the question of the Dalits and will help it to overcome the spirit of caste.

The Church has created cardinals on the basis of ritual identity with one cardinal each for the Syro-Malabar Church, and more recently for the Syro-Malakar Church, which we welcome. At the same time, a unique social identity stigmatized as “untouchables” must be taken into account, which will also show that the universal Church is aware of the deeper and more complex problems of Indian society and the Indian Church.

The Indian constitution contains positive provisions designed to overcome the handicaps attached to this identity. There are no such provisions in the Church. The creation of a Dalit Cardinal would show society and the world how the Church is following the spirit in which special provisions are made for the weaker and oppressed sections.

On the other hand, this is nothing new for the Church. The neglect and discrimination suffered by the Hellenists led the apostles to solve the problem by selecting among them deacons who understood the discriminated group and served them (Acts 6:1-6). As a result of this provision, “the word of God increased; and the members of the disciples greatly increased in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7). With the Dalits today, we are in a similar situation calling for a high ranking leader among them.

Finally, note how strongly ritual concerns are represented at the central government level of the Church, and rightly so. However, the Church in India needs a spokesperson among the Dalits at cardinal level to be able to bring the voice and the concerns of the Dalits to the pope, who wishes to be in touch with the realities on the ground, and to the entire Church including its central administration.

Unfortunately, the influence of caste in the Church and among its leaders, the overwhelming majority of whom come from middle and upper castes, has not allowed for adequate representation of the issue of Dalit Christians. To appeal to a cardinal among the Dalits is not to foment caste in the Church. On the contrary, it will be an important means of abolishing caste, since the Dalits are those in the country who have fought the most against this system since they know from bitter experience the evils of the caste system.

In short, the creation of a Dalit cardinal will perhaps be the greatest contribution as he can work to abolish caste in India, which 400 years of missionary work has failed to do. If this happens, which we hope, Pope Francis will go down in history as a unique champion of the cause of India’s “untouchables”.

Republished from Jeevadhara (2014, pp. 76-78) with permission from the author. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Jerry B. Hatch