Caste system a reality in Church?

By Fr. Anand Muttungal
The Times of India reported recently that while hearing the petition on issue of Scheduled Caste status to Christians, the Chief Justice of India, K G Balakrishnan asked , "Would the Christians admit that they practise caste system and that Dalits (among them) face social discrimination requiring reservation to uplift their cause? This is not all that easy," After reflecting over this million-dollar question, I thought we need to have more deliberations on the same.

If we deeply reflect over the issue, it might tempt us to say that probably the Chief Justice understood better than us the teachings of Lord Jesus and the Official Church teachings on Christian society. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that 'God created mankind in his image……Christ is the image of the invisible God….. the transformation into the image of Christ is accomplished through the sacraments, in the first place through baptism by which one dies to the old man through Christ (Gal 3:26-28) and puts on the new man (Gal 3:27; Rom 13:14). It is the fundamental idea of Christianity. It envisions a society which gives equal dignity to men and women, all castes, all races, all geographical regions, rich and poor etc.

'In the late 1880's the Marathi word 'Dalit' was used by Mahatma Jotiba Phule for the Outcastes and Untouchables who were oppressed and broken by Hindu society.' It meant not just economical and political backwardness but socio-cultural and religious backwardness faced through their being born into the particular caste in the Hindu society. Therefore the British Government while notifying the Scheduled Castes in 1935 specified that "No Indian Christian shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste." It is very clear from the teachings of Lord Jesus that any one embraces his discipleship is known as 'only Christian'. Adding to this they had already introduced religion based sufficient representation at all levels. Therefore none asked the British Government to include them into the SC list.

After India got independence, the religious representation was completely removed. It was during this time that the Presidential Order "Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Order 1950" stated, "No person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste." In the same year the Christian leaders approached the then President and Prime Minister to include them into SC category. Responding to which they assured them in writing that they will be included. Their demand got strengthened with the inclusion of Sikhs in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990 into the SC list.

'The Protestant churches have most consistently repudiated the caste system, rejecting it as a Hindu construct, and have made the greatest attempt to establish a casteless community. The Catholic Church developed a more culturally tolerant view, treating the caste system as part of the Indian social structure and, for much of its history in India; it has chosen to work within that system.' It defiantly throws many questions to the Christians. The opponents of the Church allege that the Church does not preach caste system but practices it. Can it hold any truth?

Let us examine a few facts too, the Indian Express published from Panaji,(Goa), dated 24th Nov. 1999, 'the Parish Priest at Cuncolim Church nominated two catholic members from backward castes into the Parish Pastoral Council. The Gaonkars, who claim themselves as Kshatriyas,(High Caste), vehemently objected. They wrote letter to the Holy See to withdraw the members or else they may get reconverted to Hinduism. The parish priest had to seek police protection.'

According to certain reports, more than 70 per cent of the Catholics in the country are from Dalit communities, a clear sign of their denunciation to the age-old caste system in the Hindu society. But unfortunately, their representation in the administration of the Church is hardly 10 per cent raising a serious question mark whether the Church has also failed to recognise their love for Christ and Christianity.

It is almost sure that the Church will succeed in getting SC Status to Christians who got converted from Dalit Hindus. It will definitely give them better economic and political stability. But how do we believe that the agitation will end there? It might give rise to a new agitation aimed at socio-cultural and religious upliftment. It would mean reservation in the appointment of Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Heads of various Religious Orders, Parish Priests, Principals, Heads of various institutions and various administrative posts in the Church. How surprising it would be for Lord Jesus to see, when he returns in his glory? He might ask himself, how did I inspire them to go for enculturation?

I leave the discussion open with a quote from the address of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops from Madras-Mylapore, Madurai and Pondicherry-Cuddalore (17th Nov. 2003), "Any semblance of a caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians is a countersign to authentic human solidarity, a threat to genuine spirituality and a serious hindrance to the Church's mission of evangelization. Therefore, customs or traditions that perpetuate or reinforce caste division should be sensitively reformed so that they may become an expression of the solidarity of the whole Christian community."(www. franand. com) 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2009 on page no. 18

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