THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India — Even as India’s population-control advocates lobby to rein in the country’s growing population, the Church in the southern state of Kerala is boldly exhorting Christians to have more children.
“If we do not speak up, we will be failing in our duty. The declining population growth here raises serious moral and ethical questions,” Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Thrissur, secretary of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), told the Register June 27 regarding the decision by Church leaders to encourage the faithful to have more children.
Archbishop Thazhath said many Christian families have fewer than two children in Kerala.
The state is the largest Christian enclave in India, with over six million Christians — including four million Catholics — among Kerala’s 31 million people, according to the 2001 census.
“The Church cannot remain a silent spectator to the drastic reduction in the number of children among our people,” said Archbishop Thazhath, whose diocese is where St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have arrived in India in A.D. 52 to sow the seeds of Kerala’s vibrant Christian community.
Father Stephen Alathara, spokesman of the Kerala bishops’ council, said the council’s family commission had recommended in mid-June the establishment of pro-life ministries in each of the state’s 29 dioceses.
Father Alathara said the commission is planning to introduce several concrete steps “to encourage and support larger families” and to counteract the anti-child policies instituted by Indian governments.
Governments both at the federal and state level have been vigorously promoting an official two-child norm to curb India’s population growth. As a consequence of these population-control policies, maternity benefits for pregnant women and the children’s education fund for government employees are restricted to families with a maximum of two children.
Additionally, some Indian states have even enacted legislation barring couples with more than two children from running for office in local elections, while other states have punished larger families by making them ineligible for welfare benefits like subsidized housing and employment programs.
In such a situation, Father Alathara said, “It is not enough that we call for more children and keep quiet.”
The measures being considered by the Church to encourage larger families include educational support for families with more than two children, as the Church runs one-quarter of the 13,000 educational institutions in the state.
The support program for the larger families proposes free education for third and fourth children in schools managed by Christian authorities, as well as medical assistance for mothers in Church-run hospitals.
And through pro-life departments in each of the state’s dioceses, the family commission intends to institute a program to raise awareness on the need to avoid birth control methods, especially abortion.
Along with addressing the “moral and ethical side” of population control, the Church in Kerala is faced “with the serious challenge of steadily declining population,” Archbishop Thazhath said.
The Christian share of Kerala’s population has declined to 19% in the 2001 census from 24% 50 years ago.
And while India’s national media have attacked Kerala’s bishops for their efforts to encourage families to have more babies, the head of the state health department said he was not concerned by the Church’s actions.
“We are not worried about it,” Bishwas Mehta, secretary of Kerala’s Health Department, said from the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram. “We respect the freedom of the religious leaders to speak up on issues that affect them.”
Mehta acknowledged population growth in Kerala has fallen to well below replacement level and currently hovers at only 1.5 children per couple.
“Kerala is now close to the situation in Europe with more old people than young children,” he said.
By 2025, Mehta noted, Kerala will have more people who are older than 60 than under 14. “Such a situation is certainly not ideal from an economic perspective either,” he said.
This is not the first time Church leaders in Kerala have drawn the attention of its flock to the declining growth rate among the Christians.
“In pursuit of their selfish joys, even those who can afford to bring up children, do not want them,” Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, who heads the self-governing Syro-Malabar Church that is based in Kerala, said in a 2006 pastoral letter.
The Church in Kerala is divided into three rites — Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin. Among them, they provide more than 60% of the 120,000 nuns and priests in India.
In his pastoral letter, Cardinal Vithayathil said “there is sin and injustice to society behind the decision of not having children by those parents who have the means and normal health,” adding that such narcissistic decisions result in a “decline in the moral and spiritual value of family life.”
Anto Akkara writes from