Church 'Anti-National'?

India's bishops promote large families and risk government pressure.

BANGALORE, India — In a country that practices sex-selective abortion and promotes aggressive family-planning practices, Bishop Mathew Anikuzhikattil doesn’t mince words when asked if the Church’s promotion of large families is “anti-national.”

“Criticism should not determine our steps. We have a duty to stand up for what we believe,” said Bishop Anikuzhikattil of the Diocese of Idukki, which is in the southern state of Kerala. The bishop is chairman of the “family commission” of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) that comprises 30 dioceses.

“I conducted the baptism of the seventh child in a family two days ago,” Bishop Anikuzhikattil said in a Sept. 16 phone interview.

With more than 18 million children added every year to the Indian population, the population-control lobby has been clamoring for curbs on population growth as India, with 1.2 billion people, is closing in on China, which still remains the most populous nation, with 1.3 billion.

Ever since India legalized abortion in 1971 as a population-control measure, it has followed a strong campaign to promote “small families” with two children. Besides setting stiff sterilization targets for government doctors, labor laws had been amended to restrict maternity leave and free treatment to government staff for the first two children only.

In recent years, more than half a dozen states have introduced legislation banning couples with more than two children from contesting village and municipal elections and even making them ineligible for subsidized government home loans or student scholarships.

Bishop Anikuzhikattil also pointed out the population “explosion” propaganda cannot be invoked in Kerala — the largest Christian pocket in India. There are more than 6 million Christians — two-thirds of them Catholic — among its 33 million people.

“Instead of population growth, we are here faced with a situation of population growth declining below replacement level,” pointed out the chairman of KCBC’s family commission that coordinates the pro-life movement of the Church.

According to the 2011 census data, Kerala had recorded the lowest growth rate of 4.8% among the 16 Indian states, adding more than 25 million people during the last decade; population growth of some states swelled by more than 20% during 2001-2011.

As for the Christian community, Bishop Anikuzhikattil pointed out that the ratio of Christians in Kerala has faced a steady decline. Between 1991-2011, the percentage of Christians in the state declined by 19%.

“Now our ratio is estimated to be around 17%. In a situation like this, the Church cannot remain a silent spectator,” asserted the bishop. “It will have a big impact on the life of the Church as well. When there are only two children in the family, the number of vocations will certainly go down.”

The Christian heartland of Kerala is known as the vocation garden of India, with one nun or priest for every 60 Catholics. With the shrinking of the size of Christian families in Kerala over the decades, some parishes have started reporting more deaths than baptisms.

The decline of Christians in the state where St. Thomas the Apostle sowed the seeds of Christianity after arriving on its shores in the year 52 has prompted a Church-led campaign to encourage large families.

Even as most Christian families have only one or two children, the KCBC family commission has recommended free care and hospitalization for needy mothers for delivery of the third child and concessions in fees for the third child in Church-run schools.

For the fourth child, the Church has recommended completely free education in its schools. The Church runs a quarter of the 14,000 schools in the state. It plans to grant 5,000 rupees ($105) each year to families that have a fifth child until that child completes his education.

“We want to show that we are not simply preaching,” explained Bishop Anikuzhikattil. “We will help the needy families to look after the children.”

Advancing this pro-life campaign, the St. Vincent De Paul Parish at Kalpetta in the Diocese of Mananthavady in north Kerala recently launched an innovative program. The pro-life group in the parish collected 10,000 rupees (about $211) and deposited the funds in August for two families that each had a fifth child.

While the pro-life ministry in the diocese was planning to extend the campaign to other parishes, Father Benny Puthennada, who heads the family commission in the nearby Tellicherry Diocese, pointed to “the tough challenge the Church faces” in promoting large families.

While 125 families with five or more children attended the 2008 diocesan convention of families, Father Puthennada admitted that only 40 families attended the 2010 convention.

“The challenge is to change the attitude of the couples,” acknowledged Father Jose Kottayil, secretary of the KCBC family commission and coordinator of the pro-life activities of the Church in Kerala.

But he noted a hopeful sign: In the wake of pro-life seminars and other programs organized by the Church, some Catholic couples have decided to reverse their vasectomy or tubal ligation to have more children.

Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.