India’s ‘Catholic Heartland’ Advocates Larger Families in Response to Steep Decline in Birth Rate

The Catholic Church in Kerala is alarmed by trending statistics.

Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry releases ‘Life Is Bountiful’ album, on Aug. 10 at Mount St. Thomas, with Curial Bishop Sebastian Vaniyapurackal of the SMC Synod.
Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry releases ‘Life Is Bountiful’ album, on Aug. 10 at Mount St. Thomas, with Curial Bishop Sebastian Vaniyapurackal of the SMC Synod. (photo: Courtesy photo)

KERALA, India — The Catholic Church in Kerala, India, has initiated several steps to counter a steadily declining birth rate among Christians in this southern Indian state. 

The bishops in the southern state are calling for aggressive support for large families and emphasizing the Church’s pro-life teachings, in light of the 50th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in India.

Containing the largest percentage of Christians in the country, Kerala is considered the Catholic heartland of India.

“With an alarming decline in the ratio of Christians in Kerala, survival of the community itself is in danger,” emphasized the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) in an Aug. 9 statement issued after the Aug. 2-6 assembly of Kerala’s 40 bishops. 

The Catholic Church in Kerala, a 400-mile-long narrow strip of land on the west of coast of India, is comprised of 32 dioceses and is shared by three rites of the Church: Latin (12 dioceses), Syro Malabar (13 dioceses) and Syro Malankara (seven dioceses).

The nearly 6 million-strong Christian community in Kerala, two-thirds of them Catholic, traces its faith to St. Thomas the Apostle, who is said to have landed on the Arabian Sea coast in the year 52 A.D. 

The bishops’ statement acknowledged a government report that found the Christian population of Kerala, which stood at 24.6% in the 1950s, has declined over the decades, to 17.2%, with a birth rate of 1.8%. These numbers contrast sharply with those of Muslim and Hindu populations in Kerala, which are declining at less than half the rate of Christian populations. The three population groups together account for the 35.3 million people of Kerala

In their Aug. 9 statement, the Kerala bishops responded to widespread social-media criticism against the Church’s support for large families by announcing that they are conducting pro-life media campaigns within each of the Catholic dioceses in Kerala. In the statement, the Kerala bishops noted that declining birth rates is a global issue.

“The steep fall in the number of children has forced the developed nations and China to reverse their policy and want more children now. Society should have a requisite ratio [of children] to sustain itself,” noted the KCBC statement. 

China, which had followed a coercive population-control program for decades, restricting only one child per couple in the cities, reversed the policy a second time in May, allowing couples to have up to three children.

“In this situation [of a declining Christian population in Kerala], several dioceses are coming forward with programs to support large families. But it is unfortunate that some quarters are trying to present the Church in a bad light,” the KCBC pointed out.


Family as Foundation

As part of the “Year of the Family,” the Palai Diocese in Kerala launched a campaign in early July to promote larger families with the slogan “Bigger the Better.” The diocese, which belongs to the Syro-Malabar Church, launched the campaign with a strong presence in social media to promote marriages and larger families, while also discouraging the contraceptive mentality embraced by the country’s secular culture. 

As part of the campaign, the diocese offers monthly financial assistance for families with five or more children, scholarships for engineering studies, and free medical aid for pregnancy-related needs once a couple gives birth to a fourth child. 

This announcement was soon followed up at the end of July by the Pathanamthitta Diocese, also of the Syro Malankara Church, extending similar benefits — including monetary support for families with four or more children, free medical care for hospitalization, and preference for admission and employment in Church institutions within the diocese.

Through these and similar efforts, the Kerala bishops are seeking to strengthen the basic building block of society — the family.

“It is not enough that we tell our folks to have more children. These large families need solid support to bring up and educate the children,” Bishop Samuel Irenios of the Pathanamthitta Diocese told the Register Aug 13. 

“In my diocese, the population density is lowest in Kerala. Compared to the state average of 859 people per square kilometer, we have only 459 people [per square kilometer],” Bishop Irenios pointed out.

“Of the 60,000 Catholics in the diocese, 20% of the houses are locked up [due to the educated among the population migrating for better employment opportunities outside the diocese], and in many houses only old couples are left. The vibrancy of the families is missing. A lot of fertile land is left uncultivated and turning into forest due to lack of people. Certainly, the society needs more children to preserve itself,” Bishop Irenios explained.

As chairman of KCBC’s vocation commission, Bishop Irenios also acknowledged that the steep decline in the number of children has “affected” vocations from Kerala that used to account for two-thirds of the more than 100,000 Catholic nuns and priests in India at the end of 2000.


Demographic Spring?

Taking an aggressive stand on pro-life concerns, the KCBC also issued an appeal for Catholic communities across the state to observe Aug. 10 as “Day of Protection of Life” — to mark the 50 years of legalized abortion in India.

In 1971, India became one of the first nations to legalize abortion under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act that had been promoted by successive governments even with incentives as an instrument of population control.

In commemorating the injustice of the 1971 law, the KCBC acted in tandem with Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. The cardinal had issued a letter asking the Catholic faithful of India to observe Aug. 10 as a “Day of Mourning” in dioceses and parishes across the nation.

“Millions of abortions have taken place in our country after that legislation, and there is no sign of this anti-life trend slowing down. One estimate puts the number of abortions in 2015 alone at 15.6 million!” stated Cardinal Gracias in his appeal.

Cardinal Gracias urged the Church in India “to express through various means … our sorrow at the killing of unwanted babies, and … promote a pro-life mentality in our society.” 

The action plan suggested by the cardinal includes instituting a campaign of prayer and reparation for the decades of innocent bloodshed, celebrating special Masses in every parish in memory of the unborn babies killed, ringing of funeral bells in Catholic churches throughout India for several minutes as a call to prayer, and scheduling pro-life programs on that day or over the weekend.

Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry, KCBC president, released a video  album, Life Is Bountiful, celebrating life in the womb and the sanctity of life, prepared by half a dozen passionate pro-life campaigners, on the occasion at Mount St. Thomas at Kakkanad near Kochi, headquarters of the Syro Malabar Church.

Sabu Jose, president of the Pro-Life Committee under the KCBC Family Commission, told the Register that dozens of special programs were held across the state on Aug. 10 to mark the “dubious anniversary” of legalized abortion in India.

Father Jacob Palackappilly, KCBC deputy secretary general, told the Register, “The KCBC will hold a special assembly at the end of September to discuss and plan the Church’s response to social challenges, such as promoting large families and pro-life and other related concerns.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.