Call it bad timing, political naivete, or simply a blinkered attitude to reality, but one thing is certain, a Kerala church is stirring up a hornet’s nest that is making a lot of Christians in North India jittery.
A Syro-Malabar Catholic diocese in Kerala has announced a family welfare scheme for its faithful that flies in the face of India’s family planning policy.
The Palai diocese through its Family Apostolate has announced a monthly ‘financial assistance’ of INR 1,500 to couples who have five or more children. The scheme applies to those are married after the year 2000.
Women with three children will be entitled to free pre and post natal care at a Church run hospital. The fourth or subsequent child in a family will have access to Church-managed engineering college scholarships.
The scheme, announced as part of the ‘Year of the Family’ celebrations by the Syro Malabar Church, is not for the entire population of Kerala, but limited to the faithful in the archdiocese.
Naturally this scheme viral on social media at a time when there are heated debates around a proposed population control legislation that seeks to penalize couples having more than two children.
The diocese’s move has evoked some sharp reactions from the public, especially the Hindutva brigade who have gone to town calling it a deliberate attempt to increase the Christian population and destabilize the social fabric of the country.
“The Right wing hardliners who are already attacking the Muslims over the population controversy have now been handed a stick to bash Christians with,” says Glen DeMello, a father of two children.
The Church authorities and the diocese have chosen not to respond to such ‘irresponsible remarks’.
The Catholic Church through its social action initiatives for decades has been advocating natural family planning methods, recognizing the need for population planning, and such news stories, no matter how localized, are bound to have negative reactions, a nun who works with poor communities in Bihar told us.
Some women’s rights supporters and young Catholics when contacted by us, reacted sharply to the patriarchy within the church, and pointed out that this will once again bring up discord and disharmony. “The whole contraception versus procreation debate will start again all in the name of the Year of the Family’. Why can’t the priests help families with more kids quietly without making it another moral-political issue ?” said a couple in Patna.
Another said that it really was a non-issue, since the majority of educated Catholics do not have more than two or three children. The only problem is that such things would be used by the Hindu hardliners to make life miserable for Christians all over India.
Father Joseph Kuttiankal, director of the Family Apostolate, says the scheme was planned as an assistance to the large families, especially in the post Covid-19 scenario.
The diocese planned minimal assistance to large families who might be facing financial difficulties. The diocese hasn’t ascertained actual number of families eligible for the benefits under the scheme.
Father Kuttiankal says that young families (formed after 2000) with a single earning member are the most vulnerable. “The elder children of couples who started a family before the year must have completed their education and begun contributing to their respective families.’’
Almost a decade ago, the Kerala government brought out the’ Kerala Women’s Code Bill 2011′, which sought to penalize families violating the two-child norm. This bill was scuttled after a furore in the state which has a considerable Muslim and Christian population.
However, the thrust of certain clerics within the Syro-Malabar Church is to encourage people to have larger families.
A pastoral letter issued by the Changanacherry Archdiocese in 2019 said that the percentage of Christians in Kerala has dwindled over the years, creating an ‘alarming situation’ for the community in the state.
“During the formation of Kerala, Christians were the second-largest community in the state. But now, the community is only 18.38 percent of the state’s total population. In recent years, the birth rate in the Christian community has decreased to 14 percent,” read the letter, issued by Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam of Changanacherry.