A Catholic diocese’s plan to promote large families has kicked off a controversy in southern India’s Kerala state, with critics saying the move ignores India’s population explosion.
Palai Diocese of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church announced a slew of assistance to Catholic families having five or more children as part of its Year of the Family 2021.
The diocese promised to pay 1,500 rupees (US$21) monthly to couples married in 2000 or later if they have five or more children. The diocese pledged to provide higher education to their fourth and subsequent children with scholarships to diocesan institutions.
The diocese also promised to bear the complete delivery expenses of the fourth and subsequent children at its hospital.
Its announcement on social media this week provoked criticism and ridicule, forcing the diocese to remove the post.
Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt of Palai in a press statement said the diocese stands by its promises and the move aims to help larger families facing difficulties, particularly because of the pandemic situation.
The Christian population in the state has been on a steady decline over the years and now we want our couples to have more children
Diocesan youth director Father Thomas Thayil said the plain aims to “strengthen our Catholic families.” However, he did not deny that the policy also aims to tackle the shrinking Christian population in Kerala.
“The Christian population in the state has been on a steady decline over the years and now we want our couples to have more children,” he told UCA News on July 28.
Kerala has some 33 million people. Hindus make up 54.73 percent of its population, Muslims 26.56 percent and Christians 18.38 percent, according to the 2011 national census.
Census data in the last three decades shows that Muslims have been steadily increasing but Christians’ numbers are dwindling.
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Father Thayil said that although the diocese has not conducted any detailed study of its population, the size of Catholic families has been shrinking, directly impacting the overall population.
“We have noticed a general trend of nuclear families among Catholics and other Christian denominations. We want to change it, at least in our diocese,” he explained
Young Christians also migrate overseas in large numbers in search of jobs, causing a decline in numbers.
“Being Catholic, we are pro-life,” said the priest, adding that “those questioning us must have some other agenda.”
Critics of the diocese’s policy say it ignores India’s struggle to control its 1.3 billion population, which is projected to overtake China’s population of 1.4 billion in the next 20 years.
With India adding 15 million people every year and China controlling its population, India is projected to have 1.5 billion people by 2040.
However, the Syro-Malabar Church has been promoting large families as its population dwindles across dioceses in Kerala, the church’s base.
What do these bishops and priests know about the struggles of parents to bring up two children?
In 2006, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese issued a pastoral letter urging his people to increase their numbers.
But “these exhortations are irresponsible and senseless,” said Mathew Jacob, a 65-year-old Catholic and entrepreneur in Palai Diocese.
“What do these bishops and priests know about the struggles of parents to bring up two children? They are promising peanuts to encourage them to have more babies. How much more ridiculous they could become?” asked Jacob, a father of three children.
He said the Christian population in Kerala has been generally on the decline because they practiced family planning following the national policy of restricting families to two children.
“Catholics are not idiots to produce more babies. They know the expenses for education and delivery are not the only realities in bringing up children,” Jacob said.
Such criticism forced the diocese to remove its social media post, but the bishop’s press statement on July 27 said the promises stand and they aim to help large and struggling families.
Several Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh and Assam are following a strict two-child policy.
The most populous Uttar Pradesh state with 200 million people is accused of targeting Muslims, who are known to have more than two children per family.
The two-child policy is perceived as targeting the Muslim community as an average Muslim family has four or more children
The state, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has 43 million Muslims or more than 20 percent of its population, which is double the national average.
The two-child policy is perceived as targeting the Muslim community as an average Muslim family has four or more children.
The measures include barring people having more than two children from contesting local polls and denying them government jobs and government subsidies. If they are already government employees, their promotions are denied.
Assam, another BJP-ruled state, has also imposed stricter measures such as denying certain social welfare benefits to couples having more than two children. The Hindu-dominated state has 31 million people, but 34 percent of its people are Muslims.
Many other Indian states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh follow the two-child policy. They impose measures such as restricting candidates from contesting local elections if they have more than two children.
The western state of Maharashtra not only prohibits a person with more than two children from contesting local elections but also has restrictions on government employees if they have more than two children.
The Church publicly opposed the two-child policy and family planning methods when the late prime minister Indira Gandhi promoted them in the 1970s. However, the opposition faded away in later decades in the face of greater efforts to control India’s population growth.
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