Kochi: Even as India struggles to keep its rising population under check, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, or KCBC, has come out saying it would support families that have more children in a bid to counter a decline in the Christian population in the state.
The programme would be implemented through the “pro-life ministries” in all Catholic dioceses in the state, said Stephen Alathara, priest, deputy secretary and spokesperson of KCBC. “There are fewer children these days, especially among Christians, who generally follow the two-child norm.”
Christians account for 19.32% of Kerala’s population of 31.8 million people, with Hindus accounting for around 56% and Muslims 24.7%.
While the Muslim population is growing, the Christian population is on the decline, Alathara pointed out.
Both the Christian and Muslim population in the state is well above the national average.
The move, while unrelated, comes ahead of a visit to India by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, whose department, the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, is preparing new guidelines for the Vatican for Catholic dialogue with other religions.
“People are obsessed by Islam,” Tauran was quoted as saying in an interview with the religious website Terrasanta.net, which specializes in Holy Land affairs.
Most Christian couples in Kerala do not have more than two children because of economic reasons, but if financial support is assured, they might be willing to break the trend, predicts Alathara.
The decision was taken at a two-day meeting of KCBC in Kochi last week, attended by 29 bishops of the 34-member council, as well as various heads of Catholic dioceses in the state.
KCBC intends to discuss the issue with dioceses across the state and soon draw a master plan. It will also create awareness on the need to do away with birth control methods, especially abortion.
The programme will initially provide free education for the third and fourth child in schools managed by Christian authorities, as well as medical assistance to mothers in Christian-run hospitals.
Health economist K. Ramankutty, the executive director of non-profit organization Health Action by People and a practixing paediatrician, notes that the Kerala Church has always been against birth control and this is the first time that they are openly admitting this through KCBC.
While the church has been exhorting its followers to keep away from birth control and eschew abortions for quite a while, it is unclear how KCBC’s latest incentive plan will be embraced by its members.
Dr Ramankutty, for one, says it is unlikely that the Christian community in the state will go by KCBC’s policy.
Reformist and director of the Indian Institute of Christian Studies, Joseph Pulikunnel, who has been over the last 35 years editing the magazine, Oshana, which propagates reforms within the community, says the church has no right to interfere with the private affairs of parents or enter into people’s personal lives.
Until around two decades ago, it was customary, especially among the poor, to automatically send at least one of their children to nunneries or monasteries.
But with fewer volunteers, the church is pushing couples to have more children in the hope it would find more priests and nuns, insists Pulikunnel.
“The church is so wealthy that it can afford to financially aid people to get its nuns and priests,” he adds.
The government and the ruling Left party constituents were unwilling to comment on KCBC’s decision.
T.R. Dilip, demographer and faculty member at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, says Christians in Kerala already have a higher average fertility rate that borders around two children, compared with 1.64 for Hindus. Muslims there have an average rate of 2.5%, he said, pointing to statistics from the National Family Health Survey.
—Philip Pullella of Reuters in Vatican City contributed to this story.