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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Kerala Church’s new prayer: Make babies

Declining numbers force change in policy to encourage family planning.

Written by Shaju Philip | Published: December 24, 2013 3:51:27 am

He is a 47-year-old bank officer and she is 43. The Catholic couple in Thrissur,Kerala,have two daughters aged 20 and 16. When the younger one shifted to a hostel for her class XII a year ago,the two,says the husband,felt a sudden emptiness. She started talking about a third child. Age deterred them,as well as the fact that she had undergone tubectomy. But seven months ago,they took the plunge,she underwent reverse tubectomy and they are now awaiting a third child.

Some may chuckle at their decision to have a child at this age but the one place where they will receive a warm reception is their Church.

The Catholic Church that had taken the lead in ensuring family planning in Kerala in the 1960s and ‘70s — in a departure from its conservative beliefs — is now encouraging members to have four or more children to stem a decline in numbers.

The economically,educationally and politically powerful Catholics form a chunk of the state’s 19 per cent Christian population. In fact,the prosperity of Catholics in Kerala has been partially attributed to their early adoption of family planning.

A combination of factors is responsible for the decline in Kerala’s Catholic population — the number of Christian migrants to European and American countries,the rise in the number of employed women who decided to limit the number of their offspring and late marriages by the educated.

Such has been the fall in numbers that in several parts,three- or four-formation houses for fresh recruits have been merged due to shortage of novices for nunhood.

Eager that the call for more children should not be seen as a measure to retain numbers,the Church underlines that it’s part of its pro-life stance,which extends to objection to abortion. The Church shifted its focus from anti-abortion to promotion of bigger families in early years of the last decade. Later,it started offering incentives to couples begetting four or more children. Now,the family apostolate departments in dioceses have teams to preach the necessity of increasing the community count to every prospective bride and groom.

Fr Jose Kottayil,secretary,Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) Commission for Family,says,“The Church is promoting responsible parenthood. We are asking healthy and financially sound couples to beget more than three. Our drive to break the one- or two-child norm has now got the attention of non-Catholic Christian segments. We want all communities to promote bigger families and a culture of pro-life. We don’t want to give a communal colour to this initiative.”

Dioceses planned a show of bigger families to take on a state government-appointed panel that said the number of children in a family should be fixed at two. The commission for the rights and welfare of children,headed by ex-Supreme Court judge V R Krishna Iyer,said in 2011 that families with more than two children should be denied government benefits and those campaigning against family planning should be jailed for three months. It also suggested facilities for free-of-cost termination of pregnancy.

As Christian and Muslim organisations warned the government against implementing the recommendations without deliberations,the report was put on the backburner.

“The recommendations galvanised young parents to demonstrate big families. The dioceses came forward to recognise couples with more than four children,” said Kottayil.

A rough estimate by the KCBC Family Commission shows the Church has around 10,000 young couples with four or more children.

Gatherings of such couples are regularly held across Kerala. Last month,one such meeting was held in Thrissur. The archdiocese of Thalassery in North Kerala held a festival of life on December 14 for couples with five or more children,with the youngest one born after January 2011.

Although the KCBC has no strict framework to promote bigger families,the message has been conveyed: Church-run hospitals are offering reverse tubectomy at low rates; they have cut or waived the bill on delivery of a fourth child; the tuition fee for the fourth child has been waived or reduced; the fourth child is given preference in admission in unaided schools run by the Church. The message: Financial constraint should not come in the way of begetting children.

Dioceses also have other strategies. The Thrissur archdiocese gives a gold coin for the fourth or every child born after,while the Idukki diocese has formed a pre-natal risk solution team comprising priests,nuns,doctors and activists of pro-life movement.

Two years ago,a Catholic Church in Mananthavady diocese dedicated its Sunday mass collection of Rs 20,000 towards fixed deposit for two families with five children each. While that move evoked a backlash,the diocese is considering introduction of deposit schemes for fourth or fifth child from next year.

Fr Mathew Periapuram,director of the Family Apostolate in Mananthavady diocese,says while the number of couples having four or more children is still low,“the trend of one child has gone”.

Fr Kottayil Cyriac,director of the family apostolate in Changanassery diocese,agrees. “Convents would have to be closed down if we don’t have enough girls. Some congregations are already facing a shortage of nuns. Even the concept of convent-run schools is facing threat,” he says.

Kottayam,one of the Kerala districts with the largest number of Catholics,falls under this diocese.

Dr Finto Francis,a gynaecologist at Mariam Theresa Hospital near Mala in Thrissur,says he is getting increasing requests from women to reverse tubectomy,15 to 20 queries a month,though not all are Catholics. “They want to have more than one baby. They are mainly in the age group of 35 to 40.”

Dr Francis,who started doing the recanalisation procedure in 2010,has performed 100-odd procedures so far. “The cost of reversal of tubectomy is Rs 35,000 to Rs 50,000 in Kerala hospitals. As part of the pro-life movement,we are charging less than Rs 20,000 irrespective of caste. Other Catholic hospitals too have cut the cost.”

Dr Mary Marceles,gynaecologist at Little Lourdes Hospital,Pala in Kottayam,says in many nuclear families,the demand for another member comes from the elder son or daughter. “The Church’s new vigour in increasing the size of families and the cost cut for recanalisation has prompted many to undergo the procedure.”

The couples who have gone for four or more children belong to all strata of society — farmers,daily workers,businessmen,professionals,doctors. “Thirty young couples in Thalassery diocese went for a fifth child last year alone. We have a young doctor couple in Kasargode with five children,” says Fr Abraham Puthussery.

A common factor,attested by the Church,is that these couples had been active participants of the Jesus Youth and Charismatic renewal movements in the 1990s. Kerala Church had witnessed a surge of laity towards the Charismatic movement in the ‘90s that made thousands religious.

Seventeen years ago when Pulikkal Benny of Kuruvilangadu in Kottayam attended a spiritual renewal meditation,he was a father of two. “The retreat changed my approach towards life and abortion. Later,I became an active member of the pro-life movement.”

Now 45 and the owner of a textile showroom,Benny has six kids. The eldest is an MBA student and the youngest in class I. “I have five daughters,” he says,admitting that relatives don’t view his large family very positively.

Fishermen Prakash Hentry and wife Rani of Sakthikulangara in Kollam district had their first child in 1997. Next year,the couple had their second child,both through Cesarean. After that,she opted for tubectomy. As the kids started attending schools,Rani felt she needed more children. Frequent participation in Christian retreats and meditations made her think about reverse tubectomy,and after undergoing it,she had her third child in 2009. Early this year,the couple had their fourth,Alphonsa Mary.

“Children are gifts of God. If God gives more,we are ready to receive. My wife,now 38,has no health problems,” Hentry stresses.

Rani says she inspired her three friends whose husbands work in the Gulf to undergo recanalisation.

“Many others had told me about their intention to revere tubectomy. But they developed cold feet thinking how society would react. I have got back my happiness. We are not worried about the financial liabilities of a bigger family. I can feel the pain of those who have only one child,” she says.

Vattaparambil Georgekutty,43,and his wife Pushpa,40,of Ettumanoor in Kottayam have six children. The eldest is 14 years old,while the youngest of nine months. Pushpa,with a strong background in the Charismatic Renewal Movement and a church choir singer,is carrying twins now. “I see my neighbours with huge houses with only one child… God will find resources for our children. Our children will be realistic towards life,they are taught in public schools,” say the couple.

Georgekutty,a small-scale farmer,said his pregnant wife has drawn many raised eyebrows. “We decided for more children not expecting any benefits from the Church,” he says.

At Varandarapalli in Thrissur,Dr George Leon,42,and his wife Annie,38,a schoolteacher,have four children. Annie had a miscarriage three months back. Leon had been active with Jesus Youth in his college days.

Annie says her four-child family inspired some colleagues and friends to beget more children. “The message of bigger families has now gone to those who were not part of any renewal movement. Some of my colleagues who stuck to the one- or two-child norm have changed their stand. They have three or four children now,” she says.

Kerala Hindu Coordination Committee general secretary Kummanam Rajasekharan objects to the Church propagating bigger families. “The Hindu population in Kerala is going down alarmingly but we have not resorted to any strategy,as being adopted by Christians,considering national interest. The Catholics have resorted to increasing their population to counter the threat from Muslims in terms of numbers. The Catholic move will only raise tension over population size,” he warns.

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