The Catholic laity of India has been pro-active for the forthcoming (now on) Extraordinary Synod on the Family, to be held in Rome this October. As a preparation for the same, Pope Francis had sent out a Questionnaire on various issues affecting the family. This Questionnaire was to be circulated to all parishes across the globe. The Questionnaire touched on some theological issues, but did not shy away from addressing contentious and contemporary issues like contraception, abortion, gay and live-in relationships, divorce and annulment, and giving communion to Divorced and Remarried Catholics.
When a group of lay leaders came to know, through the press, that a report on the Questionnaire had already been sent to Rome, they did their own investigation; only to discover what they had apprehended, that the laity had little or no role in the formulation of the so-called report that had been sent to Rome. This despite the fact that the issues raised directly concerned them!
This core group adopted a multi-pronged approach to the Synod. It co-ordinated its efforts with “Catholic Church Reform International”, a group with a presence in 65 countries, working on similar lines. It organized local consultations in Pune, Chennai and Kanpur. It simplified the Vatican Questionnaire and circulated it among the laity, under the initiative of theologian Virginia Saldanha of Mumbai. The archbishop of Madras and Bp Thomas Dabre of Pune actively encouraged the local consultations. Alan Doulton of Pune was able to collect and collate 800 responses to the Questionnaire. Louis Menezes IAS (Retd) organized several local level consultations in Chennai and got 600 responses from college-going youth, on issues affecting them. After all this systematic spadework the National Consultation on Catholic Families (NCCF) was held on 23rd/ 24th August at Navsadhana Diocesan Pastoral Centre, Pune. Committed lay leaders from across the country attended it.
Diago Almeida, President of the Catholic Association of Poona, welcomed the delegates. In his opening address Bp Dabre asserted that the family was the Domestic Church. It was not just a human creation, but also a divine institution. The emphasis should, therefore, be on ongoing catechesis for the promotion of Christian family life.
Bp Lawrence Pius of Dharampuri, Chairperson, CCBI Family Commission, was accompanied by Rev Arulraj CSC, who is one of the Indian delegates to the Synod. The bishop wanted the latter to have a first hand experience of the aspirations of the laity. Bp Lawrence stated that after the Extraordinary Synod this October, there would be another gathering in Philadelphia, USA, followed by the Ordinary Synod next year, in which a wider cross-section of the church would be involved. He regretted that of the 125 Latin Rite dioceses that came under his Commission, only 55 had responded to the Vatican Questionnaire; quite possibly in a not very systematic manner. The general excuse was that there was not enough time to respond.
In his 4-page report sent to Rome, Bp Lawrence said that gay and live-in relationships were generally not accepted in India. People respected church teachings on abortion, but not on artificial contraception, which they did not consider morally wrong. He said that whereas in Sweden the rate of divorce was as high as 54%, in India it was less than 1%. The Church needed to adopt a more compassionate approach to divorced and remarried Catholics, even though there is, as yet, no clarity on the issue.
The Co-ordinator of the NCCF, Chhotebhai, said that this gathering was not just about the Synod. If we accept that the family is the basic unit of society, then nurturing healthy and happy families was the greatest contribution to society and world peace. He, however, regretted that far from being the Domestic Church, the Catholic family was more like a domesticated fowl that was expected to make appropriate clucking noises, and produce more eggs (increase the Catholic population) as some bishops in Kerala have been advocating.
Virginia Saldanha said that even after simplifying the Vatican Questionnaire people still found it difficult to comprehend or respond to. Hence the poor response ratio. Louis Menezes stated that in Chennai they found alcoholism to be a major cause of family breakdown. It was ironic that the State Govt’s excise policy netted over Rupees Thirty Thousand Crores annually, in the name of poverty alleviation, but had quite the opposite effect. Alan Doulton gave a lucid power point presentation on the survey conducted in Pune diocese.
David Lobo from Bangalore, who described himself as a conscientious objector, threw light on the run up to the promulgation of Humanae Vitae in the 1960s. This was the document that had categorically stated that all forms of “artificial” contraception were intrinsically wrong; a teaching that alienated millions from the Catholic Church. He shared how a group of four arch conservatives prevailed on what came to be known as the “Majority Report” of 52 among the 56 experts that had deliberated on the issue for three years before its actual promulgation. It is this subterfuge that the laity now fears. History should not repeat itself, with a handful of die-hard conservatives trying to suppress the vast majority of the laity that neither accepts nor practices the teachings of Humanae Vitae.
Panel discussions were held on various issues. The first set of panelists had Virginia Saldanha, Lorna D’souza (Mumbai) and Dr Aloma Lobo (Bangalore). Virginia dwelt on gender issues – a patriarchal mindset, the preference for having boys, freedom for boys but control on girls, the false projection of masculinity/ machoism, sexual abuse by close relatives/friends, and the insistence on “virginity” for women only.
Lorna D’Souza spoke on the plight of widows, giving her own traumatic testimony, which brought tears to many eyes. She said that widows did not want pity, but dignity and security. The “Hope & Life Movement” started in 1985 by Bp Bosco Penha of Mumbai was a source of great strength to widows.
Dr Aloma Lobo, who was earlier on the Central Govt. panel for adoption, said that families should be their own agents of change. Unfortunately, almost all religions fed on fear and/or superstition for their survival. We need freedom from fear and the anxiety about what others would have to say. She felt that the existing Marriage Preparation Courses were grossly inadequate. Most people were hypocrites when it came to the practice of dowry or a “dress code” for women only.
The next panel discussion was initiated by Chhotebhai, Virginia and Louis Menezes. Chhotebhai spoke on the interface between Canon Law and various civil laws, specifically the Christian Marriage Act (1872) and Divorce Act (1869).Lay leaders needed to be well acquainted with their respective provisions. He also dwelt on the piquant situations arising out of inter-faith/inter-denominational and inter-rite marriages. Virginia spoke about the Uniform Civil Code proposed by the new BJP Govt. at the Centre. We need to support this move, she opined, as it was envisaged in the Constitution of India. Louis Menezes asserted that the laity should be involved at every level of ecclesiastical decision making on issues that directly affect them.
The inputs and panel presentations were followed by group discussions, open and general sessions. Issues were discussed under four broad categories that had been circulated earlier – Pastoral, Sociological, Psychological and Physiological. Based on all these deliberations, an “Agenda for Change” emerged as below:
1. The Marriage Preparation Courses are grossly inadequate; and they are attended only for obtaining the mandatory “certificate”. They need drastic improvement. It is equally important to have ongoing catechesis and remote preparation, which, as of now, stops with Confirmation classes.
2. Marriage Enrichment Programmes should become an integral part of the pastoral ministry of the Church.
3. Lay groups, parish councils and Catholic Associations should organize seminars on Canon and civil laws.
4. The process of church annulments should be expedited.
5. Respite Centres should be established in existing Diocesan Pastoral Centres for immediate relief and shelter to victims of domestic violence or marital discord.
6. From the time of St Thomas Aquinas, considered the greatest theologian, the sacraments are considered to be a means of sanctification, and not a reward for being good. Jesus himself knowingly broke bread with Judas Iscariot even though he was in a state of grave sin. It is, therefore, mete and just that divorced and remarried Catholics be admitted to the Eucharist, provided that they are suitably disposed, and after due catechesis.
7. Canon 1398 that provides for a latae sententiae (automatic) ex-communication of a woman who procures an abortion, regardless of the circumstances, should be suitably amended.
8. Canon 1083:1 stipulates 14/16 as the age for girls and boys respectively to get married, whereas Clause 60:1 of the Christian Marriage Act stipulates a minimum age of 18/21. Canon 1072 dissuades people from marrying at a young age, and Canon 1083:2 advocates a higher age for marriage. Canon 1071:2 does, no doubt, subjugate Canon Law to civil law. Nevertheless, considering the growing complexities of modern life, it is advisable that suitable amendments be made in Canon Law, increasing the age for eligibility for marriage.
9. Canon 1095:1-3 prescribes the various criteria for valid matrimonial consent. However, Canon 1096:2 sates that ignorance of the same cannot be presumed after puberty. Since girls are attaining puberty as early as in their 9th year, and boys in their 12th, such a presumption defies all logic. Such presumptions will later impinge on any subsequent annulment process. This provision in Canon Law should be scrapped immediately, and replaced with a more equitable amendment.
10. The laity/families should be fully involved in any ecclesiastical decision making process that affects them.
11. The refusal by some Oriental Rite eparchies to recognize the Status Liber (free state) certificates issued by Latin Rite dioceses in which the concerned persons are now residing, goes against the very essence of Christian unity. The CBCI must act firmly to stamp out this insidious practice.
12. When there is an inter-faith/inter-denominational marriage, where one side is denied Communion, it is advisable that such marriages are celebrated without having the Mass, for which suitable pastoral guidelines should be issued.
13. It is sometimes reported that dispensation is denied to those seeking an inter-faith marriage, even though there are specific provisions for the same in Canon Law. Such dispensations should not be treated as a condescension, and should be granted on request.
14. The practice of our Christian faith and the liturgy should be made more relevant to our youth.
15. The “Hope & Life Movement” for widows should be extended to all dioceses.
16. Instead of tid-bits synods, it is time for Vatican III for a radical updating (aggiornamento) on all aspects of Church life and practice.
1. Since our girls are today outshining the boys in almost every field, they often cannot find suitable marriage partners. Community leaders and organizations should organize marriage Bureaux and meeting points.
2. Families should make adequate legal provisions for inheritance devoid of any gender discrimination.
3. Families must make concerted efforts to overcome the patriarchal mindset and all forms of gender discrimination.
4. We need to reach out to migrants, especially in urban conglomerates, lest such persons go astray for want of community support.
5. Extravagant weddings should be discouraged, and dowry in any form should be stopped.
6. We need to replace “competition” between the sexes with a more collaborative/ co-operational approach.
7. Spouses/children from broken homes should have access to proper counselling.
8. Co-education should be encouraged, so as to inculcate respect for each other from an early age.
9. We need to have an inclusive approach to persons having various sexual orientations.
1. The blanket ban on “artificial” contraception has proved to be a no go, no show, no tell state. It needs to be given a quiet burial.
2. Considering the advances in science, we should respect, and not condemn, those who opt for In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).
3. Surrogacy, with adequate safeguards, may be accepted under special circumstances.
1. The Central Govt. should circulate the provisions and aims and objects of the proposed Uniform Civil Code to all stakeholders. It may be introduced in Parliament only after a thorough public debate.
2. The Central Govt. should establish a Commission, on the lines of the Sachar Commission for Muslims, to determine the socio-economic status of the Christian community in India.
To ensure a proper follow-up of the recommendations of the NCCF, and to see that its voice is heard in Rome, the group formed itself into the “Indian Catholic Forum”. It is not an organization, but a movement for reform, to address various issues affecting the community. Chottabhai (Kanpur) was elected the Convenor, and a Steering Committee consisting of Dr Aloma Lobo (Bangalore), Virginia Saldanha (Mumbai), Louis Menezes (Chennai), Adv Antony Ambat (Kochi), Juliana D’Mello and Somyabapu Waghmare (both of Pune) was formed. Rev Arulraj has assured the Forum that he will carry its “Agenda for Change” to Rome.