Will the Family Synod Bishops understand the Asian situation?
At least one Indian Archbishop will speak at the Synod on the Family called by Pope Francis in Rome a fortnight from now. And though Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri is an old India hand, having served in New Delhi as the Apostolic Nuncio at a critical time in the country’s political history, would that be sufficient to have post-Synod documents reflect the South Asian reality is a matter of conjecture, and hope.
The Family in India shares with its global counterparts many issues, specially those relating to the impact of globalisation, the intrusion of Information Technology and reproductive sciences, Internet pornography, the continuing crisis of alcoholism in the working class and urban areas, and the incidence of drugs among the youth. There are emerging challenges of pre-marital and extramarital sex, teen pregnancies, and the prevalence of contraception. The employment crisis, health issues and societal pressures have added to mental problems, stress, strain and tension in the marriage and the family, and its consequences when the individual cannot cope with the situation. Church personnel, including priests and women religious, lack both in numbers and in training to be effective counselors, and pastoral care therefore is minimal in most areas.
We have a few cases of pastoral care for the LGBT community, but same sex marriage is almost entirely unknown. Pedophilia exists, but is not at a crisis point, either in the Lay faithful, or in the clergy. Prostitution and trafficking in women is illegal, but has huge dimensions in India, and Catholic women are also victims in several States. Divorce rates remain low [the church has done no survey on this issue, however, and desegregated data from government surveys is not available to be able to quantify trends], but there is increasing demand by women for reforms in civil and church laws on inheritance, annulment [including civil divorce], custody of children, in the 19th century marriage laws.
But there are several issues of the family that are rooted in the peculiar situation in India with its population consisting of multiple ethnicities, racial groups, cultural identities, some of which are insulated from external influences. The prevalence of caste has deep implications. The deep-rooted cultural patriarchy has its impact on the role and status of women, including Catholic women. From this flows the rampant, and growing, incident of dowry, which has to be paid by the parents of a bride to the bridegroom. This has led to a great social and economic crisis in many areas, specially in south India, and particularly in the state of Kerala and nearby areas. In both dowry and caste, the role of the church has been controversial. Many Catholic human rights and gender activists have questioned the Church on its soft response to these disturbing facets of society.
The economic crisis, specially in the rural areas and the tribal forest areas inhabited by various indigenous ethnicities with their own ancient cultures, has led to large scale displacement, migration to urban areas for employment irrespective of how low the remuneration is, and to human trafficking. A growing crisis now is of senior citizens, as couples or as widows who have no place to live in because of poverty and displacement, or the increase in nuclear families. This is particularly so for landless labour and the urban poor, but is also a crisis in the lower middle classes in cities and small towns. The church does not have the resources or presence in civil society to make any worthwhile impact on any of these issues.
Another critical issue peculiar to India flows from the fact that the Catholic community is a very small minority. Of India’s 1.25 billion people according to the 2011 census, Christians constitute just 2.3 per cent of the population. Of these 26 million or so Chrisians, Catholics are just 17 million. And these Catholics are divided in the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro Malankara Rites. While the Latin Rite is dominant, the two oriental rites have now Dioceses outside their home state of Kerala. Catholics live amidst an overwhelming Hindu population [and Muslims in some districts in Kerala, Bengal, Assam, and Kashmir]. Inevitably, there are increasing number of cases of Christians, especially women, marrying outside their denomination or Rite. There are also increasing number of cases, especially of women, marrying Hindu and, sometimes, Muslim men. The Church response that has come out of Kerala is most dissatisfying, and leans heavily on a punitive strategy.
The Church in India may have sent responses to the questionnaire from Rome on the eve of the Family Synod 2014, but there has been no genuine survey carried out down on the ground in a vast majority of Catholic dioceses. The few that may have been done have not ensured the scientific validity of the data. There is no verifiable data on divorce, bigamy, desertions, domestic violence, single parenthood, teen-age pregnancies, abortions and temporary or permanent contraception. No study has been done on the official and unofficial Government pressure for small families — other than the voluntary decision to have small families because of economic reasons — and its impact on the Catholic Lay Faithful.
Another critical issue impacting on the pastoral life and care of the family in India is a grossly insufficient and patchy effort at educating them in the social teachings of the Church – ranging from the documents of Vatican II and including Lumen Gentium, Aetatis Novae, the many documents of the Pontifical Council of the Family, issues of sexuality, the Social Teachings of the Church and so on.
For all practical purposes, the preparation, training and empowerment — after the early formation through catechism in Sunday schools — is perfunctory. Lay theologians and trainers are still rare. In urban areas, the Laity therefore does not take Teachings of the Church seriously, other than observing the pious rituals, coming for Mass, Novena and Feasts. There are exceptions in some areas on the west coast, and some tribal areas.
The study of Family Life among the Catholics, and among the Christian denominations, in India remains a very imperfect and inadequate science, and that must disturb the Church leadership. This prevents the evolution of an emphatic, even pragmatic, pastoral and social response. It also leads to an inadequate training and formation of clergy and men and women religious in this important area of work in the life of the Lay Faithful.
The Lay Faithful, and their families, are largely left to their own devices in handing their crises, and in relating to the society at large.
I hope, and I pray, that a visible change will take place after the Synods on the Family in Rome in 2014 and 2015.