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Does the Church have it right on family teachings in India?

Synod on the Family questionnaire falls short on addressing contraception, interreligious marriage

Does the Church have it right on family teachings in India?

Residents go about their daily chores at a slum in Mumbai (AFP Photo/Indranil Mukherjee) 

A few lay leaders in India took the initiative to get responses from the laity to the Vatican questionnaire in preparation for the Synod on the Family. The responses when summed up show that the laity are pinning their hopes on the Synod Fathers, realizing that teachings in Humanae Vitae are hardly followed and need change.

The Bishop of Antwerp recently wrote, “I had become more and more aware that important questions surrounding relationship, sexuality, marriage and family constitute a very discordant domain within the Catholic community…. In order to avoid mounting tensions, men and women in the 1980s and 1990s opted for the discreet approach.”

The same is reflected in the responses received from over 1,000 Indian Catholics. About fifty to seventy percent who know Church teaching said that they do not follow it and prefer to follow their conscience. Some even admitted that they receive the Eucharist as they do not feel the need to confess this ‘sin’. Eighty to ninety percent want the Church teaching on contraception to change.

While everyone knows the teaching on contraception and abortion, very few have heard of the Church document Humanae Vitae.

All married persons declared that there is a range of difficulties in putting Church teachings into practice. They declared that the teachings of the Church on contraception do not take into account the life situations of people in the 21st century.

A woman whose husband was in the armed forces shared that he would come home for brief periods after long stretches of time in the border areas. Following the Church promoted Natural Family Planning (NFP) was practically impossible for the young couple. There are numerous couples in a similar situation, separated because of their jobs, meeting for brief periods off and on. If they have to follow the NFP, then they may hardly have a conjugal relationship.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1603, "The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life." Considering that conjugal love is necessary to strengthen the couple relationship, most people in such a situation are forced to consider other methods of birth regulation.

Three domestic workers living in a slum in Mumbai interviewed for the questionnaire said that they had to use contraceptives for three important reasons. Firstly, their husbands often come home drunk and demand sex. Secondly, they know their husbands visit sex workers occasionally so they needed to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS infection. Thirdly, since they could not afford more children it was better to use contraceptives than have an abortion. They do not believe that using contraceptives is morally wrong so they continue to receive the Eucharist.

One doctor couple said that they did not see any difference between contraceptives and NFP, as both intentionally prevent fertilization. So why condemn the use of condoms, which could save the lives of many hapless women whose husbands contract HIV/AIDS?

On Sunday, Pope Francis who in his inimitable way teaches by example, showed the Catholic community that compassion and understanding come before the law. In asking for 20 couples coming from different social backgrounds and representing the “modern-day couple” to be married in a mass ceremony, he showed the world that the Church represents the compassion of Jesus. It is reported that several of the couples were cohabiting and one was already with child.

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Several Asian family concerns have not featured in the questionnaire, the most important being interreligious marriage. Great disappointment has been expressed among the lay faithful that in a synod deliberating on the family, the protagonists are largely under-represented.

Asia as usual has been given short shrift by the Vatican with just one couple from the predominantly Catholic Philippines attending the synod. They are supposed to represent the rest of Asia characterized by its inter-religious diversity, which experience they would sadly lack.

We can only hope that our Asian prelates will bring these concerns to the Synod Hall.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women’s issues based in Mumbai.

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