John Dayal, Delhi
Updated: September 18, 2014 11:30 PM GMT
Indian Catholics pray during a Friday afternoon service at the Holy Name Cathedral in Mumbai (AFP Photo/Punit Paranjpe)
At least one Indian archbishop will speak at the Synod on the Family called by Pope Francis in Rome a fortnight from now.
Having served in Delhi as the apostolic nuncio at a critical time in the country’s political history, Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri is an old India hand. But will that be sufficient to have post-synod documents reflect the South Asian reality as a matter of conjecture, and hope?
Families in India share with their global counterparts many issues, especially those relating to the impact of globalization, internet pornography, alcoholism, drug use among youths, and the intrusion of information technology and reproductive sciences.
There are emerging challenges of pre-marital and extramarital sex, teen pregnancies, and the prevalence of contraception. Employment worries, health issues and societal pressures have added to mental problems, stress, and tensions in marriages and the family.
Church people, including priests and women religious, are lacking in both numbers and training to be effective counselors, so pastoral care is therefore 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 implications in India where it is widespread. Catholic women are also victims of this in several states.
Divorce rates remain low [though the Church has conducted no conclusive survey on this issue and desegregated data from government surveys is not available to be able to quantify trends], but there is an increasing demand by women for reforms in civil and Church laws on inheritance, annulment -- including civil divorce -- and custody of children.
But there are several family issues that are rooted in the peculiar situation of India, with its population of multiple ethnicities, racial groups and 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 -- issue 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, especially in southern India, and particularly in the state of Kerala and surrounding areas.
With both dowry and caste, the role of the Church has been controversial. Many Catholic human rights and gender activists have criticized the Church over its soft response to these disturbing facets of society.
Economic problems, especially in rural and tribal forest areas inhabited by various indigenous peoples with their own ancient cultures, has led to large scale displacement, migration to urban areas for employment, and to human trafficking.
Another growing problem is that of senior citizens who have no place to live because of poverty and displacement, or the rise of nuclear families.
This is particularly acute among former landless laborers and the urban poor, but it is also a problem among the lower middle class 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 issue peculiar to India stems 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 percent of the total population. Of these 26 million or so, Catholics account for just 17 million.
These Catholics are divided among the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro Malankara rites.
While the Latin Rite is the dominant, the two Oriental rites now have dioceses beyond their home state of Kerala.
Catholics live in the midst of an overwhelming Hindu majority [and a majority of Muslims in some districts such as Kerala, Bengal, Assam and Kashmir].
Inevitably, there are an increasing number of cases of Christians -- especially women -- marrying outside their denomination or rite, or marrying Hindus and Muslims.
The Church response to this in Kerala is most dissatisfying, and leans heavily on a punitive strategy.
The Church in India may have sent responses to the questionnaire from Rome for the Family Synod in October, but there has been no genuine survey carried out in the vast majority of Catholic dioceses.
Among the few that have been carried out, there is no guarantee that the data has been collected using adequate, scientific methodology. So, 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 conducted on official or unofficial government pressure on Indians to have small families, and its impact on the Catholic lay faithful.
Another critical issue having an impact on pastoral life and care of the family in India is the grossly insufficient effort at educating them in the social teachings of the Church. For all practical purposes, preparation, training and empowerment -- after early formation through catechism in Sunday schools – is perfunctory.
Lay theologians and trainers are rare. In urban areas, the laity therefore does not take teachings of the Church seriously, other than observing pious rituals, coming for Mass, Novenas and Feasts. There are exceptions in some areas on the west coast, and in some tribal areas.
The study of family life among Catholics -- and among other Christian denominations -- in India remains a very imperfect and inadequate science, and that must certainly disturb the Church leadership.
This prevents the evolution of an emphatic, even pragmatic, pastoral and social response. It also leads to 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 handling their crises and problems, and in relating to 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.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government's National Integration Council.
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