By exhorting its members to increase their population to fight the straw man of a potential ethnic cleansing, the church is indulging in unnecessary rhetoric and forgetting the consequences of such a policy if followed by all communities.

One of the recommendations of the Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer Commission (on the Rights and Welfare of Women and Child) to the government of Kerala is to impose a fine of Rs.10,000 or imprisonment up to three months on those who exceed the two-child norm. This has come in for criticism from many quarters, based on secular arguments in defence of basic individual rights. But even those who oppose this recommendation cannot deny the fact that uncontrolled population explosion is a problem and that we are stretching the carrying capacity of the global ecosystem to the limit.

While the aims of the Commission cannot be faulted, some of the methods advocated should cause worry to all those who are concerned about personal freedom. Besides, it is debatable whether some of the proposed measures are the best means to achieve such an end. The horrible memory of the forced sterilisation programmes during the Emergency of 1975 should be a reminder of the counter-productive consequences of such coercive methods.

Easy access to safe and free birth-control methods, improved level of female education and a general increase in welfare have shown to lead to a reduction in population in many countries — Kerala being a good example. By using such nuanced incentives and disincentives like reducing subsidies after two children, the state can achieve the desired level of population growth without tampering with basic freedoms.

But the stance of the Kerala hierarchy of the Catholic Church in this debate is self-indulgent, divisive and parochial. It has not just limited its criticism to the harsh methods suggested by the Commission, but goes on to encourage its members to increase the number of their children. And it is even awarding prizes to parents with the maximum number of children and also raised a false alarm about its survival if the number of its members does not multiply fast.

And by exhorting them to increase their population to fight the straw man of a potential ethnic cleansing, the church is indulging in unnecessary rhetoric and forgetting the consequences of such a policy if followed by all communities. If the teaching of the church is based on a Kantian notion of a categorical imperative — “acting only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” — it could be held responsible for the resulting Malthusian conundrum of massive population growth with all its dire consequences.

But the Church need not unnecessarily burden itself with such conundrums. The teachings of the Church have progressed from the days of Augustinian asceticism as enunciated in the encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) to the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI (1968), which allows birth control by the natural rhythm method as acceptable since it takes advantage of a faculty provided by nature. Humanae Vitae states: “If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier [20].”

Even though it reversed the normal priorities of moral reasoning by putting the sacrosanct mechanics of sex above the motive of the actors, Humanae Vitae allowed some space for birth control by natural methods. The Catholic hierarchy could have just objected to the proposed draconian measures and kept a dignified silence on the final aim of regulating birth which is allowed by Humanae Vitae. It need not have exhorted its members to multiply like the sands on the beach and the stars in the sky by giving prizes to those with maximum children, thus mocking at a national agenda which is almost universally desired. But it may be pertinent to note that the non-procreational pleasures of the sexual act have not escaped the attention of Catholic couples in Kerala and they indulge in them just like other couples all over the world, despite the feigned ignorance of their superiors.

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