This piece has been inspired by two recent events. This morning (4th July), I read that “nice guy” Amir Khan was divorcing Kiran Rao, his second wife, of over a decade. The previous day I had read a Vatican News report by Devin Watkins that Pope Francis was convening the 10th edition of the World Meeting of Families (WMF) in Rome from 22nd to 26th June 2022.
Why do I co-relate these two events? Because both concern the family. Amir Khan, through his socially relevant movies like “3 Idiots” was counted among the nice guys of the otherwise brash Bollywood Brigade. His announcement of splitsville came as a shock to me. Last month we had also read how the philanthropic couple that the world loved, Bill and Melinda Gates, were also headed for an acrimonious splitsville. How could they, many wondered?
Coincidentally, the previous night I came across a You Tube video of the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana, all of 40 years ago. The pomp and pageantry of that wedding was probably the greatest in modern times. A pompous wedding and a disastrous marriage; ending in tragedy in a car crash in France. Truth is stranger than fiction. The glamour world outside is often so different from the stark reality inside. Yet, so many of us run after glamour, externals and fairy tale weddings, completely missing the meaning and goals of marriage and family life. Would that we could learn the bitter lessons of history.
Watkins’ report from the Vatican states that Pope Francis says that Rome would be the focus of WMF22. He admits that the previous nine WMFs were “unknown to the majority of families”. Hence this time around there would be more of people’s participation for which he requests the bishops to immediately begin preparations. This sounds excellent on paper. But this top-to-down pyramidical approach of the hierarchy has been found wanting in the past.
Take the example of the Family Synod of 2014. The delegates that went from India were never heard of before that and haven’t been heard of since! When a year for St Joseph (as at present) is announced prayer cards are printed for use in all parishes. No such attempt was made for the Year of the Family that preceded the Synod. To my knowledge independent surveys were conducted only in Pune, Mumbai, Chennai and Kanpur, largely at the instance of the Indian Catholic Forum (ICF).
The real betrayal was the Lineamenta (guidelines) of 46 questions prepared by the bishops. A few samples will suffice “What analytical tools are currently being used in these times of anthropological and cultural changes; and what are the more significant positive or negative results? (Q2). “Vatican II, returning to an ancient ecclesial tradition, expressed an appreciation for natural marriage. To what extent does diocesan pastoral activity acknowledge the value of this popular wisdom as fundamental in culture and society” (Q19). You are not the only one scratching your head in disbelief at these abstract questions.
It would be appropriate to revert to Vatican II to comprehend this last question. The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church refers to the family as “the domestic Church” (LG 11). This is a categorical statement. It does not say that the church is present in the family, but calls the family itself a form of actually being Church. It further elaborates “For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavours, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labour, their mental and physical relaxation, carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne – all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (LG 34). And again, “The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come” (LG 34). From these solemn statements we see both existential and eschatological virtues of true Christian family life.
Another document describes the family as the foundation of society (GS 52). And again, “The creator of all things has established the conjugal partnership as the beginning and basis of human society ... The family has received from God its mission to be the first and vital cell of society” (AA 11). The church is here affirming the divine origin of the family. It doesn’t call the hierarchy or the clergy the “first and vital cell of society”. The question that therefore goes abegging is, “How much time, energy and money does the hierarchical church expend on what is its primary and vital cell – the family? Bishop’s conferences spend days and hours on building or protecting institutions of brick and mortar; but spend little time on the real flesh and blood building blocks of the church – the family.
Let me now take the readers (and leaders) back to the Indian equivalent of Vatican II – the Church in India Seminar of 1969 that was organized in the first flush of Vatican II (1962-65). It was held from 15th to 25th May in Bangalore. Just three days after it concluded my father obtained a receipt for Rs15/- from the CBCI for the 600 page book with its findings. I will quote not just some of the findings pertaining to the family, but also the methodology followed by the Seminar. It was preceded by exactly 100 consultations that covered diverse groups like Regions, Dioceses, seminaries and special interest groups like the Conference of Religious of India, the Bombay Jesuits, and lay organizations like the Newman Associations, Sodalities and Catholic Students Union.
There were 2321 participants in the regional seminars, of which 1273 (55%) were laity. The diocesan seminars had 6843 participants of whom 4202 (61%) were laity. The tribal dominated diocese of Raigarh – Ambikapur had the maximum number of 912 participants, of whom 741 (81%) were laity. If such a mammoth exercise could be organized in 1969 when there were no computers, mobile phones, email, digital ticket booking, etc, one wonders why the CBCI has not organized a similar exercise since!
The seminar itself was divided into 16 workshops – Spirituality, Catechesis, Liturgy, Evangelization, Dialogue with other religions, Education, Socio-economic activities, Civic & Political life, Social Communications and Media, Leadership, Family, Labour, Ecumenism, Personnel & Resources, Health & Social Services, and Pastoral Life. An expansive landscape. I shall here limit myself to some of the observations on the Family. The first issue addressed by the Workshop on Family was Family Planning or Birth Control. This was in the shadow of Pope Paul VI’s very controversial encyclical of 1967 “Humanae Vitae” that considered the then Rhythm Method (RM) as the only morally acceptable option available to Catholic couples for birth control. Interestingly, even back in 1969, the Workshop did not endorse the encyclical. It very boldly stated “There is pressure from the Government on one side, and the teaching of the Church on the other side. No practical solution is offered”. It went on to say that “there are Catholics who feel a great concern and anguish as medical opinion is that RM is not effective in a large number of cases ... the question should be reviewed. It said that “there is a need of sympathy with those who cannot follow the Pope’s encyclical”.
It addressed several other issues pertaining to the family. For mixed marriages it said “The Church should adopt a more understanding attitude towards mixed marriages, especially with other Christians. Each case should be valued individually (sic). Mixed marriages should be treated with sympathy and understanding that implies a special preparation for them”.
Regarding education it advocated that “Concessions should be made for Catholic children in schools so that they can all go to Catholic schools”.
Its most farsighted observation was regarding the status of Divorced and Remarried Catholics (DARCs). It says that “Divorce is not frequent in India but ... sympathetic consideration is to be given to these people by the Church and more efforts should be made to find a really workable solution if the second union has proved with time to verify better the spirituality of marriage”. Now in 2021 divorce and separation are far more rampant than in 1969. And everybody isn’t as influential as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or as lucky as the Chilean flight attendants to have their marriage solemnized mid-air by Pope Francis himself! It makes one wonder. Has the hierarchical church in India deliberately, by acts of omission more than of commission, sabotaged the teachings of Vatican II, the findings of the Seminar of 1969 and many other pronouncements related to the family? I fear so.
Now that the WMF22 has been announced by Pope Francis the CBCI will go through the regular motions of having some consultations with those who are their favourites and willing to tow the line. There will also be the chosen delegates as happened with the Family Synod of 2014. So what should the laity do? Should it remain a mute spectator?
In 2014 we took the initiative under the banner of the ICF, to organize our own seminar. The bishop in charge of the CCBI (Latin Rite) Family Commission attended it. We had submitted our findings to him for onward submission to Rome. In 2019 we had organized “We too are Church” in Kolkata. The second edition of the same was scheduled for February 2020 in Kerala, but had to be abandoned because of the Corona pandemic.
*The writer was earlier the Resource Person for the CCBI Family Commission. He has expounded these thoughts in greater detail in his recent book The Jerusalem Code.