To those who believe that marriages are made in heaven, the Catholic Church in Kerala is saying that the rules are being set here on earth.

The bishop of Thamarassery diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church, the largest group of Catholics in the state, issued a pastoral letter in January, exhorting believers to ensure that their boys are married off before the age of 25 and girls before they turn 23. It said that late marriages have an adverse impact on the birth of children and the well-being of the family.

Catholics form the largest group of Christians in the state, and among them the Syro Malabar Church is the largest denomination with a following of 2.3 million believers.

Though Bishop Mar Remigiose Inchananiyil would want society to believe that a growing number of unmarried male members within its fold is the reason behind such a message, the dwindling number of Christians in the state has certainly got the Church brass worried and may have more to do with it. The clergy is not willing to admit to this though. “Obviously, there is concern about falling numbers, but we had known that for some time now,’’ said Father Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, the spokesperson for the bishop. “Even when people were accusing us of conversion, actually our numbers were going down. This decision is not based on that concern alone.”

He went on to say, “This decision was taken after studying an existing social problem. We have more than 1,700 unmarried men in the range of 33 years to 35 years of age. For them, marriage will be a distant dream as getting a bride from the community is close to impossible.” He added, “This number has been rising at an alarming rate and the bishop only wanted to suggest a remedy for it.”

Starting from the second Sunday of January, the pastoral letter has been read across 120-odd parishes, influencing close to 1.5 lakh people.

Kavilpurayidathil said the guidelines were issued on the recommendation of the entire eparchy, or province of the Church, including the clergy as well as the lay people.

Early marriage, no birth control

If early marriage is Bishop Inchananiyil’s remedy, his counterpart in Idukki, another powerful diocese, is openly and vociferously opposed to birth control.

When Christmas celebrations were at their peak, Bishop Mar Mathew Anikuzhikattil called on the congregation to give up the use of contraceptives and other birth control measures, issuing a pastoral letter that encouraged couples to multiply competitively till their biological cycles permitted them to do so. The letter also called “creation a divine process” and warned of “miseries for those who tried to upset it”.

While the Catholic Church’s stand against birth control and abortion is well known globally, such strong messages from the clergy are usually not heard of. “You should not see this just as a step aimed at increasing the numbers in the community, although that is one of the worries,’’ said Father Joseph Kochupunnel, secretary to the Idukki bishop. “Here we are only reiterating the need to have a large and healthy family with core values of a pro-life movement which has always been the official stand of the Church.”

Anikuzhikattil, in his letter, also promised free baptism – the ritual for admission to the Church, symbolised by the sprinkling of holy water on the person – and educational support at Church-run institutions every third child onwards. Many interpret this an incentive to procreate in larger numbers.

Inchananiyil’s pastoral letter didn’t stop at advocacy of early marriage. The bishop, known to be a disciplinarian, also advised the congregation against using event management firms for church weddings, saying “marriages are not events but sacraments”. Furthermore, he said brides should shun expensive gowns and wear less expensive traditional India attire instead, and spoke of doing away with the practice of bridesmaids and flower girls at weddings.

Welcome advice?

The Church’s advice against contraceptives has not cut much ice among the majority of parishioners, as this call has been made in the past as well. But Inchananiyil’s advocacy of early marriage seems to have received support from the congregation.

Kalamparambhil Chacko is a professor at St Joseph’s College in Calicut. He said he was now gearing up to get his 25-year-old daughter married off at the earliest after what he called the timely intervention of the Church. “See, the bishop has passed this directive only after taking into account the majority view of the laity, prominent believers and others who strongly feel that late marriages are leading to a social issue here,’’ he said. “The primary reason for late marriages is when children say they are still studying and are not settled financially. But we are saying you can continue to study even after marriage.”

Others believe that marrying early is necessary to have a healthy family. Cyriac Mathews, a businessman in Wayanad with two children who are already married, explained, “There is a category of young men and women across our parishes who have married late and are now struggling to have children.” He added, “Then they start depending on mechanisms like IVF [in-vitro fertilisation], which is costly and causes a lot of mental tension to the entire family. This has to change and, hence, I think it was right for the bishop to intervene.”

Dwindling numbers

The Idukki bishop’s call to keep off contraceptives and the Thamaraserry bishop’s endorsement of early marriage all seem to be part of the Church’s frantic attempt to keep its fast dwindling flock from decreasing any further.

Though the clergy have put across a number of reasons to justify the pastoral letters, highly placed officials at the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council, the umbrella body of Catholic bishops in the state, told this reporter that the Church is deeply worried over the statistics that have emerged in the last few years.

According to the 2011 census, the percentage of Christians in Kerala fell to 18.3% from 19.5% in 2001. During the same period, Muslims – the largest minority community in the state – grew from 24% in 2001 to 26.6% 10 years later.

If this trend were to continue, the state’s Christian population would be somewhere around 17% by the year-end while Muslims would be well beyond 27%. A difference of 10% can cause a lot of shift in the socio-political leverages that the community enjoys in a state with a total population of just 3.4 crores. The Church is perhaps well aware of this reality too.

Making matters worse, the census said birth rates were lowest in the taluks of Thiruvalla, Mallapally, Kozhencherry and Chengannur in Central Kerala, which are all Christian strongholds. The highest birth rates were seen in Tirur, Perinthalmanna and Nilambur, which are densely populated by Muslims.

“Though the Church has always been a pro-life institution, it had kept quiet all these years, supporting the government’s population control measures,’’ said Father Varghese Vallikat, a spokesperson for the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council. “But perhaps the time has come for us to vigorously point out to the believers the need to have more children. As pastors or leaders of the community, it is our duty to raise the concerns of the community with its people.”

Studies have again shown that over the last quarter of a century, birth control measures and sterilisation were more well-received among Christians than among Muslims or even Hindus in the state. A study in 2016 by the Centre for Development Studies, based in Thiruvananthapuram, showed that 50% of Christian couples underwent sterilisation in 1991 against a much loser 34% for couples from other communities.

All of this has prompted the Church to take definitive steps against population control in order to ensure the number of its believers does not shrink further in a state that boasts of the maximum number of Christians in the country.