Will Pope Francis visit India?

The last time a Pope visited India was in the mid-1980s. But while Pope John Paul II was orthodox, Pope Francis is liberal, even radical

Pope Francis with PM Modi
Pope Francis with PM Modi

Sujata Anandan

Thirty-one-year-old Indian dentist, Dr Savita Halappanavar and her husband Praveen, an engineer, were expecting their first child in 2012, when, all of a sudden Savita developed a serious backache. She and her husband rushed to the university hospital in Galway in Ireland and were told by doctors that Savita was miscarrying and the foetus would not survive the trauma.

In any other country in the world, including those in the Third World, this would not have been a disaster. But the Halappanavars, originally from Belgaum in Karnataka, were living and working in Ireland, perhaps the only country at the time that unilaterally banned abortions, even if the foetus was a result of rape, incest, genetic defects or for any other reason.

Savita demanded an abortion but the doctors threw up their hands. “This is a Catholic country,” she was told at every hospital she tried. “We cannot kill the child.” No one cared that the child could soon kill the mother and die anyway.

According to the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution passed in 1983, four years after a spectacular visit of the orthodox Pope John Paul II, an unborn child had as much right to life as its mother and so while Savita’s foetus, at 17 weeks, continued to sound a heartbeat, she could not terminate its life. She waited days for that heartbeat to stop but by the time it did, she had an internal infection and died of septicaemia, hours after her unborn child did.

The case sparked international outrage and protests erupted across Ireland with people building a mural to Savita and leaving her flowers and candles and little notes of apology, regretting that they had not cared enough to save her life.

In 2012, the incident was quite barbaric for Ireland which seemed not too far behind dictatorial Romania that had outlawed abortions for not religious but political reasons.

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was impressed by the populations of China and India, believing more the people, the more the country’s economic and political clout internationally. And while China and India struggled hard to restrict their populations, in his competition with the Soviet Union, Ceaucescu decreed that every Romanian couple shall have at least five children and to this end he outlawed both abortions and contraception.

The most feared forces in Romania were the bedroom police who could intrude any time even in the middle of the night to check if anyone was practising family planning and there were instances when a woman became pregnant and doctors conducted abortions on kitchen or dining tables and in the afternoon.

If the woman died, both her family and doctors were in peril and this continued until the overthrow of the dictatorial regime in 1991 when hospitals exploded with women seeking abortions.

The Republic of Ireland in 2012 should have been different and the outrage over Savita’s death led to a referendum in 2015 wherein an overwhelming 66.4 percent of the people voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Ireland’s was a far cry from even Roman Catholic Italy which had voted for abortions in 1978 and in a 1981 referendum rejected an appeal to repeal the law by a huge 68 percent, during the residence of the orthodox John Paul II in nearby Vatican. So why was Ireland so far behind?

However, when an overwhelming 66-plus percent voted to repeal the abortion law in Ireland, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar made a cryptic comment – we will no longer be exporting our abortions to Britain or importing our solutions from there.

That was a reference to statistics that revealed that at least nine women from Ireland took the boat to Great Britain every day to seek abortions and women placed orders daily for abortion pills on the Internet – despite the price for getting caught being a severe 14-year jail term.

Ironically, three years earlier, Ireland had voted for same-sex marriages. Catholic Ireland’s voting for gay rights and abortions coincided with the arrival of a liberal Pope in the Vatican.

Three months after the abortion vote, Pope Francis visited Ireland – the first papal visit in 40 years – and when at a press conference he was asked what he would say to the father of a son who had just told him he was gay, the Pope replied, “Don’t condemn. Understand. Dialogue. Make space for your son or daughter. They have as much right to be part of your family and not be chased away.”

Over the years, Pope Francis has led Catholic liberalism across the world including in India when in a dispute over allowing homosexuals the holy communion, the Pope’s statement in Argentina that gays have as much right to seek God as anybody else, settled the dispute, however unhappy the orthodox Indian clergy may have been.

In the Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis to last between December 2015 and November 2016, the Pope specifically emphasised on forgiveness to all Catholic women who sought an abortion in the past. Beyond this, however, even the Pope is finding it difficult to overturn the centuries’ old decree on abortions. Even in countries which allow abortions, Catholic hospitals or Catholic doctors and nurses at non-Catholic hospitals might still refuse to conduct abortions even if it meant risking the life of a woman.

Much of the Indian Catholic community is of a similar mindset though India since Independence has given the non-orthodox among them ample freedom and they may wish for a liberal Pope to sanctify those freedoms.

If Pope Francis were to accept Narendra Modi’s invitation to visit India, it would be the first Papal visit in four decades. Moreover, Pope John Paul had desired to convert all Christian communities in India, including Syrian Christians, to Roman Catholicism. Pope Francis’ chief concern might only be how to prevent Catholics from being ‘Born Again’!

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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