The group of religious sisters founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta is shutting down its thirty orphanages in India as a protest, rather than comply with new state regulations requiring that they place children with single parents. It’s a religious liberty case eerily familiar to Americans.
Citing children’s need for both a mother and a father, the religious order said it would rather take a firm stand than yield to pressure to change its criteria for adoption.
“We have already shut our adoption services, because we believe our children may not receive real love,” said Sister Amala at Nirmala Shishu Bhawan, a New Delhi orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity. “We do not wish to give children to single parents or divorced people. It is not a religious rule but a human rule. Children need both parents, male and female. That is only natural, isn’t it?”
Women and child development (WCD) minister Maneka Gandhi said on Thursday that the sisters were not submitting to the new adoption guidelines, leaving the government with no option but to derecognize them.
“They have cited ideological issues with our adoption guidelines, related to giving a child up for adoption to single, unwed mothers,” Gandhi said at the event. “They do not want to come under a uniform secular agenda.”
In an effort to boost adoptions, India’s central government has intervened in recent months, establishing an overarching policy that must be implemented by all orphanages, regardless of their individual philosophy or religious beliefs. In so doing, it has obliged orphanages to place children with single or divorced adults who wish to adopt.
Prior to the government’s adoption reform, orphanages in India such as those run by the sisters often handpicked parents and matched them with children, a practice that has now been abolished.
The government now requires orphanages to submit records of children to a central authority that maintains a database. Adults wishing to adopt must now register with the authority, whose automated system will match them with children.
The Indian government claims that it has seized control of the adoption system to reduce the waiting periods faced by prospective parents and streamline the adoption process.
“We want to bring everybody under a uniform, secular Web site. We do not want different groups to run their own parallel systems anymore,” an official in the Women and Child Development Ministry said.
The Archbishop of Ranchi, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, has spoken publicly out in favor of the sisters. “The Catholic Church in India has to deal with this problem of the guidelines. I support the missionary sister. Children are not objects; each of them is a precious gift from God. The Missionaries of Charity are at the service of the most vulnerable and these abandoned children cannot just be given to any parent.”
The cardinal has insisted that the principle at stake is one of religious freedom and the sacredness of conscience. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries “make sure that the little ones grow up in a good family atmosphere,” he said. “Their conscience tells them that it would be wrong to follow the government rules. When we take in children, we are responsible for their future.”
“In India, animals are more protected and are accorded greater value than our defenseless children,” he said.
Missionary of Charity Sister Bressila told AsiaNews that the sisters have shut down their adoptions “but we will continue to follow the mission and the vision of Mother Teresa. We have trust in God, who will inspire us with what we have to do. We will continue taking care of children, but we do not accept the new rules.”
In his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis paid an unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order embroiled in a similar legal dispute with the Obama administration over the HHS Mandate.
The government is trying to force the sisters, who operate several nursing homes and care facilities in the United States, to comply with a contraception mandate in the law, which violates Catholic religious beliefs.
“This is a sign, obviously of support for them [in their court case]” said Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the head of the Holy See Press Office.
“In this sense it is connected also to the words that the Pope has said in support of the Bishops of the United States in the speech to President Obama,” Lombardi added.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome