A. Lobo Gajiwala – Claiming the Right of Mercy in the Family

4. Using a Gender Lens

Unfortunately, while Amoris Laetitia has many valuable insights on mercy it fails to use a gender lens for viewing the family, and so in many ways, fails women. In fact, it displays wariness towards feminism. Thus, while acknowledging as “legitimate and indeed desirable that women wish to study, work, develop their skills and have personal goals”, it simultaneously cautions that “the woman stands before the man as a mother ….and the weakening of this maternal presence with its feminine qualities poses a grave risk to our world” (173). Mothers are tasked with the responsibility of teaching their children “intimacy and empathy” by watching over them with “tenderness and compassion”, while fathers are expected to open their children “to the challenges of the wider world, and to see the need for hard work and strenuous effort” (175). Few couples, whether professionals or blue collar workers, who are negotiating for flexibility of roles and responsibilities within the family (175), will be able to identify with this gender stereotype.  Further, words like “feminine qualities”, “feminine genius” (173), “masculine identity” (175), “manhood” (176) and “masculinity” (177) hold many hidden terrors for women, for  they keep the door open for misinterpretations that bring restrictions and sometimes violence when women exercise their right to move outside the gender box. 

In an effort to “seek solutions better suited to its culture…traditions and local needs” (AL 3), the Catholic Bishops of India recently focused on “Promoting the Joy of Love in Our Families”.[20] They expressed concern for women and children who suffer the most among the poor, and drew attention to the strong negative impact of domestic violence,  alcoholism and  migration on marriage and family life. What was lacking however, was an awareness of the oppression women face in marriages, not merely because of poverty, but because they lack personhood in marriage, with no rights to their bodies and sexuality, their finances, their food, their mobility, their speech, their dress, their names and even their dreams.  For many women, marriage is little more than a space of patriarchal control of their autonomy, sexuality and labour. 

What Indian women would have welcomed is recognition of these nuances and an attempt by their bishops to denounce and deconstruct patriarchal mindsets and the practices and masculinities they spawn, that make women subservient to fathers, husbands and/or sons.  They would have liked to have heard their bishops echo Pope Francis’ unambiguousinjunction to reject “every form of sexual submission”, including “improper interpretations of Paul’s instruction to wives to be subject to their husbands” (Eph 5:22) (AL 156). They would have appreciated emphasis of his condemnation of marital rape (AL 154), and outright censure of the practice of dowry as a sin and a crime, given its widespread prevalence amongst Catholics.[21] It is a telling silence, that seems to give tacit sanction to the dominance of the husband’s marital “rights”, and of the status quo from which some Churches, particularly in Kerala, benefit by way of receiving a share of the dowry[22].

Some pastoral directives with regard to the role of the priest as “guide, support and comfort” to penitents of procured abortion would have served as a reminder of God’s mercy to a repentant heart seeking reconciliation with God (MM 12). Priests could have been conscientized about male domination and the oppression of women that often lead to abortion in India, and reference could have been made to the little known Canon 1323 that provides exemption from the penalty of excommunication in many such circumstances,[23] so that women do not carry an unjust burden of guilt, and men are held accountable. 


Mercy in the family cannot be seen in isolation or merely as personal acts of compassion. When families are centres of patriarchy, as in India, mercy must encompass the use of a gender lens to uncover, confront and transform the overt and covert ways in which women are disadvantaged. Care should also be taken to ensure that while encouraging women to be mediators of mercy in the family, mercy should not be confused with submission in situations of violence and oppression. An abusive husband  must be challenged “to look at himself, convert,” and accept responsibility for his actions, for ”justice should not be devalued or rendered superfluous as  it is “rightly due to each individual”, and anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price” (Misericordiae Vultus 21).[24] In the final analysis, it is only when the underlying, crippling social, religious and economic structures, attitudes, customs and laws are changed to promote equal partnership in the family, that marriage will become “a community of life and love” (Gaudium et Spes 48), and mercy will flourish.

[20] 29th Plenary Assembly of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) that represents 132 dioceses of the Latin rite, 31st January to 8th February 2017.

[21] The Impact of the Dowry System in Christian Communities, October 31, 2013, A. Vimal Kumar, MMI, Bala Kiran Vannekuty and Joseph Thambi.

[22] Tracking Gender Equity Under Economic Reforms by Swapna Mukhopadhyay and Ratna M. Sudarshan, 2003, p. 245. The justification used by some priests is:“If they can give so much, why not give some to the church?”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Misericordiae Vultus Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, 11 April, 2015.