Pope John Paul II said today that the Roman Catholic Church's unbending opposition to artificial birth control methods was similar to that expressed by the late Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of Indian independence.
Speaking with the cautious, diplomatic tones that have characterized his 10-day visit to this vast nation of 745 million inhabitants, the pope limited himself to reaffirming his opposition to all artificial birth control methods by quoting Gandhi on the subject.
"We see in the statements of Mahatma Gandhi certain similarities," the pope said here during an outdoor mass attended by more than 100,000 people. "While he asserted that the 'act of generation should be controlled for the ordered growth of the world,' he asked the question, 'How is the suspension of procreation to be brought about?' "
John Paul quoted Gandhi's answer as: "Not by immoral and artificial checks . . . but by a life of discipline and self-control."
"This, dear brothers and sisters," the pope said, "is the church's profound conviction."
"Furthermore," he said, in a clear reference to his church's opposition to abortion, "it is a role of the family everywhere and of all society to proclaim that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception. It is the task of all mankind to reject whatever wounds, weakens or destroys human life -- whatever offends the dignity of any human being."
The pope's statements were typical of the caution with which he has broached sensitive social and political issues during his visit to this overwhelmingly Hindu nation, where Catholics make up only 1.7 percent of the population.
Unlike the pronouncements he has made in the past in more Catholic countries in Latin America, Africa and Europe, where Christianity has a significant role in society, the pope's message here has been muted and characterized by efforts to avoid statements that could offend the vast non-Christian majority.
For example, he has mentioned the caste system only once, even though the old, rigid Hindu social system, which virtually dictates every Indian's social status for life, remains a major problem in modern India and one many Catholic priests have sought to undermine by their preaching.
John Paul had a 30-minute meeting with Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, who is also visiting India.
Monday morning the pope will go to Pune, considered the spiritual capital of India, before leaving for Rome in the evening.