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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Suffer Little Children

Humans are fallible creatures. We all make mistakes at one time or another. Some mistakes might be trivial matters, but sometimes they can have dramatic consequences, as when someone is executed when subsequent evidence establishes that person’s innocence. In such tragic cases it is the innocent who are judged to be guilty. But how common a practice is it to consider that the innocent are actually inherently guilty?

Tainted with sin. Seriously?
In a previous [1]post I mentioned the origins of the developing Church doctrine of shame in the flesh, and the profound and far-reaching influence over the centuries which this has had upon believers and non-believers alike. Augustine, who seems to have been largely responsible for this doctrine in the 5th-century, saw no innocence even in the unborn, who, he reasoned, already were corrupted with the taint of the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in Eden. So for Augustine and the Church doctrine which he shaped, even the unborn were not innocent. Even the unborn were already guilty. But Augustine was making these bizarre claims a remote and pre-medieval fifteen hundred years ago, and surely we have moved on to a more enlightened mindset since then?

In the official [2]Catechism issued by the Vatican, and therefore still current, we read in passage #1250 that: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness…” This is the reason why in Catholic doctrine the souls of stillborn – and therefore unbaptized – infants, or those who tragically die shortly after birth, are considered as not being allowed into Heaven, but are instead sent to the limbo of Purgatory, a sort of no-man’s-land between Heaven and Hell unmentioned in scripture.

When studying this point of Catholic doctrine for this post, I became aware that the conflict of opinion on the Church’s side is considerable, with the ball being fumbled wildly if not actually dropped. One hesitant Catholic voice concluded about the stillborn: “One cannot say with absolute certainty that they are in Heaven.” while another candidly admitted that: “We didn't dump the ‘Limbo nonsense’ it's still an option for those who wish to accept it.” Both of these responses are from the [3]Catholic Answers forum.

“Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness…” ~ from paragraph 1250, chapter 4 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
For anyone with a maturely developed sense of moral worth these reactions are chilling enough. But there is more. Reading further in the Catechism, we come to passage #1261, which goes no further than to cautiously suggest that the words of Jesus “allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism.” But what specifically are these 'words of Jesus' to which the Catechism refers?

In the much-quoted passage from Matthew 19:14, Jesus says to his disciples who attempt to prevent the children from reaching him: [4]“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” That sure reads clear enough to me. The confirmation is right there in scripture in Jesus’ own unambiguous words. So what part of the phrase "forbid them not" does the Vatican find unclear? And what reason is there for the Church to doubt, and in that doubt, to cause additional and totally unnecessary anguish to parents who already are grieving deeply, and who in their grief are deserving only of the unequivocal reassurance of the hierarchy which represents their faith?

But the Catechism holds a darker layer: it is in the unstated but clear implication that if you as a parent neglect to have your child baptized, then you are exposing your child’s soul to the possible hazard of being denied entry into heaven, because a stillborn child already runs that risk. If we have that sense of moral worth, then we recognize this as emotional manipulation through fear. In this case, it is the fear that you are being a bad parent if you do not have your child baptized, coupled with the sense of guilt which such ‘neglect’ invokes.

Church doctrine is not a part of scripture. It is devised by fallible humans, so it should not surprise us that on matters of doctrine any conclusive answers are generally up for grabs. But the issue of unbaptised infants is a doctrinal issue which involves actual bereavement. I would suggest that pussyfooting on such an issue is not merely bad Church policy. It is unnecessarily cruel, with bereaved parents already coping with acute grief and loss being forced additionally to shoulder the anguish of uncertainty. I took the trouble to read the entire Catholic Answers forum thread mentioned above, which included the wording of the Catechism on this subject.

"Never doubt that your infant's soul is safe in the world of the Spirit. Never doubt that loves reaches beyond all borders, and that your little one is close to you..." The words that should be said to grieving Catholic parents. Apparently the Church cannot articulate them, so I now have. ~ Hawkwood
Among the various back-and-forth (male) exchanges on the above thread about the finer points of this particular Catholic issue, I could find only one lone [5]voice which showed concern for the feelings of the bereaved parents in such a situation. That lone voice belonged to a bereaved mother whose sincere declaration of faith was promptly dismissed by a moderator as being mere "opinion" and "not the teachings of the Church". Such cavalier arrogance in the face of grief is shocking enough, but if you think I'm making all this up simply to load my argument, then you can follow the link in note 3 below and read all these comments at source for yourself.

The amount of dodging-and-weaving on the Catholic Answers forum thread even embraces the point as to whether what is at issue – in this case, the souls of unbaptized infants – is actual [6]doctrine or mere “theological speculation”. I can only say: when the emotions of mourning parents should be the first concern, who gives a toss?

[1] Please see my post Shame.

[2] If you wish to read the actual wording of the official Vatican Catechism on baptism, including the complete passages briefly quoted in this post, you can find it at the Vatican’s own website: The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

[3] The forum thread can be found at: Catholic Answers. But if you decide to check this thread out for yourself, please be advised that reading through what its members discuss with each other, and the amount of thread space taken up with arguing the finer points of this particular doctrine, can be a numbing experience if for you simple human compassion is all that truly counts. One commenter on this forum quotes Pope Gregory X (left) as saying: "The souls of those who depart this life in... original sin alone, go straightaway to hell." and then this commenter adds that he "almost believes that the very existence of limbo is in contradiction to that statement." But there is no 'almost' about it. The Pope's statement (if it is genuine) directly contradicts the Vatican's own pronouncements on Purgatory. So much for Papal infallibility.
Please see my 'Note added' below.

[4] For my non-English speaking readers, the term ‘suffer’ in the King James Version simply means ‘allow’: “Allow the little children to come to me..”, although the title of my post acknowledges the irony of the more common meaning. The Revised Standard Version reads: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” There is no ambiguity in this statement. And yet Catholic doctrine is actually calling into question the unequivocal words of Jesus.

[5] It is worth posting this mother's statement in full here: "Does anyone get how extremely upsetting something like this is to a parent whose unborn baby died? My babies who died without baptism are in Heaven, with God. No one (or church) will ever, ever, ever convince me otherwise........ never. never. never. End of story. I don't need a scripture, I don't need some dead pope or saint. I cannot separate my belief that God exists with my belief that my little girls, who died without ever committing a sin, are anywhere else. I trust in God's goodness, in His mercy, and I trust Him to be just, especially to the innocent. God's love and mercy are not bound by rules." To me this statement is more impassioned, more heartfelt and more sincerely human than any Papal declaration, and puts all other pronouncements on this issue to shame.

[6] Since a catechism is a theological instruction of doctrine in question-and-answer form, arguing whether or not it is actual doctrine when bereavement is involved is demonstration enough of the way in which religious belief can at times cut itself adrift from being able to respond on a level of ordinary human compassion.

Note added August 27, 2014: I have now traced the source for the statement by Pope Gregory in note 3 above. It was actually stated by him at the Council of Basel, and is recorded as having been said in session 6 of the Council on July 6, 1439: "But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains." You can read the statement in the second last paragraph of session 6 at the official Papal Encyclicals Online website.

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