Reverencing Children in a Pagan World

Doug McManaman
Date: December, 2004
Published in the Dec, 2004 issue
Canadian Messenger of the Sacred Heart
Reproduced with Permission

What I found particularly striking about this year was the tone that the political campaigning eventually acquired just prior to the federal election held at the end of June. Any candidate that was opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion, and in favor of tightening the Charter to bring about tougher legislation on child pornography, was very much made to appear as some kind of dangerous extremist, emotionally out of kilter. As my good friend Father John Basso said to me recently, we really are like the early Christians among the pagans. Orthodox Catholics have become a very strange lot indeed. One gets a sense of how strange Christians appeared to the pagans in the Epistle to Diognetus, written around the end of the second century:

They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed...

It was their reverence for children, among other things, that rendered them unusual then, and it is this reverence that renders them unusual now. We see this contrast between the covenanted people of God and the pagan world in the book of Wisdom, in those parts that speak of God's forbearance with the ancient inhabitants of Canaan:

Those ruthless murderers of children, ... those murderous parents of defenceless beings,... (Wis 12: 5-6)

Then, as now, the anti-life posture is carefully exhibited under a pretext of peace; for the sake of "peace", an anti-life government was re-elected to Parliament.

It is not enough, however, for them to have such misconceptions about God; for, living in the fierce warfare of ignorance, they call these terrible evils peace. With their child-murdering rites, their occult mysteries, or their frenzied orgies with outlandish customs, they no longer retain any purity in their lives or their marriages... (Wis 14: 22-24)

In this same year, however, the Toronto Humane Society went to court to fight for the life of a pit bull-Labrador cross that mauled a 3 year old boy. The attack scarred his face and caused emotional damage to the boy, who required 250-300 stitches to his head. The owner and the City of Toronto wanted the dog put down, testifying that the animal is aggressive and dangerous to children. But despite its continued lunges at the bars of its cage and the baring of its teeth, growling, barking, with hair up, the humane society believes its judgment should be trusted that the dog has been rehabilitated and is eligible for adoption. Consider too how much support Robert Latimer received and continues to receive in this country after murdering his handicapped daughter with carbon monoxide poisoning. A number of years ago, TV Ontario produced a documentary for Frontline on Euthanasia in Holland, entitled Appointment with Death, a documentary favorable to the cause. In the section on infanticide, one of the victims, a male baby born with a hole in his stomach exposing the intestines, needed nothing but a routine operation in order to live. But the child, who had no chromosomal abnormalities or mental deformities, had a split penis that could not be surgically repaired. The pediatric surgeon of the hospital argued that since "it is impossible to be brought up as a boy without a penis", it is better that such a child not survive infancy. He chose not to perform surgery to close the hole in the stomach, leaving the baby to die. He too speaks of those Christian ethicists opposed to his decisions as a strange breed having little contact with the real world.

Consider too the curious absence of children in the popular sitcoms of the 90s. Children can be funny inasmuch as they exhibit a kind of rationality that is in some ways beyond them. For they rightly lack a great deal of knowledge of things that adults are normally aware of. So when a child exhibits behavior that is rational beyond his or her years, we tend to laugh. But whenever children are featured in comedies today -- which is rare --, they are often depicted enjoying a knowledge that compromises their innocence, such as a knowledge of things sexual, or a knowledge that has begotten a cynicism that no child prudently raised could possibly have acquired on his own, as we see in Family Guy.

In a nihilistic culture like ours, in which life has no more significance than enjoying nice weather, good food and entertainment, and a few weeks of the year at the beach, children are simply in the way. We value children according to a criterion of convenience: the more inconvenient, the less value is placed upon their lives.

But when life becomes a quest for God, the Supreme Good, as opposed to a quest for the self's perpetual enjoyment, a change of perspective occurs. The theologians of the Middle Ages were wont to point out that goodness is self-diffusive (bonum est diffusivum sui). That is why God, who is supremely good, creates anything at all. He freely and gratuitously wills creatures into existence because He wills to communicate the goodness of being (which He is) to other beings distinct from Himself. The human person is unique in that he is willed into existence for his own sake, not for the sake of what he can provide anyone else or society at large. So when our lives are committed to God, they are committed to the Good. At that point, life is experienced as inexhaustibly good, an experience that forever escapes even the mildest hedonist. A life given over to God is a good life, and since goodness is self-diffusive, such a life longs to communicate the goodness of itself to a person outside the self. That is why two people who genuinely love one another long to love another human being into existence, for that child's own sake. A good country, by extension, is one in which children are loved and protected for their own sake and in which political decisions are made in view of how they will affect children.

Children call attention to certain qualities that are part and parcel of a life that is a genuine quest for God, qualities such as their unpretentiousness, their ease with their own littleness, their moral innocence, and their unselfconsciousness. These are qualities that every person has to learn again; a child is what we have to aspire to become: "Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 18, 3). Our current negligence in protecting the life and psychology of the child is perhaps a reflection of our own discomfort with what childhood represents.

It is inevitable that we are going to see greater attempts to disguise our own culture of death as a culture of compassion, for evil cannot bear to gaze upon itself. It is unsightly and empty. It flees from the truth of itself. And so it must lie, it must convince itself in some way that it is good. And it is blind to its own poverty; for the more a person plunges into moral depravity, the more darkened does the intellect become. That is why there is a growing emptiness in people given over to popular culture, accompanied by a growing darkness of mind, a spiralling down into darkness from which they are helpless to rescue themselves.

So how do we expose the lie? The Holy Father's General Intention for this month is that children may be considered as precious gifts of God and may be given due respect, understanding and love. All we need to do is pray, delight in our children for their own sake, and show people how happy we are, despite the increasing depravity around us. This is what tweaked the curiosity of Diognetus: "I understand, sir, that you are really interested in learning about the religion of the Christians, and that you are making an accurate and careful investigation of the subject. You want to know, for instance, what God they believe in and how they worship him, while at the same time they disregard the world and look down on death, ... You would also like to know the source of the loving affection that they have for each other.... They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life."