There is an error Catholics and other Christians can commit, and have committed, despite the Church’s own historic warning against it. That is the error of supposing that children can legitimately be taken away from their parents for the sake of their spiritual welfare.
The subject has come out most recently in the story of the children’s bodies found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. It was also widely discussed, in secular as well as Catholic circles, when a new book brought up the case of Edgardo Montara, a Jewish child taken away from his parents in 1858 on the orders of Pope Pius IX. The reason was that the boy had been secretly baptized by a maid.
The supposition in the error is that since children may legitimately be taken from parents to protect them from physical and some forms of psychological abuse, surely it must be acceptable to take them away for the good of their immortal souls. After all, the erroneous reasoning goes, the spiritual is more important than the physical, or anything else.
But the Church herself stands for the right of parents, including non-Christian parents, to care for and educate their own children, including bringing them up in their religion or system of belief. This teaching is no modern liberal invention. Aquinas has it in mind when he expressly rejects the idea that Christians may legitimately baptize Jewish children over their parents’ objections.
Tragically, the author of a recent article in The American Conservative seems to make the error, unless I am somehow misunderstanding his position. “The certain fact that souls were saved by the missionaries, the enduring belief of Christians that the Gospel is true and must be spread, is paramount,” Declan Leary writes. “Everything else is secondary.”
The Mortara Case
Pope Pius IX grievously erred in the Mortara case. Taking the child from his parents was terribly wrong. What’s more, though this is less important than the injustice done to the Mortara family, the reputation of the Church was deeply damaged by the actions of Vatican officials, approved by the Pope.
The Church was accused of shamefully violating the principle of the sanctity of the family which it rightly proclaimed. And the accusation was not false.
The whole affair had an odor of anti-Jewish prejudice about it, since there were baptized Protestant children living in Bologna, and baptized Catholic children who were not being brought up in the Catholic faith, and they were not seized to be brought up in the Vatican. Catholics should not think back on the Mortara episode without deep regret and more than a little embarrassment.
It was an injustice — an injustice to the Mortara family. And a grave one. Even if the pope intended to defend the sacrament of baptism, it was still an injustice to take a child from his parents and family when they were in no way abusing or neglecting him.
The sacrament needs defending. But if Catholic ethics stands for anything, it stands for the principle that good ends, even supremely good ends, do not justify bad (i.e., unjust) means.
The boy grew up to be a priest and to thank the pope for what he did. But Fr Mortara’s own view does not make the act of taking him as a child from his parents just. Had the act in truth been a justified act, and had the adult Mortara judged it to be an unjustified one, that would not have made it unjust. It was objectively unjust the moment it was committed.
The New Priests and Prelates
But this violation of the rights of parents is not just a matter of the past or of Catholics. The priests and prelates of the now dominant religion seek to override the rights of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children, make key decisions concerning their physical and psychological health, and transmit to them their faith and values.
They have long pressed to make abortion available to minors even over their parents’ objections — minors who could not legally their ears pierced without a parents signature. They now want a child who feels gender dysmorphia to have the right to life-altering hormonal and even irreversible surgical treatments, without the parents’ permission and even without their knowledge.
Parents who resist, are threatened that their children will be taken away from them — for the child’s good! — if they refuse to comply. It is amazing to me how the new religion, now that it has acquired vast power, repeat many of the worst injustices and other transgressions done in the name of religions in the past.
The author recommends Melissa Moschella’s book To Whom Do Children Belong? (Cambridge University Press) for the philosophical case for parents’ right to direct the education and upbringing of their children.
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