As a student of theology in the 1980s, I didn’t have one class on the theology of the child in either divinity or theological studies, my two master’s degree programs. In researching this paper, I asked current or recently ordained members of the Catholic clergy whether they had taken any courses about children. They replied in the negative. Noted theologians have acknowledged the lack of a fully developed theology of the child. And while it may seem a novel specialty, I think the implications of not seeing or valuing a child’s existence and reality might be at the root of many long-standing problems and evils within ecclesial structures, faith communities, and many societies. In some ways, not understanding the significance of the child’s view mirrors our lack of understanding in considering, for instance, the plight of other marginalized peoples: women, Indigenous peoples, and people of color.
One might ask: how is it that after all of these centuries of theological writing and inquiry in many of our faith communities that we have failed to do and–to see–what was essential in Jesus’ teaching? One can easily see how the child was for Jesus the paradigm for humility, vulnerability, powerlessness, and an example of a true disciple: “He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (Matthew 18:2-5). He placed the child at the center of his teaching, at the center of his kingdom; he asked others to see and model themselves to be like this child. How did we then–and still now–not see this child for so long?
New light is being shed on this doctrinal historical lack of vision. The Vatican recently made clear that the Doctrine of Discovery is not official Church teaching. The legal concept was used for political, colonial, and imperialistic agendas and was not part of Catholic doctrine. The reactions of those in Indigenous communities have been striking and important. They point out that this interpretation is hard to grasp when one sees not one but three papal bulls validating colonialism, racism, and mistreatment of Native, First Nation, and Indigenous peoples. These experts see this doctrine at the very heart of the Native American, First Nation, Australian, and Irish boarding schools and homes. Historically, one can argue details about doctrines but clearly governments and missionaries were empowered and encouraged to convert these “savages” and “heathens.” Children were especially victimized by the vision that resulted in intergenerational trauma, systemic racism, white privilege, and objectification. All are premised on seeing the other as deficient, defective, an object, and of another caste, crossing faiths, cultures, countries, and time.
Georgetown University began six years ago to look at its history of slaveholding and the horror of how Jesuit priests trafficked human beings in 1838 to save the university from financial collapse. The newly established Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies attempts to highlight how any religious person or doctrine could be used to sell and enslave fellow human beings. As reported by CNN, “there is a chasm,” Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845, between Christianity proper and the “slaveholding religion of this land.” One is “good, pure and holy,” the other corrupt and wicked, the “climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds.” “We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries and cradle-plunderers for church members,” Douglass wrote in Life of an American Slave (1845). For Douglass, as for other African Americans, “the sin of slavery was intolerable; the complicity of Christians unforgivable.”
This quote reminded me of the Mass of Reconciliation held at Georgetown with descendants of slaves when Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J., said, “In a sense, all Jesuits in the United States are descendants of those Jesuits who made the decisions to hold slaves and, in this case, sell slaves. We don’t look at it as their sin; we look at it as our sin.” In his homily, Kesicki offered an affirmation to Douglass’ denunciation of Christian slaveholders. “When we remember that with those 272 souls [among whom were many infants and young children], we received the same sacraments, read the same scriptures, said the same prayers, sang the same hymns and praised the same God,” he said. “How did we, the Society of Jesus, fail to see us all as one body in Christ? We betrayed the very name of Jesus for whom our society is named.” As a Jesuit at Georgetown University, I must accept, discern, and admit to what it means to be a descendant of slaveowners-white privilege and what I/we might do to change.
Betrayal, abandonment, and pure objectification of the child and the other is at the heart of another and more recent historic calamity: the sexual abuse atrocity that has now lasted for decades. This global phenomenon raises serious questions about how and in what way the Catholic belief system and views on power have aided and abetted these criminal realities. The latest attorney general report from Maryland again highlights the power imbalances at the root of this atrocity. In that injustice, one must ask about another injustice: What treatment has the Church, this ecclesial community and system–its leaders, its financial officers, and its lawyers–undergone to address its disease of silence, complicity, denial, repeated coverups, lies, secrecy, privilege, and betrayal? The first step in any healing and recovery is to admit I have a problem: “I’m sick and need help.” Where is such a necessary humility and need for conversion?
The “ever ancient and ever new” atrocity, in many countries, calls for a different response. Perhaps it could be seen in synodal listening sessions, leading to a different understanding, and even a different type of analysis–or better–a different diagnosis of a multifaceted problem. As a treatment provider, a researcher, one attempts to work with one basic understanding: you cannot change something unless you know what is there. Going forward it is essential to study, analyze, and see these atrocities from a survivor’s perspective. Survivors–children, people of color, descendants, and abuse survivors–can and do teach us every day about courage, grace, resilience, and redemptive suffering in their betrayal and abandonment. Hearing the victims would place children at the center, and we would be required to understand them at a deeper level than is currently the case. If we might just be present, accompany, and listen to their stories…maybe then cultural transformation, change, and hope is possible.
As Fr. Richard Lennan said, “The voice of survivors becomes therefore, not merely a summons to the compassion of the ecclesial community, but to its conversion… it's important to be attentive to the voices of the ‘invisible’ …that members of the church tend to avoid. Authentic listening requires that action for reform.”
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children…”
Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J., is a senior research fellow at the Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and leads the Global Culture of Safeguarding Program, Georgetown University. McGlone has been at the forefront in designing, researching, and implementing evidence-based formation programming on healthy celibacy and integrated healthy sexuality within the Catholic Church. He has written several award-winning books and articles and is also the lead author of several nationally acclaimed sexual abuse prevention programs. Rev. McGlone is a member of the Collaborative Design Team for Faith and the Family, a forum convened by Georgetown University’s Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues and Catholic Relief Services.