Do you know what a “coarse screen” is? Probably not. The reason the word “millstone” is known beyond the limited circles where that tool is used is due to today’s Gospel: Jesus warns us it is better to be drowned in the depths of the sea, tied to a millstone, than to scandalize a child.

Children figure prominently in last week’s and next week’s Gospels. Last week, Jesus counseled his overambitious Apostles to be “like little children.” This week, He admonishes us against giving them scandal.

A child is sincere and innocent. A child calls it as he sees it. That’s why Psalm 8 begins “out of the mouth of children and of babes….” When the British poet Francis Thompson speaks about a child growing tired in prayer he asks Jesus, “once just so small as I,” to take that prayer to His Father. “And say: 'O Father, I, Thy Son//Bring the prayer of a little one.//And He will smile, that children's tongue//Has not changed since Thou wast young!”

The French poet, Charles Péguy, looks at the same scene from the Father’s eyes:

Well, I tell you, God says, I know nothing so beautiful in all the world
As a little child who falls asleep while saying his prayers
Under the wing of his Guardian Angel
And who laughs as he goes to sleep.

I have never seen anything so funny and in consequence so beautiful in the world
As the child who falls asleep saying his prayers
(As the little creature who falls asleep confidently)
And who jumbles the Our Father with the Hail Mary.
Nothing is so beautiful and it is even a point
On which the Blessed Virgin is of my opinion
About it.

Once upon a time, the idea of scandalizing children was abhorrent; the very idea of bringing the evil of the adult world into their lives was at least in bad taste. (Think of Bob Crachitt’s comment to his wife when she starts reaming Scrooge: “My dear, the children.”)

So, on this Sunday when Jesus warns us against scandalizing those from whom we should be learning spiritual childhood, what can we say?

The 800-pound elephant in the room is, of course, the clergy’s sex abuse scandals, beginning with when they first exploded in Boston in 2002, as they have subsequently leaked out despite episcopal plumbers over the ensuing 16 years, and culminating in the sewage pipe that broke open this summer with the fiascos of Cardinal McCarrick and how Pennsylvania’s bishops mishandled that massive, massive crisis.

This Sunday is an appropriate day for the bishops and priests in the Church in the United States to don sackcloth and ashes. It would be a fitting day for every bishop in this country to come clean and say what he knew and when he knew it. It boggles the mind that, in this age of modern transportation and with the crisis of their own creation largely looming over their heads, the bishops have punted meeting as an episcopal conference to their regular November meeting.

But we also need to keep some perspective in mind. Yes, the Church needs to clean house, to flush the Augean stable that bishops and priests have made of the sanctuary. But that doesn’t absolve the larger culture from its sins against children.

If the Church’s hands are dirty with a sex abuse scandal, the blood of almost 60,000,000 babies stains our national hands, even as significant numbers of national leaders label prenatal infanticide a “civil and constitutional right.” The fact that Planned Parenthood continues to draw taxpayer money for its abortion business and trafficking in body parts is a scandal.

Let’s also consider how scandalous our culture has become because of its anti-child corrosion. I offer a personal case in point. My youngest son was born when I was 48. I was frankly shocked by the number of people who, on the one hand, while offering me congratulations expressed, on the other, sympathy for taking up parenthood on the verge of 50. Sometimes, they were simply surprised at my “accident.” Considering that I never thought of my wonderful son as an “accident” and bless God that, thanks to him, our lives remain active and dynamic, one has to reflect on the scandal of a culture that once considered pregnancy to be a “blessed event” now implies that it is a cursed one.

I am scandalized by those who think my child’s life might have been a “mistake.” The world is scandalized by the life.

Consider, too, the story I mentioned last week. Jen Gann, “parenting” editor of New York magazine, published a piece last fall to justify why she was suing for “wrongful life.” Her boy, Dudley, suffers from cystic fibrosis. She claims to have been “wronged” because she was not notified her child was disabled in time for her to abort him. Her language is blunt: if she knew then what she does now, “’there would be no Dudley.’” 

She wants to couch her death wish as a benefit to the boy: “Every parent wants to protect their [sic] child. I never got the chance. To fight for my son, I have to argue that he should never have been born.” She ponders that, one day, she will have to talk to her son about his life, and she fully expects to have to explain to him why, despite his medical problems, he’s still alive.

Well, unless she is planning on having Cecile Richards do a lot of brainwashing babysitting, my bet is that when Jen starts explaining her purported “I love you so much I wanted to kill you” message of mercy to its alleged beneficiary, she may get asked: “Mom, didn’t you want me?”

Isn’t it a scandal to tell a child that my “love” for you wished you were dead? Remember that the incidence of disability today are being reduced by the prenatal extermination of the disabled.

How does one explain to the surviving child of a “pregnancy reduction” procedure (not unusual with artificial reproductive technology procedures, like in vitro fertilization) where multiple pregnancies are aborted down to one? That you were “the lucky one?” How does one explain to siblings that a brother or sister is dead because that child conflicted with something else mother wanted at that moment?

My children bring home tons of paperwork to obtain my permission for the school nurse to give them an aspirin. Yet at least one country treats some minors as able to decide on euthanasia. Teen suicide is exploding. Just look at some of the medical ethics literature appearing this year to find that there may very well be a similar push for euthanasia of minors (as “palliative care”) in North America.

Humanae vitae warned that respect for life would collapse if the gift of life was turned into a “choice” or claim of “entitlement.” In its day (and from what I see among commentators on this series), that insight—despite the ample evidence—is still denied, pooh-poohed, called an unjustified “slippery slope.”

Jesus warns today about scandalizing children. Or being scandalized by children. Or being leading them into temptation and delivering them unto evil.

A “coarse screen” is a piece of equipment in water treatment plants, used to take out the biggest contaminants from wastewater. Our culture needs more coarse screens. Our society should also reckon with the debt it’s incurring in millstones.