John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Children will play a prominent role in the Gospels of the next three Sundays (and trust in the next five). This week, Jesus uses children as the example of what receiving one in my name means. Next week, we will be warned it would be better to be sunk with a millstone than to scandalize a child. And, in two weeks, we’ll be told to “suffer the little children to come to me.”
Last week Peter, speaking in the name of the Twelve, acknowledges “you are the Christ.” Some may think you a prophet, others may think you something else, but for Peter you are God’s Anointed.
Today’s Gospel picks up last week’s Gospel. When Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus immediately tells him to keep quiet about it, the so-called “Messianic Secret” of Mark’s Gospel. As we noted, this injunction is temporary—only until the Resurrection—and is in force in order to prevent a premature revelation of whom Jesus is, based on a misunderstanding of what being “the Anointed One” implied. As soon as Jesus receives Peter’s confession of faith, He begins to teach them that the Christ must suffer, must die, and must rise. He repeats this several times.
The Apostles are not ready for this. If Jesus is the Messiah, the one come to “free” Israel, then we’re on the winning side – and who should get the best seats in this victory of the Anointed One? Because Jesus is teaching that self-denial and self-sacrifice are sine qua non to being His follower—and the Apostles are jockeying among themselves about precisely who gets first dibs—Jesus takes a child to illustrate what He wants of those who follow or even claim to know Him. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever received me … receives him who sent me.”
The Bible regularly speaks of God’s favor upon the poor and humble, the “little ones,” the anawim. Pope Francis often underscores the same ideas. And there is no more poor, humble, trusting, vulnerable “little one” than, indeed, a child.
A child is utterly vulnerable. Both an unborn and a newborn child are similarly situated: each depends on somebody else for their very life. They cannot express their needs. They cannot demand. They cannot take “effective” action on their own. It is in their relationship to another that their own lives depend.
A natural and normal person, recognizing that state of vulnerability, dependence and trust, responds by life-giving actions: feeding a child, washing a child, caring for a child, holding a child. It’s both heroic—and ordinary.
And that’s why we instinctively recognize that there is something radically awry with the vision of radical autonomy of a mother vis-à-vis her unborn child upon which Roe et al. v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court abortion jurisprudence depends. Advocates of abortion, insisting on a “woman’s right to control her body,” insist that a mother’s will always trumps the claim of her child to survive. They recast pregnancy as “slavery,” the state treating a woman as chattel to protect the pseudo-rights of a “blob of tissue.” One of the most classic arguments in favor of abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 “A Defense of Abortion,” compares being pregnant to being hooked up to dying prodigy whose renal failure requires dialysis using your kidneys. Most abortionists try to buffer their rejection of responsibility for a child by denying he is a child: we’ve all heard euphemisms like “clump of cells,” “product of conception,” and “blob of tissue” to describe an unborn child. Thomson was at least honest enough to concede that even if the unborn child was a person, there would be no moral obligation for its mother to sustain its life.
If you think this is far-fetched, consider the very strange article that appeared last fall in New York magazine in which the mother of a child with cystic fibrosis tries to claim that “to fight for my son, I have to argue that he should never have been born.” The very modern author announces “I should have had an abortion.” But then she “crumples, because I do not know how I am supposed to tell [my son] that someday.” She thinks “I love my child just the way he is” is not as good as “I would have given [my child] another way: healthy.” Earth to mom: dead is not healthy.
God, in fact, seeks to capture us precisely by vulnerability and dependence: that is why Jesus became a little child. As Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński once put it, “Christ wanted to conquer the world. Powerful rulers did not manage to do that—the Pharaohs Darius, Cyrus, Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus. The “world” always managed to slip out of their hands. What grownups could not do, a Child does. A Child conquers the world. Man feels an unusual kindness towards children, extends his hands to him, does him no wrong, and opens his heart to him. Man easily approaches a child, dealing with him delicately and with familiarity.” Wyszyński is blunt: “God knows that man can choose, because that is the price by which he is a man. That is why a small Child came into this world. In that divine “trick” lies [God’s] greatest guarantee of winning us because, as we said, man does not refuse the Child. None of us is capable of refusing a Child.”
And, if we are, we should perhaps check our own humanity.
A child—like God Himself—invites our love. In one sense, the scourge of legalized abortion sets the morality of free choice in all its stark reality: we can choose to love the child or kill him. We can choose to love God—or drive Him from our lives.
A child—like God Himself—is a gift. Every Sunday, we profess that the Son of God is “begotten, not made.” Yet our own humanity is very much forgetting about the begetting of life and steering toward its manufacture: if you have any doubt, consider the numbers of embryos in frozen, cryogenic storage, manufactured by Big Fertility in the course of in vitro fertilization efforts and now, abandoned, living yet unable to live.
A child—like God Himself—should be as omnipresent as the air we breathe. We used to tell people that “God is everywhere.” Once upon a time, it also seemed children were everywhere, a normal part of communities.
Consider, however, that in our world, the number of people living without contact with children is ever growing. Ten years ago, the National Marriage Project wrote a report discussing the growing absence of children in American life. Put bluntly, child-centeredness is increasingly marginal to adult life. The number of years adults spend with children is decreasing. People marry later, have fewer children later, and live longer without children than ever before. Regarding procreation as a “normal” rather than “optional” part of married life is declining, which in part fuels the replacement of a family-centric by a “soul-mate” model of marriage and underlies the legal doctrine that sexual differentiation is irrelevant to marriage and inimical to “marriage equality.” And, with the decline of children, marked in Western societies by imploding fertility rates, how many children will never know concepts like “brother,” “sister,” or “cousin?”
So, if we are to “become like little children,” we probably need to learn something about little children, which means we should spend some time with them. But a post-Humanae vitae world has little time for children, or for the virtues—dependence, solidarity, trust—that children teach us. And especially the virtue of humility, which determines that God, and not us are the “Lord and Giver of Life.” I’ll pick this theme up in two weeks, when we talk about the need to “suffer the little children.” But before we “suffer” them, we might first of all have them.