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The sins of the fathers

The sins of the fathers


Cardinal Ouellet doesn't believe in punishing children for their parents' sins--that is, unless their parents' sin is homosexuality

I was 10 when I dragged my younger brothers and sister to Sunday Mass in Hoopeston, Ill., just after we moved to this small town that called itself "The Sweet Corn Capital of the World." The parish priest spotted us the minute we came through the door and invited us into his office after Mass.

My brothers and sister twisted nervously on the couch as the priest turned to me, perched on the edge of a small chair. "You're the oldest, aren't you?'

I nodded. "Where's your mother and father?" he asked.

"They're at home," I replied.

"Why didn't they come to Mass today?"

"They don't go to church." I'd never gone to church with my parents; it was only because my grandmother took me that I knew anything about Catholicism at all.

"And why not?"

"I don't know. I guess they don't want to." Mom said it was our choice to go if we wanted; she had become Catholic only to marry my dad. Whenever his mother asked if he went to church, my dad always said he went to St. Mattress on Sunday mornings.

The priest could barely hide his disapproval. "It's a mortal sin for your parents not to attend Mass. You have a responsibility to get your parents to come. You don't want them to burn in hell for their sins, do you?"

"But how can I make them do something they don't want to do?"

"Ask God to help you find a way." With that, he stood up, made the sign of the cross over our heads, and walked us to the door. "Next week, I want to see your entire family here."

My mom was furious when I told her what the priest said. "What gives him the right to hold you responsible for what I do? That's plain wrong." It was the last time I went to Mass in the two years we lived in that town.

I hadn't thought of that incident until I read about the archbishop of Quebec's threat to Canadian lawmakers last week. Once Canada's same-sex marriage bill becomes law, Cardinal Marc Ouellet announced, the church could refuse to baptize children of gay parents.

Suddenly I burned with the same anger my mother had displayed more than 30 years ago. By now, I've long grown used to the hypocritical stance of the Catholic Church toward gay people; Benedict XVI's latest pronouncements roll off my back just like the bluster of blowhard Jerry Falwell.

But denying children the rite of baptism, which is the first sacrament in the church and symbolically opens the door to enable a person to have a relationship with God, is something entirely different.

The child of a drug addict can be baptized. The child of a murderer can be baptized. Even the illegitimate child of a fornicating priest can be baptized (and if you've studied Catholic history, you know many children of wayward clergy grew up to be cardinals and even popes).

All these children are considered worthy before God. The only exception Cardinal Ouellet and his church would make, based on the circumstance of their birth alone, is the child of a same-sex couple who have made a legal life commitment to one another.

Perhaps Ouellet's statement is a publicity ploy to draw attention to the church's displeasure with progressive Canadian law; Canadian clergy have engaged in an escalating war of words to express their opposition. But even if Ouellet's bark is worse than his bite, there is something fiendishly wrong with a spiritual leader who petulantly announces restrictions against innocent children simply to make a point. At best, such a pronouncement is unconscionable; at worst, diabolical.

Either way, Ouellet stands in a long line of Catholic prelates who think nothing of ruthlessly manipulating the lives of children. The horrifying revelations about the molestation of thousands of boys and girls by pedophile priests bear witness to that. As does another story, perhaps less well-known, where the church acted both to save and destroy the lives of children entrusted to their care.

During World War II, Pope Pius XII, at the behest of his representative in France, Monsignor Angelo Roncalli (who later became Pope John XXIII), reluctantly allowed the baptism of some Jewish children in France and Italy so they wouldn't be slaughtered in extermination camps. After the war, the few parents who survived pressed to have their children returned to them.

Pius refused, saying they were better off in institutions that would help them maintain their Catholic faith. A document from 1946, recently found in the archives of a French church, outlines a cold and methodical process to prevent the reunification of the saved children with their suffering parents. The anguished accounts of these parents are heart-wrenching.

I have to confess I am particularly sensitive to these issues because of my own children. We adopted three brothers last year, born to a drug-addicted mother who couldn't care for them. They came to us with scars and sorrows, many of the memories of their past life blocked because they are too painful to remember.

One thing they were clear about, though, was that they were born Catholic. They don't know if they were baptized, but in their young lives, they've developed some sense of spiritual connection to a loving God. They were immediately comfortable saying grace at dinner, and as we tuck 6-year-old Matthew into bed each night, we pray together and ask for God's blessings for him, our family, our four dogs, his teachers, and friends at school.

If I were to take my children to Cardinal Ouellet and ask for the sacrament of baptism, what would he say? Would the fact that these children are now legally mine and my partner's prevent them from entering the church? Or would the circumstances of their birth, when cocaine and crystal meth flowed in their tiny bodies, absorbed in utero from their Catholic mother, supercede and qualify them for the sacrament?

I shudder to think how he might respond. But I do know that the Jesus of the Gospels welcomes my children with open arms. The Gospel of Mark recounts a story of people bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed; Jesus' disciples tried to shoo them away, thinking the children were a hindrance to his ministry. Jesus was quick to rebuke them, saying, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."

Perhaps a divine rebuke is in order for Cardinal Ouellet and his cronies as well.

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John Sonego