May 26, 2008
When good people do bad things
(Today is Memorial Day, a holiday in the US. Since I am traveling this weekend, I am reposting an old item, updated.)
Amongst Catholics, it had long been thought that children who die without being baptized have not had their original sin expunged and are thus excluded from heaven. While the church had no formal doctrine on this, there has been the belief that such children enter the state commonly called limbo, without being in communion with God.
However, it seems that concerns have been raised about this because of the growing number of children who now die without being baptized. (I am not exactly sure why this is seen as a bigger problem now than before. Is there a finite amount of space in limbo and thus a danger of overcrowding?) Anyway a recent news report says that the Catholic Church has appointed a high-powered International Theological Commission to study this problem and now thinks that there is reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven. (I always wonder what kind of "study" is involved when religious people discuss such things. It cannot involve any new data, surely. It usually boils down to people suddenly seeing in the same old texts the new meanings that they want to see.)
All Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin. This asserts that all people are sinful by their very nature. They are born that way and thus must seek forgiveness to achieve salvation. I had rejected the idea of original sin at a very early age, even when I was still religious in other ways. The idea that newborn babies are sinners struck me as just too preposterous to be taken seriously. Furthermore, since I had never accepted the Genesis story as being literally true, the famous story of Eve tempting Adam with fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge could not have occurred anyway. Since this story is the source of the 'fall from grace' and original sin, this made whole concept very dubious.
For me discussions about the nature of limbo (or even its existence) and the importance of baptism of infants for salvation are utterly pointless, similar to questions concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But such questions, if taken seriously, can have serious consequences in the lives of real people. Richard Dawkins describes the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara in his book The God Delusion (p 311-315), which he takes from another book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer.
Edgardo was a boy born to Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy who, as an infant, had a fourteen-year old Catholic nanny. When the baby got very sick one day, the nanny panicked and thought that he was going to die. Not wanting him to end up in limbo, she discovered that in an emergency anyone (not just priests) could baptize anyone else by sprinkling water and muttering the appropriate words, and she did so to Edgardo in order to save his soul. Edgardo fortunately recovered. However many years later, the news that he had been baptized came to the attention of church authorities, and since a baptized child was legally considered to be a Christian, it was considered intolerable for Edgardo to be brought up in a Jewish home. So in 1868 the papal police, acting legally under the orders of the Inquisition, seized the six-year old boy and brought him up in a special home used for the conversion of Jews and Muslims.
His distraught parents naturally tried everything they could to get their child back but it was to no avail. In fact, the church seemed bewildered that anyone would even make a fuss about this. After all, the child was now a Christian by virtue of having been baptized and the church thought that being brought up in Christian environment was best for the child. A Catholic newspaper in the US even defended the Pope's action as taken on behalf of the principle of religious liberty, "the liberty of a child of being a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew . . . The Holy Father's protection of the child, in the face of all the ferocious fanaticism of infidelity and bigotry, is the grandest moral spectacle which the world has seen for ages."
Although Edgardo's story was highly publicized, it was by no means unusual at that time and this is what makes the whole thing so bizarre. It was apparently routine for well-to-do Jews to hire Catholic nannies, and this kind of surreptitious baptism and taking away of children from Jewish parents had happened before.
This immediately raises the obvious question of why Jews, although aware of this potential problem, would take the risk of hiring Catholic nannies instead of Jewish ones. The reason, it turns out, is that since observant Jews are prohibited by their religion from doing a vast number of routine tasks on the Sabbath, having Catholic servants was a loophole in the rules that enabled them to get things done without offending their own god. So the risk of losing a child was seemingly outweighed by their sense of obligation to follow all the myriad rules laid down by their own god.
But even after the abduction of their child and when all their efforts to get him back through other means had failed, Edgardo's parents still had one sure-fire remedy, and that was to agree for themselves to be baptized as Christians. Even if they did not believe in the Christian god, if they had agreed to have water sprinkled on themselves and the ritual words spoken, they would get their child back since they would now be considered Christian by the church. But they refused to do this, out of loyalty to their own Jewish god. As Dawkins says: "To some of us, the parents' refusal indicates wanton stubbornness. To others, their principled stand elevates them into the long list of martyrs for all religions down the ages."
(It would be interesting to do a survey to find out how people today answer the question: "Would you convert to another religion if that was what it took to get your child back?")
Dawkins uses this story to make a telling point. Every person in this sorry episode was a 'good' person, in the traditional sense that they were acting according to the highest ideals of their religion. No one was trying to do any harm to anyone. The nanny was trying to save the child from limbo. The Pope (and the Catholic Church) honestly seemed to believe that it was in the best interests of a Christian child to be brought up by and amongst other Christians. Edgardo's parents were trying to observe their religion by hiring a Catholic nanny (despite the known risks) so that they could faithfully observe the Sabbath. And in not agreeing to go through even an insincere baptism, they were acting to avoid incurring the wrath of their own Jewish god because he is well known to be a jealous god who gets really angry at any form of allegiance to other gods, even the Christian god. Presumably the parents felt that their god would not understand and forgive a baptismal charade, even though their motives for agreeing to a phony baptism would have been unimpeachable.
These were all 'good' people, not setting out deliberately to do evil. They were all acting very devoutly according to their own religious lights. But the net result of their actions was evil – a family torn apart and a child deprived of the love and companionship of his parents.
(In an ironic a post-script to this story, Edgardo himself seemed to consistently rebuff his parents' attempts to get him back, even after reaching the adult age of 19 and being free to do so. In fact, he became a devout Catholic and at the age of 23 was ordained as a priest and became a missionary to convert Jews. Such is the power of religious indoctrination.)
This sad story illustrates better than any other the truth of Steven Weinberg's statement: "Without [religion], you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."
POST SCRIPT: Tech support in the Middle Ages