There are still a few biblical issues, in my mind, regarding the recent decision to exclude two schoolchildren from the Catholic school at the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Boulder, Colorado. They are as follows: is it for the children’s benefit to turn them away from school in order that they do not learn that what their parents are doing is sinful in the eyes of the Church; did Jesus, in general, turn people away, as Fr. Breslin states in a recent Lenten meditation; and even if Jesus turned people away did he turn away their children in addition. I should also say that I accept the Church’s teaching regarding sexuality, though I know it is difficult for many today to do so, so my argument here is not with the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Fr. Breslin of Sacred Heart of Jesus writes “the post-modern thought that Jesus was warm and fuzzy… making no demands on anyone is just not true and avoids the very hard teachings that eventually led to His crucifixion.” I want to make it clear that I accept these hard teachings, but not their application in this case.

In this first post, I want only to respond to the claim that turning the children away from Catholic school is in their best interests. Both Archbishop Chaput and Fr. Breslin have spoken of wanting to guard the students from having their parents’ relationship discussed in ways that could, conceivably, cause them pain. Interestingly, this was not Jesus’ concern when he spoke of family relationships; Jesus prioritized the family of God over that of the earthly family. This is not to say that obedience of children to parents was not a concern in Jesus’ teaching or in early Christianity in general. It was. Yet, priority was given to the family of God when the two clashed. These excerpts are from “Let the Little Children Come to Me": Childhood and Children in Early Christianity, with the footnotes omitted, written by me and my colleague Cornelia Horn:

"The exact role of the priority of the family, however, was not so clear-cut, either in Jesus’ own life or in that of his disciples. One needs to consider further some statements that diminish the role of family and obligations to family in Jesus’ teachings regarding discipleship, some of which directly concern children. A significant passage is found in Mark 3:31-35 (Matt 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). The story concerning Jesus and his ministry in Mark 3:31-35 (and parallels) regards the definition of true family…Yet when the crowd announced the presence of his mother and brothers, Jesus did not go to inquire of his family, something that would be expected of the good and obedient son. Instead, Jesus challenged the crowd: those who listen to the word of God and do the will of God are Jesus’ true family—“my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3:34-35; Matt 12:49-50; Luke 8:21; cf. John 15:14)" (p.87).

There is more in Jesus’ teaching along these lines:

“Jesus’ radical revision of the accustomed priority of the family is also seen in Luke 11:27-28 and Jesus did not reserve the challenge for his disciples alone. In a passage that rings with the authentic voice of a spontaneous call from a crowd (“blessed be the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked”: Luke 11:27) and the likewise spontaneous response Jesus offered, he rejected the claim that blessings rested upon his mother for raising him. In Jesus’ reply, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28), the author of Luke indicates the priority of the family gathered around God. Discipleship to Jesus, and not familial ties, was to define the new Christian society.” (p.89)

In fact, Jesus even speaks of family members rising up against one another on account of his teaching (e.g., Mark 13:9-13 and parr.). While the desire to protect these children by the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish is not to be dismissed out of hand , it can be accomplished by teaching in a thoughtful, loving, yet honest manner when they reach the appropriate age. Yet, Jesus does not see “hurt feelings” as the be all and end all of his teaching. That would be the Kingdom of God, and it takes priority over family feelings. Keep in mind, also, that these parents are aware of the Church’s teaching and aware that the school is bound to teach all that the Church teaches.

The early Church did not worry about these sorts of feelings in its ministry, though one might write this off as due to insensitivity, I think rather it was the overwhelming sense that the “pearl of great price” took priority over any other consideration. Let me offer another excerpt:

“The use of verbs such as didasko, “to teach,” and paideuo, “to instruct,” among early Christian writers was more than casual advice: education and teaching were at the heart of the Christian mission. In his treatise Oratio ad Graecos, Tatian spoke of “free instruction” given to old women and children, stressing that “every age” was welcome to receive this teaching. Indeed, in the following chapter Tatian responded to criticism by those who claimed that the Christians taught only nonsense to women and boys, girls and old women. He denied that what they taught was nonsense, but not that they taught to all who wanted to learn. The perception of this openness to universal outreach as a characteristic of Christian education is supported by Pliny’s concern expressed in Ep.10.96, that Christians were coming from all age groups and social backgrounds.” (p.149)

Another excerpt gives a sense of the early Christian boldness in teaching all:

“On occasion, early Christian texts provide accounts of how systematic attempts were made to instruct children in the Christian faith, especially in cases of planned efforts of spreading the faith in a whole region. In his History of the Armenians, for example, the Eastern church historian Agathangelos retells missionary efforts already recorded in the fifth-century Koriun’s Life of Masht‘ots‘ and speaks more directly of the formal, catechetical school system in the Christian east, specifically in Armenia:

Similarly he [i.e., Gregory the Illuminator] persuaded the king that from every province and region they should bring to various places numbers of children [mankti, gen. manktwoy] in order to instruct them. So these barbarous, savage and wild natives he took and cast into the furnace of instruction, and by the heat of his spiritual love burnt away the impurity and rust of the putrid demons and vain cults.”

Moreover, Agathangelos provided a description of the Armenian school system and the method of teaching:

And from every place within the borders of Armenia and from the lands and provinces of his realm king Trdat commanded many young children [mankti, gen. manktwoy] to be introduced to the art of writing and faithful teachers to be put in charge. Especially the families of the impure pagan priests and their children [manouk, pl. mankoun] were to be brought together in groups in suitable places, and an adequate stipend paid to them. These he divided into two groups, some being set to Syriac and others to Greek. Thus in the twinkling of an eye these savage and idle and oafish peasants suddenly became acquainted with the prophets and familiar with the apostles and heirs to the gospel and fully informed about all the traditions of God.

According to Agathangelos, Gregory the Illuminator had a particular interest in reeducating families of the religious leaders of pagan Armenia. Thus he also “took some of the pagan priests’ sons [ordi, abl. pl. yordwots‘] and brought them up in his own sight and under his own care, giving them instruction and raising them with spiritual care and fear.” Subsequently, several of them were ordained as bishops for the newly established Christian church.” (pp. 161-62)

I am not suggesting that we return to such a method of education by any means, only asking why we are uncomfortable educating even those who have been sent willingly by their parents. Neither Jesus nor the early Church thought that the feelings of children or parents had a higher claim than teaching the truth.

John W. Martens