Monday, June 12, 2006

Are babies born evil, Mr Biggins?

I have twice read in recent days comments on the Christian practice of infant baptism as objectionable on the grounds that it is repulsive to assert that newborn infants are “evil”.

I can’t track down the first reference (it was about a boy listening to his newly ordained Lutheran father rehearsing for a baptism), but the second one is from an old “Good Weekend” magazine (Feb 18, 2006), entitled “Mr Biggins goes to church”. The “Mr Biggins” of the title line is Jonathan Biggins, and he undertakes to go to four different Christian churches in Sydney on four different Sunday’s to see what goes on (St Andrew’s Cathedral, Hillsong, St Mary’s Cathedral, and Mereweather Central Uniting Church). It’s an interesting article if you can trace a backcopy (they’re more likely to be found in the toilet cupboard than on the internet).

His visit to the Anglican Cathedral evokes this description of the baptism he observes:

“We have a baptism to begin the service. Not having undergone the process myself, it is interesting to see how it is done. The notion of being damned from birth has always jarred with me; godparents promising on your behalf that you’ll turn away from your sins and the Devil—when the worst thing you’ve done is not sleep through, or thrown up on the good cushions—seems token at best.”

For the record, the Catholic Church does not teach either that newborn infants are
  1. evil

  2. damned from birth

The Church does teach that:
  1. All human beings are created in the image of God and have an inherent dignity as a result

  2. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament (Catechism §1257)

But we also teach that sinfulness (not the same as being “evil” or “damned”) is something that adheres to our nature—or more correctly, it is the lack of original righteousness—from the time of our conception (not just from birth).

And here in Casa Schütz-Beaton, on this wet and drizzly Queen’s Birthday Holiday, we had an excellent example in the case of a temper tantrum by our seven year old daughter. It was probably due to a series of late nights and incorrect diet, but you have to wonder sometimes about where the things she says while in these tantrums come from.

Nor is this the first time we have observed such behaviour—it has been around since… oh, I don’t know when, it seems like ever since she was born.

If, as one of my Muslim acquaintances once put it, babies are “like the angels” when they are born, what transpires in their lives to make them such little devils later on?

Yes, Mr Biggins, it starts with not sleeping through and throwing up on the cushions (which actually are pretty normal, non-sinful things for a newborn to do), but it soon reaches where we were at this morning with our daughter.

As with the doctrine of the origins of the human person, the Catholic faith sees continuity as a central principle. Today’s sinner was yesterday’s new born, and a newly conceived embryo 9 months before that. Since sin is a manifestly observable characteristic of the developed (and developing) human person, and since there is no other point in the human development (eg. “the age of reason”—which our daughter has only just supposed to have reached) at which one can point and say “It started there!”, one is left with the conclusion that it must be something that we are “born with”.

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