Beyond the Papal States

When the Holy See signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, a friend knowledgeable in legal matters said, with considerable vehemence, that the Convention was a snare and a delusion that would eventually come back to bite the Vatican.

The bite came earlier this month, in a deeply tendentious report from the Geneva-based U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee, as might have been expected, flogged the Holy See for alleged inadequacies in responding to the abuse crisis. But it did not stop there. The Committee also demanded that the Church “review its position on abortion” and amend Canon Law “with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” And that the Church work to “overcome all barriers and taboos surrounding adolescent sexuality” by, among other things, increasing “access to family planning and contraceptives.” And that the Church concede that its teaching on the morality of homosexual acts leads to “social stigmatization and violence.” And that Canon Law be changed so that the definition of “family” is altered “to recognize the diversity of family settings.” And that the Church take seriously the child’s “right” to sass (i.e., “freely express their views” to) parents and other adults.

And, perhaps with sassing in mind, the Committee urged that both Canon Law and the laws of Vatican City State be changed “to explicitly prohibit” spanking.


That various Vatican offices were slow to respond to the abuse crisis has been conceded by the Holy See: and it has been conceded by being corrected with remedial action, not by the logorrhea that characterizes U.N. agencies deploring various human ills. But it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to understand that the Committee’s report has far less to do with protecting young people than with deploring the Catholic sexual ethic, using the abuse scandal as a weapon. One might even describe such behavior by international bureaucrats as shameless. But then this is the U.N., where shamelessness is the coin of the realm, rhetorically and otherwise.

That having been said, and meant, let’s move on to the real issue: Why did the Holy See set itself, and the Catholic Church, up for this kind of rancid attack? Why, to return to 1990, did the Holy See sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which at numerous points is out of sync with Catholic understandings of family life, the relationship between parents and children, and the nature of child-rearing?

Here’s my answer: Too many Vatican officials still think of the Church’s interface with world politics as if the Holy See were the Papal States—a class-B European political entity, trying to punch above its weight in international diplomacy. And if you’re thinking within that framework, it becomes important to sign on to this, that, or the other international legal instrument contrived by the U.N. Signing on tells you that you’re a player. Signing on tells you that you’re in the game.

Yet the past four decades have demonstrated that the Holy See’s ability to shape world politics comes, not from playing the game by the conventional rules, but by raising moral arguments and appealing over the heads of politicians to populations who don’t want their representatives in international forums to kowtow to the U.N.’s terminal political correctness. That was the approach that ultimately made a difference at the 1994 U.N. Population Conference in Cairo and the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing.

Throughout the world, the Catholic Church has disentangled itself from the Babylonian captivity of legal establishment: the Church no longer seeks the “blessing” of the state, it simply asks (and if necessary, demands) that the state allow the Church to be itself. It is past time to consider a parallel re-set in the Holy See’s relationship to world politics. That re-set might well begin by determining whether there are international legal conventions from which the Holy See should withdraw, because adherence to them is theologically incongruous, imprudent, or both.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.