If I have heard this statement once at pro-life rallies I have heard it a hundred times: There are crisis pregnancies, but there is no such thing — in the eyes of God — as an unwanted child. This statement is especially popular with doctrinally conservative Catholics.
So, try to combine that thought with the news coming out of Ireland. This is from the Associated Press:
DUBLIN — The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for 796 young children believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.
The researcher, Catherine Corless, says her discovery of child death records at the Catholic nun-run home in Tuam, County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank filled with bones is the final resting place for most, if not all, of the children.
Church leaders in Galway, western Ireland, said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there, and said they would support local efforts to mark the spot with a plaque listing all 796 children.
County Galway death records showed that the children, mostly babies and toddlers, died often of sickness or disease in the orphanage during the 35 years it operated from 1926 to 1961. The building, which had previously been a workhouse for homeless adults, was torn down decades ago to make way for new houses.
There is no need to discuss the details of that horrific vision.
The question the story has to address, of course, is why these lost children were buried in such a fashion. Also, the story says it is essential to know that, during the era in which this orphanage was open, Ireland had “one of the worst infant mortality rates in Europe, with tuberculosis rife.”
The essential question here is whether what happened here is essentially an Irish, or cultural, practice or was it justified at the time as uniquely Catholic, in terms of doctrine. Think of this issue, perhaps, as similar to the debates about whether “honor killings” in Pakistan are uniquely cultural, tribal or somehow, for those committing the acts, rooted in what they believe are Islamic beliefs.
This leads us to the crucial paragraphs in the story:
Elderly locals recalled that the children attended a local school — but were segregated from other pupils — until they were adopted or placed, around age 7 or 8, into church-run industrial schools that featured unpaid labour and abuse. In keeping with Catholic teaching, such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial.
It is well documented that throughout Ireland in the first half of the 20th century, church-run orphanages and workhouses often buried their dead in unmarked graves and unconsecrated ground, reflecting how unmarried mothers — derided as “fallen women” in the culture of the day — typically were ostracized by society, even their own families.
I assume there must be debate on this issue, because Pope Francis has made it clear where he stands on this matter:
… L’Osservatore Romano reports that the Pope mentioned the example of an unwed mother coming to Church to ask for baptism for her child to exemplify the error of allowing protocol to distance people from the Lord. The paper quotes the Pope:
A girl-mother goes to the parish to ask for Baptism for her child and hears “a Christian” say, “No, you can’t have it, you’re not married.”
“Look at this girl who had had the courage to carry her pregnancy to term” and not to have an abortion. “What does she find? A closed door,” as do so many. “This is not good pastoral zeal, it distances people from the Lord and does not open doors. So when we take this path…we are not doing good to people, the People of God.” Jesus “instituted seven sacraments, and with this approach we institute the eighth, the sacrament of the pastoral customs office.”
In one case, missed by many mainstream journalists, Pope Francis even acted personally to make sure that this kind of baptism came to pass.
However, my primary journalistic point in this post is not to raise questions about Catholic doctrine.
No, what caught my eye (after a reader sent us this URL) was the fact that the Associated Press team published this statement — “In keeping with Catholic teaching, such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial” — but then did nothing to attribute this alleged statement of fact to any specific Catholic document or to back it up with an explanation from a church authority on this matter.
If this is a matter of Catholic teaching, in other words, what was the teaching? Is that a factual statement?