Saturday, July 16, 2011
What is childlike faith?
A few days ago the priest at morning Mass elaborated upon Jesus’ directive to have “childlike” faith. He said that being childlike involved not asking questions of Holy Mother Church because children don’t ask questions; they just listen and obey. I don’t know what children he has met but that has not been my experience with children; they sustain an almost inexhaustible, unrelenting barrage of “whys”.
Some formal definitions I found for “childlike” include “having good qualities associated with a child”, or “like or befitting a child as in innocence, trustfulness or candor”.
After 24 years of parenting three children, I think “childlike” means having an innate sense of right and wrong accompanied by a well-tuned “b.s. detector”. Many children see through lame excuses and self-serving manipulation packaged as “I’m doing this for you.” Being “childlike” means having a genuine inquisitiveness. Kids ask a million questions, listen and ask one or two million more. Children value truth and think people want to hear it. Thus they speak it prophetically. The combination of their “b.s. detector” and value for truth inspires them to write-off and ignore people who lie to them.
Why would this priest equate “childlike” with blind and unquestioning obedience? I think some parents hope their child will stop asking questions but good parents encourage questions. Sometimes answering them is exhausting but a good parent knows how to lovingly deal with childlike persistence. Sometimes parents don’t know the answers but good parents learn researching the answers. Good parents are secure enough to say, “I don’t know” when they don’t know and "I was wrong" when they learn they were wrong. Good parents revel in their child’s inquisitiveness and see it as a source motivating growth for them and their child.
Ineffective parents make up answers and tell their children to stop asking questions. This stems from a mistaken belief that parents must always appear to "know" things. Some parents punish their children for asking questions, conditioning them to not ask. Thus, some children learn to not ask, but the questions still naturally form in their minds. They are just suppressed by the abusive environment in which the child resides. In mildest form, the abusive environment just suppresses questions but sometimes it is the accomplice to greater abuses like physical, sexual or substance abuses. What role does suppression of questions play in enabling abuses in the church?
This priest echoed a sentiment I’m hearing more and more, especially from priests emerging from seminaries in the last 15 – 20 years. His inaccurate understanding of children and what it means to be childlike aligns with a statement Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) made during a homily given December 31, 1979. “The Christian believer is a simple person: bishops should protect the faith of these little people against the power of intellectuals.” Ratzinger equates theologians with intellectuals. Thus his statement was directed at theologians. Why does Ratzinger think people are simplistic? Why does he think theologians, with their childlike inquisitiveness and prophetic expressions are something from which people need protection? Why does he want to stifle people’s spiritual growth?
Between his roles as pope and prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (formerly called the Office of the Inquisition), Ratzinger has censured over ninety theologians for the simple reason that they ask questions…are childlike. He has created an environment conditioning clergy, theologians and the faithful to suppress their childlike questions. But, the childlike questions still remain.
What is the impact of suppressing childlike inquisitiveness to individuals, the church and society? How should we respond to leaders that suppress childlike questioning? How should we cultivate our childlike questioning and prophetic expressions of truth?