Monday, November 15, 2010

Is it time for Holy Mother Church to update her parenting skills?

As a parent, Holy Mother Church’s parenting technique of excommunication greatly confuses me.  My confusion stems from my experiences as an actual versus mystical mother: watching what does or doesn’t work in correcting real children’s behavior, what is or isn’t a socially acceptable technique, what harms or hurts a child.  Perhaps a real parent’s reflections have a valid place guiding and informing the pope and his entourage of other single childless fathers who determine Holy Mother Church’s parenting techniques?

Excommunication is supposed to correct inappropriate behavior and thought.  It involves withholding the Eucharist from and social isolation of the transgressor.  Sometimes it is dispensed using public shaming tactics as well.

A mother, who withholds food from her child until she approves of the child’s behavior, at best, would be considered a poor parent.  Sociologists would consider the mother committing an act of personal physical violence against the child by denying it sustenance based upon behavior (Galtung).  Likely, the mother would be arrested, prosecuted and convicted of child abuse for negligence and cruelty.  Not only would secular courts denounce such behavior, the church would consider it sinful. 

The church teaches that the Eucharist is the “bread of life”, nourishment required for eternal life.  Furthermore, it teaches that the faithful should be more concerned with eternal life than life on earth.  Thus the Eucharist becomes more important than normal food to believers because it sustains eternal versus mortal life.  However the church withholds or threatens to withhold this essential food from people unless their beliefs and behaviors align with Mother Church’s.  Noted sociologist Johan Galtung speaks of “structural violence” occurring when something is used to “threaten people into subordination”.  Is it then reasonable to infer that real and threatened excommunications are acts of structural violence?

Perhaps some consider excommunication an externally imposed fast that leads to spiritual growth.  How does indefinitely withholding food encourage growth in a child?  Starving children in impoverished parts of the world eat dirt to fill their stomachs with something.  Why would the church expect starving her children would inspire different responses?  For every child reformed through excommunication, how many instead find something else to countermand their gnawing hunger?

Some parents reward appropriate behavior with edible treats.  “If you behave at school, I’ll give you a cookie after school” is an example of this technique.  For various reasons, parents do not agree universally that this is a healthy, effective parenting technique.   Nonetheless this parenting tactic is at least not considered violently abusive. 

Regardless, I have difficulty drawing an analogy between excommunication and the “reward” oriented parenting technique because I cannot denigrate the Eucharist to being analogously similar to a candy bar or cookie.   It’s not a treat; it is the bread of life.  Therefore, it would be sacrilegious for someone to try justifying excommunication as analogous to reward-based parenting tactics.

Another parenting tactic that came into fashion over the last 20-30 years is a “timeout” wherein the misbehaving child is socially excluded for a period of time.  The guide is one minute of “timeout” per year of the child’s age.  Anything beyond that is considered abusive.   The idea is to give the child a moment to step outside the situation and re-collect and then re-enter the social setting with another chance.  This parenting tactic is accepted pretty much universally as non-abusive and fairly to highly effective.

I cannot liken excommunication to a “timeout”, though, for a couple of reasons: its duration, its tie to exclusion from other activities and organizations within the church’s social setting including the Eucharist, and its being dispensed with humiliation sometimes.  A prolonged, indefinite “timeout” would be considered child abuse.  A prolonged, indefinite “timeout” that included indefinitely withholding food would be considered extremely abusive.  An indefinite “timeout” that indefinitely withheld food and was dispensed using public humiliation would be considered abhorrent.

Maybe excommunication is supposed to parallel the very rare situation when a mother expels her child from the home.  That tactic is only used on adult children because a parent would not expel children incapable of providing for themselves.  Since Mother Church's children are not capable of obtaining the life sustaining Eucharist for themselves outside the church is it ever valid for her to kick her kids out of the house?  Occasionally differences between adult children and parents become so strained that children exclude themselves from family.  If excommunication is supposed to parallel those situations, then shouldn't the person rather than Mother Church get to say when the person severs ties?

I just wonder what the logic is behind Holy Mother Church using excommunication as a parenting technique.  What sociological and theological evidence suggests it produces more good than harm?  Is it time for Holy Mother Church to update her parenting skills?  Is it time for some real parents to help Holy Mother Church discern effective discipline approaches?

(Thanks to Nita and Aimee for the posting idea!)


  1. I don't know who Nita is, but is Aimee my niece or my sister? Not that it matters because I'm immensely proud to be related to either one. I was impressed with your reasoning on this because it addresses serious issues with the way Holy Mother Church disciplines her children. This is especially troublesome as Holy Mother Church is a bunch of men who don't have children and tend to exclude themselves from the necessity to obey the rules, which they created, through misinterpretation of scripture, under the guise of "helping" to bring others to Christ, by keeping Christ in the Eucharist from them.
    Yeah, I'm not a parent either, but I've got enough common sense to know that you only with hold food if there is gluttony or an inability on the part of the child to recognize that they have too much. However, a person can never have too much of Jesus. The Bread of Life can never be too much but refusing to give it out can cause a remarkable deficit. Kind of like if you feed your child nothing but soda pop and potato chips. You're providing food, but you're not providing sustenance. This is also neglect.
    Kudos for asking the tough questions!

  2. The post makes me realize I'm not exactly sure what excommunication is. I know some 'excommunicants' but not sure if it was meant to stick for life or not - my impression is that it was. I don't necessarily see it as a parenting role - I see it as a power trip. Has it been referenced elsewhere as a way of parenting or shepherding? I also feel it has a wider impact and cost than focusing on inaccessibility to Eucharist. It's intent, if I understand it, is to isolate the person completely from the community that nurtures one's faith.
    One alternative view or justification that I don't necessarily agree with but is somewhat rational, is that of an excommunication 'protecting' the flock. I was once told that one of my teens in youth ministry was not allowed to return to any youth activities until she sought counseling and three months had passed, because I was made aware of drug usage on her part. I vehemently disagreed with this PASTORal approach (literally, the pastor required this action) and instead visited the young lady in her home after school on a weekly basis. Needless to say,when the 3 months were up, she did not return.
    Anyway, the pastor's justification was that he was protecting the rest of the teens from her bad influence. Is this a reason used for excommunication?
    Thank God we live in the land of the free where I can continue to be inspired - at my free will and choice - to read and give 'silenced' prophets an opportunity to inspire me.
    Another thought that occurs to me that IS good parenting is our historical practice of reconciliation and penance. When someone is asked to take a 'time out' - literally was left outside the worshiping community due to harm done - and joyfully welcomed back after penance was performed. THAT is good parenting.

  3. Excommunication is considered "medicinal". It has the potential to be temporary. The official line is that one is set outside the church and will want to be re-included so much that one will repent so they can be re-admitted into communion. Some excommunications can be lifted by a pastor. Some by a bishop. Some only can be imposed or lifted by the pope.

  4. I agree that reconciliation is a great parenting tool.... 1. Admit you did something wrong, 2. Express sorrow, 3. Ask forgiveness, 4. Make reparations, 5. Change behavior so as to avoid in the future.

    I truly think that many of the faithful are most disgusted regarding the pedophile situation because the bishops have not admitted they did wrong nor any of the subsequent steps in reconciliation. They're sort of assuming people should just forgive and they continue on their merry way. However, we want to see structural changes to ensure that the 5th part of reconciliation occurs.

    Reconciliation is something I've taught my kids to use in interpersonal situations as well. The steps are solid.

  5. A brief note on your reference to structural violence: The broader definition you have provided (something is used to threaten people into subordination) would be structural if it applied to an entire group of people and was institutionalized in the culture. For example, if one priest is threatening one parishoner with excommunication to manipulate that parishoner's behavior, this would not be structural violence but personal violence or some form of bullying. However, if all clergy were threatening all parishoners with excommunication to manipulate behavior of the entire body of Catholics, this would be structural violence because it institutionalizes the practice across the entire culture.

    I think in this case, you may have named the situation correctly as structural violence provided the reference is toward the practice of the entire Church and not one specific instance of manipulation.

    ~Aimee Jr.