Theology of Childhood: treating children as Jesus did

10 June 2020
Children are blessed during Mass at the official reception and presentation of a first–class relic of St Pio of Pietrelcina, at Padre Pio Parish, Glenmore Park, in September 2018. Image: Giovanni Portelli/Diocese of Parramatta.


COVID-19 has forced everyone to understand what it means to be vulnerable. Thus Sr Nuala Kenny began her presentation of the first Safeguarding Webinar organised by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in collaboration with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), the Centre for Child Protection of the Gregorian University and the Telefono Azzurro hotline in Italy. The title for Sr Nuala’s presentation was “Safeguarding children, youth and vulnerable adults and the need for a consistent theology of childhood.” Almost 800 people from all over the world participated in the webinar. Many others watched the live-streamed version on the UISG and PCPM web sites.

It begins with culture

For any safeguarding to be effective, Sr Nuala says that a “culture of safeguarding” is necessary, otherwise “policies and protocols are not effective.” She continued, saying children in many parts of the world are immersed in a culture that contributes to their harm. They are objects of abuse, child pornography, child labour, trafficking, forced to be soldiers, etc. A culture within the Church itself has “continually failed to address underlying beliefs and practices” that fosters abuse and denial, and the consistent, inappropriate response of leadership for centuries.

Vulnerability and systemic issues

Any relationship in which another person is trusted are “open to the possibility of loss and abuse,” Sr Nuala notes. Childhood is the period in which the human person learns how to defend his or her own vulnerability. Those who experience abuse as children are therefore particularly devastated. For a child to be abused, certain conditions need to be in place, Sr Nuala explained. These conditions create the ground for the person to abuse a child, and the ground in which the child’s normal protective mechanisms are overcome. When a priest is the abuser, “double damage” is done, Sr Nuala said. Some people say “soul murder” takes place, she said.

Conversion in the family

The conversion that needs to take place is a process in which long-standing practices that do not reflect Jesus’s example need to identified and transformed, Sr Nuala said. It begins in the family, which is the primary place of nurture and protection for children. Any theology of childhood needs to therefore root out the harmful aspects of our “domestic churches,” she said: that children are the purpose of marriage, the having a child proves male virility, that boys are more desirable in the family than girls, that faith is optional, etc.

Conversion in the Church

Within the Body of Christ, this conversion means that we understand what unites us rather than divide people into special categories or statuses. It also requires “meaningful dialogue,” Sr Nuala said. “We are called to speak out against injustice,” especially when the vulnerable are targeted. Not speaking out allows the abuse to continue. Ideas about morality need to be converted from talk about sinful behaviour that can easily be forgiven in confession to understanding the harm that sinful actions do to others. Lastly, Sr Nuala illustrated the prevalent idea that pro-life activity is reduced to targeting sexual behaviour and abortion. The pro-life understanding, she said, needs to be enlarged to embrace the protection of anyone, especially the vulnerable, from any type of harm.

Treating children as Jesus treated them

Sr Nuala believes that the conversion required to provide a child-friendly culture is that of rooting ourselves “in Jesus and His loving care and touch toward children.” Nuala emphasised the care that Jesus had for children. He cured both boys and girls and rebuked His disciples when they wanted to keep them from drawing near to Him. It was a child, she reminded those participating, who provided the loaves and fish that Jesus multiplied and fed the crowd (see Jn 6: 9). Jesus also displayed “righteous indignation” and had harsh words to say to those who harm children (see Mt 18:5-8).

The bottom line, Sr Nuala said in conclusion, is “that we in Jesus’s Church must provide what He would provide for His children.”

Safeguarding begins with Theology of Childhood

Several organisations team up to present a series of webinars directed toward raising awareness of the ongoing need to safeguard children, youth and vulnerable adults.

Four organisations are together presenting a “Safeguarding Webinar Series.” The series is the initiative of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), with the collaboration of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), the Centre for Child Protection of the Gregorian University and Telefono Azzurro in Italy.

Safeguarding webinars fruit of collaboration

Speaking to Vatican News, PCPM Project Manager Emer McCarthy explained that this series of webinars is the fruit of an ongoing collaboration with UISG and their male counterpart. The PCPM is principally focused on directing their efforts toward the safeguarding of children. Many children benefit from the ministry of men and women religious in schools, child care centres, hospitals and other structures throughout the world. “Men and women religious really are on the front lines of caring for children and vulnerable people in our Church,” Emer confirmed. The ongoing collaboration “came to an abrupt halt” because of the pandemic, she said. The webinar series was created as a response to the concern of Members of the PCPM “to keep safeguarding awareness alive during the pandemic, given the increased risks” experienced by children and vulnerable persons due to lockdown restrictions.

Theology of Children

The topic of the first webinar will target the “need for a consistent theology of childhood.” “It’s highly significant,” Emer states. The need for developing a consistent theology of childhood in the Church is a conclusion reached by people at all levels of the Church, she says: catechists, local bishops as well as Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences. While individual theologians have begun to research and write articles on the subject, Emer says there still is no “core text.” “We really need one to underpin why you need to safeguard children, why we as the Church, why we as Christians and Catholics, are called to place children in our midst as Christ did.” One of Sr Nuala Kenny’s messages, she continues, is that part of Jesus’s countercultural message is that He “put the children front and centre.”

Progress after Meeting on the Protection of Minors

When asked what progress has been made since the February 2019 Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Vatican, and what still needs to be done, Emer acknowledged the Taskforce created in February 2020 and the legislation established through Vos estis lux mundi. In terms of what still needs to be done, she quoted one of the PCPM Members, a father of five children and a psychologist, who says, “we can never become complacent.” “Safeguarding and safeguarding awareness is not just something you do with your head. You have to do it with your heart. You have to accept that this is something that is an integral part of our mission.”

Safeguarding requires conversion

Safeguarding, Emer clarifies, “involves a conversion, that can only come about when people are confronted with the absence of safeguarding.” This requires listening to “those who bear the horrible consequences” of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy. Their stories manifest this “absence of safeguarding” and, therefore, indicate what needs to be done to safeguard others. Listening to them is one of the primary mandates of the PCPM. Through the PCPM, their voices have reached higher levels of leadership in the Church. “We can never be complacent,” Emer repeated. “We can make progress with laws, with norms, with structures. But until the people who are actually working with children and vulnerable people in the Church understand the practical implications of what being aware of safeguarding is, then we can never say we have solved the problem.”



Vatican News and Sr Bernadette Mary Reis fsp – Safeguarding begins with Theology of Childhood

Vatican News and Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp –  Theology of Childhood: treating children as Jesus did


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