My wife stays at home with our little ones—four, three, and ten months. It’s a common enough arrangement, yet I’m not sure how common is her sometimes earnest, maybe slightly provoked belief that the older two could benefit from a few minutes spent in the confessional. Recalling that even the smallest children lack innocence before God is a helpful antidote to the daily frustrations of family life, as well as the culture war mentality, which forgets the Platonic impulse of Christian thought and drives some to objectify life and family as unconditionally good.
Recently reading through Augustine’s Confessions I came across the following passage. The last time I read it I was probably a seminarian, and one with very little access to the sort of empirical data the author employs:
What sin did I then have [as a tiny child]? Was it wrong that in tears I greedily opened my mouth wide to suck the breasts? If I were to do that now, gasping to eat food appropriate to my present age, I would be laughed at and very properly rebuked. At the time of my infancy I must have acted reprehensibly; but since I could not understand the person who admonished me, neither custom nor reason allowed me to be reprehended. As we grow up, we eliminate and set aside such ways. But I have never seen anyone knowingly setting aside what is good when purging something of faults.
Augustine wonders whether there is anything good left in the vehemence of children who are refused their wishes, and who try to hit their parents and to do as much injury as they can.
[T]he feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind. I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. Who is unaware of this fact of experience? Mothers and nurses claim to charm it away by their own private remedies. But it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing richly and abundantly, not to endure a share going to one’s blood-brother, who is in profound need, dependent for life exclusively on that one food.
My daily experience of children’s “jealousy and bitterness” helped me understand this claim. What struck me most was Augustine’s uninterest in explaining away the evil of a child’s intentions. To the contrary, he insists that only custom and reason prevent infants from being “properly rebuked.” And he confirms that childish selfishness is wholly evil, since its final purging must be unconditional.
Augustine’s son was grown by the time he wrote Confessions, so he didn’t muse like my wife that a toddler brood should be driven from time to time toward sacramental reconciliation. But I get the sense he wouldn’t have scoffed at the idea outright.
He reminds us that fallen human existence is an admixture of good and evil: of conflicting and competing forces that despite our best efforts prevent us from understanding and moving as far as we would like. The passage on infancy and innocence is mixed with others concerning the origin of the soul and the moral duty to serve God even at moments in life when we do not and cannot recognize him for whatever reason.
If Augustine’s little lesson for my wife is that her frustrations are not un-Christian, because her children really are not innocent, his further lesson for a society that “accessorizes” with children is that the common good points clearly in the direction of the family, but only just slightly. Families are a sort of “proper accident” required for human flourishing, but which don’t themselves contain an essence or the “answers” we’re after. God ordained the first family; and he sanctified the fallen natural family at the Annunciation. Just so, families are at least necessarily better than non-families. Yet neither custom nor reason, nor public policy, allow us to fully heal the damage to family that results from our very real and original fault. They can help shore up the integrity of Christian family life against unnecessary harms, but none can overcome the real, inescapable difficulties with human community that a thoughtful Christian ought not to forget.
It might not be so bad, then—in fact, it might even be Augustinian—that some of us aren’t too sanguine about the prospect of “saving the traditional family” primarily through public policy. Adoring our own infants, “pale with jealousy and bitterness” as they sometimes are, is the only way.