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. Prologue

Close formation


The American Catholic Church remade childhood. That was a mistake

Listening to a sermon, Poughkeepsie, New 
				  York, 1953. By Ralph Morse/Time-Life Pictures

By robert orsi

Over the last 40 years, American Catholics, with a mix of affection and retribution, have elaborated the figure of the evil nun in stories, jokes, plays, objects (the "boxing nun," the little wind-up "Nunzilla"), and in what one writer has called the "Catholic school conversation." Inevitably, when Catholics of middle age and beyond talk about their childhoods in the Church, they begin with a story about a parochial school nun who did something mean to them. But nuns have not been sexually abusing children, and it is not immediately clear how the figure of the evil nun can help us understand the past that now haunts American Catholicism: the abuse of children in the 1980s by priests who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, the figure of the evil nun has functioned in American Catholic life as an obstacle to serious examination of the distinctive qualities of Catholic childhood before and just after the Second Vatican Council. That silly, ubiquitous, endlessly reiterated, and one-dimensional image has crowded out the past, and Catholics have failed to look carefully at the experience of childhood in the Church.

What part of the past should we look at for clues to understanding the present scandals? Any number of issues could come into play: the nature of authority in the Church; the history and practice of the episcopacy; relations between clergy and laity; the unfinished business of the Second Vatican Council. The overriding tendency has been to sexualize the problem, to see it as the result of the deviant impulses of the celibate body (among those who are suspicious of this way of living) or of the perverse body. But whatever else the current crisis is about, it is primarily about children—about the kinds of relationships that formed between children and adults in the spaces of the sacred, about children's lives in Catholic settings, their vulnerability and exposure, their bodies, their experiences of themselves as persons, and the boundaries they were and were not able to maintain around themselves in a culture made for (and with) them.

Children have been largely missing from commentary on the recent scandals. The victims are all adults now, and what has seemed most salient has been their post-childhood traumas and difficulties. At the very least, studies of U.S. Catholic history and culture can put children back into the story.

A word about how I have gone about trying to do that in my research: It is extremely difficult to approach the religious lives of children even in the not-too-distant past. Children do not leave records of their religious practices or imaginings. Prescriptive literature for children—the hundreds of articles written for and about them by priests and nuns—teaches us almost nothing, really, about children themselves, although we can get glimpses in these texts of situations and environments Catholic children lived in, if we read carefully. And so I have developed a set of interrelated sources. First, there is the substantial literature by Catholic educators about children and the equally large body of Catholic children's literature (stories of the saints and angels, for instance, as well as catechisms, sacramental instructions, and so on) and the devotional objects produced for children (holy cards, pop-up books of the martyrs, children's prayer books). A second source is the published literature on growing up Catholic, written by adults filtering what they "remember"—memory is a treacherous source for historians—through their adult values and perceptions. But the heart of my research lies in what I call "memory groups," gatherings of five to eight adults of different ages who grew up more or less in the same geographical area and who agree to meet with me over several weeks to talk together about their childhoods in the Church. So far, I have held these conversations in Arizona, Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and New York. The members of the groups serve to stimulate and correct one another's memories, and the talk has been wide-ranging and probing.

I read these three disparate kinds of sources together, using each to correct and amplify the others. What comes clear is the extent to which relationships among adults and children—especially adult religious and children—were at the center of American Catholicism in the 20th century.

Home shrine in Spanish Harlem, New York City, 1966. By Bruce Davidson/Magnum

THE DECISION of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 to all but mandate a separate Catholic elementary school system in this country ensured that for the next 80 years—until the cultural shifts and social transformations of the 1960s—Catholic children and adult religious would spend much of their time in one another's company. The council's decision was motivated in part by fear that young Catholics would suffer personally and religiously in the American public schools, and that the future of the faith itself was at risk. Children were thought to occupy a vulnerable place between the Catholic world and the surrounding, often hostile, U.S. culture. A sense of responsibility for the Church had to be pressed deep into their bodies and souls. One means of achieving this was through the theology and practice of confirmation, making children "soldiers of Christ" who would be ready to defend the Church to the death if necessary. In southern Indiana, I collected a story from the 1950s of a school principal, a sister, who marched her students to church one day, lined them up, and had them approach the communion rail as if they were going to take communion. As she paced up and down the length of the rail—on the altar side—she held her hand in the shape of a gun, placed her fingertips to each child's temple, and said, "Do you renounce your faith?" She was preparing them for Cold War martyrdom.

The central place of children in mid-century American Catholicism was a consequence also of the immigrant makeup of the Church. Priests and nuns explicitly called on children to bring their Italian or Mexican parents to church and teach them what it was to be a Catholic in this country. In matters of both affection and authority, children often found themselves caught between the adults in their families and the adult religious with whom they spent much of their days.

With the stakes perceived to be so high, American nuns filled pages in pedagogical journals with fervent considerations of how to inflame children's prayer lives. Many Catholics say that the prayers the sisters taught them to memorize remain "part of us"—in our bodies, is how several people have told this to me. In parochial schools across America, the sisters presented the sacraments with such spiritual and emotional intensity that youngsters came to expect a profound transformation of the self through the rituals, that afterward they would not be the same person.

This was an intensely erotic world. By that, I do not mean anything necessarily inappropriate or dark—but powerful and complicated currents of desire circulated freely and openly. One example can be found in the practice of children choosing confirmation sponsors. Although the theology of confirmation stressed a kind of ecclesiastical heroism, the experience of the sacrament was one of intimacies. Many children had the opportunity to select their own sponsors and confirmation names, and they approached these decisions thoughtfully and lovingly, identifying bonds of respect and affection that mattered deeply to them. "I took Veronica" as a confirmation name, a 75-year-old woman in New Orleans told me, "because of this girl I liked so much." Another woman said she chose the name "of an aunt that I loved."

Children became emotionally attached to the spaces of the Church, too. The erotic included the environment: the textures, colors, smells, and sounds of the built sacred world and parish grounds. One woman, again in New Orleans, told me that as a child in the 1960s, "I liked to be up close to the altar, on the end, so I could see around everybody." She said she loved the way the candles lit up the faces of the statuary, and she remembers staring into the saints' eyes "as though I was looking for something, waiting . . . why don't you say something to me!"

Another woman, who grew up in the Irish Channel in New Orleans in the 1930s, recalled the stained glass window in her childhood church: "You have to realize that this is a Gothic church, and it's about 40 feet up in the air, the stained glass, at least 30 or 40 feet wide. And it's the Assumption, Mary there, reaching down to purgatory, and the morning sun would come in and"—here her voice fell to a whisper—"just light it beautifully, always."

A visit to the lily pond on church grounds, U.S., 1953. By Margaret Bourke-White/Time-Life Pictures

AS THEY SET about to form (in the deep Catholic sense of the term) children's imaginations and bodies, adults' own lives and faith, their religious imaginations, desires, fears, and hopes, were shaped, too. Forming children, they formed themselves. American Catholicism existed in between children and adults, in a religious universe that absorbed them and held them both. Children's interiorities were structured and shaped when their parents moved their hands through the sign of the cross, or when the nuns prepared them for confession by examining their souls with them, when children heard consecration bells and knew that God's body was now on the altar and soon to be in their mouths, or when they looked at nuns' bodies in the classroom and smelled their soap. In turn, adults' interiorities became porous to children through the same intimate encounters.

Children and adult religious watched one another closely, constantly, in church, in the classroom, and in their worlds outside of both. They knew the secrets of one another's corporal experience. Nuns kept track of girls' developing breasts and quietly (sometimes not so quietly) identified the moment when a girl needed to wear a camisole under her uniform; and children scrutinized nuns' bodies. A woman in her forties who grew up in New Orleans remembered the face of the nun who taught her in the fourth grade. "She had little freckles all around her nose, and . . . such a beautiful smile." One woman told me that her priest (in rural Nebraska in the late 1940s) apprehended one day that she had started menstruating and was bleeding in church—although she had not said anything—and he came over to her during the devotional service, took her back to the rectory, and fortified her with sips of altar wine.

Confession was a particularly effective instrument for the dissolution of boundaries between an individual child and all others. Children paid close attention to one another's confessions, keeping track of the length of time classmates remained in the box and monitoring the duration of their penances. "You'd make it a point not to commit too big a sin," a 75-year-old Mexican-American man remembered of his childhood in Tyrone, Arizona, because "if you said anything kind of wrong, [the priest] would yell at you, and then the rest of the people would know." And despite the pretense of secrecy, children realized that the priests could recognize them through the confessional screen. There are many stories of children telling their sins to a priest and the priest following absolution with something like "Well, Amanda, when you get home, would you tell your mother that I need to see her tomorrow?" In some parts of the country, children convinced one another that priests received a special grace that made them forget what they'd heard the moment they left the confessional—a poignant and powerful sign of young Catholics' apprehension at the permeability of their personal boundaries.

This same porousness made it possible for adults to identify children whom they believed had vocations to the religious life. Little nuns and little "priests-in-the-making" (a popular phrase for altar boys) were marked off from the rest of their peers and relentlessly pursued with special privileges in school, gifts and treats, invitations to visit the residential areas of the convent or rectory to see how the nuns or priests lived, and in general the delight of adult attention. One of my sources in New Orleans described being taken as an eighth-grader into the convent in the 1930s with a girlfriend and invited to touch the special garments of a new postulant that had been laid out on a bed. Some children found such interest flattering, but others were terrified by it, recognizing that to become the bearer of adult religious desire in this exposed way threatened their identities. Children who even briefly entered the convent or seminary after grammar school—a common practice—found it difficult to be accepted again by their peers upon returning.

THE ABUSE OF children in sacred settings by priests over the past 40 years has to be understood against this history. Children's bodies and souls—the intimate places of their experience—were uniquely available in American Catholic culture to adult religious, male and female, who assumed a proprietary authority over both. Nuns and parish priests together created this world, although nuns have come to stand for its perverse possibilities. The world they created was not necessarily bad—Catholic children came out of it with a passionate spirituality and a strong sense of right and wrong. But children could not be sure where the appropriate line was between themselves—their bodies and souls—and the adult religious around them. There was surprisingly little constraint on the behavior of priests and nuns toward children, and the same discipline that shaped proud and determined young soldiers of Christ made children vulnerable. The priests who have abused children grew up in this environment of fluid and blurred boundaries, of radical moral and spiritual vulnerability, and I suspect that when they approached the children they intended to hurt they used the boundary-dissolving moral and spiritual idioms of their own childhoods.

Adult Catholic laypeople and religious need to think about the kinds of relationships into which they have invited children in religious settings. Theologically, psychologically, and practically, they must consider the appropriate balance between autonomy and authority in children's religious lives, and the boundaries to be maintained around young minds and bodies. When Catholics today take up how best to make a new Church following on scandal, they must also consider how best to respect children's freedom in the Church, how to honor their status as separate persons, and how to make sure that children know that loving and serving God does not make them vulnerable to the adults around them, that holiness does not mean exposure, and that to be good does not mean surrender.


Robert Orsi is the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion at Harvard University, and the author of Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (1999), Thank you Saint Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (1996), and Between Heaven and Earth (forthcoming). His essay is drawn from a talk he gave at Boston College as part of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series.


Photos (from top):


Listening to a sermon, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1953. By Ralph Morse/Time-Life Pictures


Home shrine in Spanish Harlem, New York City, 1966. By Bruce Davidson/Magnum


A visit to the lily pond on church grounds, U.S., 1953. By Margaret Bourke-White/Time-Life Pictures


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