Children And Catholic Church


Sir - Fintan O'Toole in his column (May 14th) cites three one-word quotations from a book by the late Fr Cecil Barrett, head of the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau, published in 1952, in support of his contention that the Catholic Church reserved "a special contempt" for children born out of wedlock. This assertion was so startling that I decided to read the book over the past few days. I have to say that Mr O'Toole does a great injustice to the author by quoting him selectively and inaccurately and thereby giving a false impression of his attitude.

Although Mr O'Toole didn't say so, the book was about adoption and is mainly a practical guide to the process. It is true that, in the particular passage from which Mr O'Toole quotes, Fr. Barrett speaks of mothers who abandon their babies (not the babies themselves) in a tone that today would be rightly seen as disparaging and judgmental; the author can be fairly criticised for that. However, Mr O'Toole applies these quotations from the particular to the general, which the book does not do. In fact, Fr Barrett makes it clear in the same passage that "the number of mothers who simply do not care for their babies is rare". For the most part he displays a very keen awareness and understanding of the difficulties which confronted unmarried mothers in the 1950s.

Nowhere in the book does Fr Barrett write anything which could lead the reader to conclude that the Church regarded with "special contempt" the child born out of wedlock. The most serious criticism that could be made about his attitude to children is a slight tendency towards sentimentality. But, generally, his outlook is rooted in commonsense. I could find in the book not even a hint of disdain towards the child.

Published before the Adoption Act of 1952, and written in the language of its time, the book, in fact, advances ideas about adoption which are enlightened. Indeed, they resonate with concerns that were only to emerge fully in later years. For example, the approach is thoroughly child-centred; the paramount concern has to be the best interests of the child. Fr Barrett views adoption as one of several options, and by no means the first, to be considered; he asserts that "many unmarried mothers do in fact keep their children and care for them and love them greatly". He emphasises the moral obligation, whatever about the law, of the natural father to support the mother and their child. He is very strong on the rights of the mother and explicitly recognises the pain of separation for those who decide to give their children for adoption. As Mr. O'Toole would be well aware, selective quotation can damage a person's good name (all the more so if that person is dead and cannot respond), aside altogether from promoting a bias against understanding. - Yours, etc.,

Jim Cantwell, Director, Catholic Press & Information Office, Dublin, 9.