Everyone knows that the Christian Churches cherish family values. We hear about it all the time - in schools and churches, on radio and television, and read about it in books and newspapers. All mainstream Churches claim to follow traditional teaching based on Jesus own life and example as described in the gospels. No one disputes this. Or at least we almost never hear about anyone disputing it. This is not because the claim is undisputed. It is because the media fail to give a voice to those who do dispute it.
Let’s break the convention and look at the facts. We’ll start with Jesus’ own life as recorded in the gospels. Theologians have long been embarrassed by the way he spoke to his mother: “Woman, what have I to do with thee” (John 2:4). The usual explanation is that an element of curtness was unwittingly introduced in the past by translators, but this is simply not true, as the original Greek text or any modern academic translation will confirm. In any case, Jesus rejected his mother more than once, just as he rejected the rest of his family. When they asked for him he denied his mother and brothers, and said that the followers who were listening to him at the time were his mother and brothers (Mark 3:31-35, c/f Matthew 12:48-49 and Luke 8:20-21). He denied his mother again at the crucifixion according to one reading of John 19:27. Jesus had no qualms about taking his disciples away from their families. The brothers James and John abandoned their father, leaving him to manage as best he could with the fishing nets they had been preparing together. Earthly fathers were no more important than mothers. Jesus gave a clear instruction to his followers “call no man your father upon the earth” on the grounds that they had only one father and that was the one in Heaven (Matthew 23:9). On one occasion, a disciple asked permission to go and bury his dead father: “But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22 c/f Luke 9:60). Jesus then refused another potential follower who asked permission to say good-bye to his family before abandoning them (Luke 9:61-62). We learn that this attitude was entirely in line with Jesus’ purpose: “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against the mother in law” (Matthew 10:35). Jesus consistently taught that his followers should abandon and despise their families. Everlasting life is promised to those who leave their homes and families (Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:29-30 and Luke 18:29-30). The Luke author gives Jesus’ summary of his views on family life: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, Cf. Matthew 19:29). A similar sentiment is expressed in the non-canonical Gospel of St Thomas. This gospel goes further “Whoever recognises his father and mother will be called the son of a whore.
Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal. Virgins were holy. Those who indulged their carnal lusts were filthy degenerates. For the Church Fathers, sex was an inexplicable burden, and the creation of children was a sorrow to all. In view of this, Christians set about the destruction of family life. Converts were lured away from their parents, siblings, spouses, and children. The children of rich converts were often left destitute, their inheritance being diverted into Church coffers. This was a common complaint against Christians in Roman times and is not unknown among Christian sects in modern times. Early Christians discouraged new converts from communicating with non-Christian relatives, just as some Christian sects do today.
By the fourth century clergymen were occasionally being expected to abandon their wives in emulation of St Peter and the other apostles, all twelve of whom were believed to have abandoned their wives and families. As Pope Gregory VII put it “The church cannot escape the grip of the laity unless priests first escape from their wives”. Wives were often left abandoned. Many were so desperate that they were driven to suicide. Those who were not abandoned, if discovered by the Church authorities, were liable to be sold into slavery.
In the Middle Ages ordinary men were encouraged to leave their wives and families. When preaching the first Crusade, Pope Urban II cited the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:37 and 19:29: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…every one that hath forsaken houses or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life”. In other words a place in heaven was being promised to those who abandoned their families. Preachers lured hundreds of thousands of men away from their families to take the cross. When St Bernard preached, women went in fear. Mothers hid their sons from him, wives their husbands. Bernard proudly informed the Pope of his success: “I opened my mouth; I spoke; and at once the Crusaders have multiplied to infinity. Villages and towns are now deserted. You will scarcely find one man for every seven women. Everywhere you will see widows whose husbands are still alive.” Most of those women were soon to become real widows, but no one bothered to record the numbers. We will never know how many of them died alone of cold, hunger or old age, never knowing the fate of their husbands and sons.
People were expected to put Christian duties before their duties to their family, and inform on any deviation from orthodoxy. It was a grave offence for a child not to inform on its sinful parents, or for a parent not to inform on their sinful children. Children had no right to family life, and the Church encouraged people to give their sons to the service of the Church. These children, oblates as they were called, were brought up away from their families, by monks, for the service of the Church. We have no reason to suppose that the scale of abuse of these children was any less than that perpetrated by Churchmen in modern times. Yet in some ways the oblates were lucky. The Church was responsible for worse things done to other boys. After girls had been excluded from church choirs, the Eastern Churches hit upon the idea of using castrated boys to replace falsetto soprano voices. The idea was copied in Italy and Spain in the sixteenth century. Popes and Church synods declined to prohibit castration on the pragmatic grounds that without castrati churches would remain empty. Castrati were entertaining Popes in the Sistine chapel into the twentieth century. It was apparently of no consequence to the Church that these boys, when they reached adulthood, were denied the possibility of an ordinary family life or even married life. The Church would not let them marry, on the grounds that they were unable to father children.
Under Christian hegemony the position of slaves and their families was equally questionable. Slaves required permission from their Christian owners to marry. Men and women were owned and bred like animals. Slave children did not belong to their parents but to their masters. In nineteenth century America, children of slaves were still being taken from their parents before reaching their first birthday. Far from condemning this, priests and ministers (often slave owners themselves) condoned it. As they so often pointed out, slavery was not merely permitted by God, it was enjoined by God. It would be sinful not to practice slavery. Once again, Christianity did not accord any value to family life per se.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries priests assured Catholic women that they owed a greater duty to the Church than to their husbands. One consequence of this was that they had a responsibility to help priests wanted for treason, even if their husbands did not approve, and even if by so doing they put their innocent husbands at risk of death. Father Henry Garnet wrote a Treatise of Christian Renunciation which contained many examples of families broken asunder by religious differences. Once again the point was clear: families were dispensable. Bonds between husband and wife were not important. One reason for this was that love played no part in the traditional Christian idea of marriage. Arranged marriages were the norm when the Church controlled this area of the law, as it did for many centuries. Under Church Law, children could be betrothed at the age of 7. In practice marriages were often arranged at much lower ages– sometimes months rather than years for the nobility. The traditional Anglican marriage service reflecting Christian ideas identifies three reasons for marriage: procreation, the avoidance of fornication, and mutual society. Love does not come into it. The Roman Catechism is even more direct: the section on the sacrament of matrimony states that really it would be desirable for all Christians to remain unmarried. As canon 277 of the 1983 Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law affirms: Celibacy is a special gift of God. Following the Church Fathers, the pinnacle of achievement is to remain a virgin, and so not have a family at all. St Alexis won his sainthood by abandoning his new bride on her wedding day.
The poor were not entitled to a family life either. In Victorian times Anglican parochial charities found it perfectly consistent with Christian teachings to split up the families who claimed poor relief. Husbands would be sent to one poor house, women to another. Untold numbers of married couples were split up in this way, never to see each other or their children again. The hereditary sick were also undeserving of family life. When Hitler discussed them with Cardinal Faulhaber in 1936 the two men agreed that they were a problem, but had different approaches to it. Hitler wanted to sterilise them, but the Cardinal had another solution. The Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann cites him as saying “The state, Herr Reich-chancellor, is not debarred from removing these vermin from the national community in the interests of legitimate self-defence and in conformity with moral law, but preventives other than physical mutilation must be sought, and such a preventive does exist: the internment of the hereditary sick”. He was talking about what we now call concentration camps. The cardinal’s problem with sterilisation was that it would allow people to enjoy sex without the risk of procreation, contrary to the teaching of his Church. To this extent the sterilisation option was morally unacceptable, but there was nothing wrong with splitting up families in order to put individual members into concentration camps.
Non-Christians were not entitled to a family life either. When Christian missionaries failed to make an impact on the locals they could always kidnap children so that the next generation could be indoctrinated into the Christian faith by force. A missionary called Symeon pioneered this method around the Euphrates in the sixth century, scorning the objections of local villagers. Parents who objected started to die in mysterious circumstances, and the rest gave way. The abduction and indoctrination of children became a standard technique when missionaries could make no impact on adults, and this technique would be used with effect for many centuries. Children of members of any faith might be seized by Christian authorities. Sometimes whole families were seized. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Jewish families were taken, often by force, by Christian authorities and subjected to what we would now call brainwashing. If half of the family converted and half did not, they were split up never to see each other again. Sometimes wives never saw their husbands again, sometimes parents never saw their children again. As late as 1858, acting under clerical instructions, the Bolognia police seized a young boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his Jewish family. Despite an international outcry the kidnapped child was kept in Rome by the Catholic Church, and “re-educated”. His re-education was so successful that he eventually became a missionary priest. From the age of seven until his death he was never to know a real family, either as son or father. His life was regarded by the Roman Church as a great success, and presumably still is.
Jews were not the only victims. With the complicity of the state, Christians were kidnapping non-Christian children well into the twentieth century. This practice is generally justified by claiming that non-Christian parents are somehow unsuitable. North American Indian children were being taken from their families by the Canadian authorities until at least the 1950’s. Aboriginal children were being taken from their families by the Australian authorities until the 1960’s and put into Christian orphanages. A Roman Catholic organisation in Switzerland was kidnapping Romany children and sending them to be adopted by Catholic families into the 1970’s. The children were routinely told that their parents were dead, and that they had no living relatives. The same thing was common among the children of unmarried mothers around the world – from New Zealand to Ireland and Brazil. Children were taken by force, generally with the complicity of the authorities, and given up for adoption as “orphans” to the mainstream western Churches.
In Britain children were not taken by force, but by deception. Stigmatised single mothers were encouraged to leave their children with Christian organisations, either to be adopted or to be cared for until the mother could take the child back. Many of these organisations sent children to the colonies without their parents’ consent or knowledge – even when the mothers had stated explicitly that they would return to take their children back. The children were told, falsely, that their parents were dead. They were described as orphans and they grew up believing themselves to be orphans. They were not given their birth certificates or other identification documentation. Sometimes they were provided with new names and even new birthdays. Sometimes their files were burned. In some cases when parents came back to reclaim their children they were told, again falsely, that the children were dead. In other cases mothers were told the truth, but no effort was made to bring their children back. Sometimes two or more brothers and sisters were sent out at the same time. Usually they were split up – destroying the last vestige of a family relationship. These children were to remain in institutions throughout their childhood. When Australian families came forward to foster them, traditionalist Churches preferred to keep the children in institutions. An official report in Western Australia in 1959 indicated that “practically all children could be adequately fostered if the institutions were not loath to part with them…”. The last child migrations to Australia took place in 1967. By then between 100,000 and 150,000 children had been shipped around the world, away from their roots and their families. As middle-aged adults, many of these “orphans” discovered in the 1980s that they were not orphans at all, and some that their parents were still alive. Parents discovered that their children were not dead, as they had been told. The emotional turmoil caused by this deliberate “deceit and deception” was documented by Margaret Humphreys in her book Empty Cradles.
So there it is. Over the centuries, Christianity has been responsible for untold millions of abandoned wives, divided families, and stolen and disinherited children. The current attachment to family values is an innovation, and runs contrary to both Jesus’ teachings and the historical stance of all mainstream Churches. It is only since the 1960’s that the Churches have found it expedient to adopt this position. As Don Cupitt, a leading liberal churchman, noted: “The idealisation of the family is a modern cultural creation, which the Churches have validated, and now no modern bishop would dream of publicly endorsing Jesus’ views about the family.” Among Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Methodist and Baptist theologians much creative imagination goes into the pretence that the gospels do not mean what they plainly say: that followers of Jesus must hate their families. Except for a few men and women who abandon their families to become hermits or anchorites, or monks or nuns in closed orders, there are now virtually no Christians who follow Jesus’ teaching about family life. The only significant group keeping up the old traditions are Christian missionaries, still quietly breaking up families around the world, telling new converts to leave their non-Christian spouses, siblings, parents and children – just as Christian missionaries have done since Roman times. As they will proudly tell you, they are doing exactly what Jesus wanted them to do.