What stories do we tell of the connection between children and politics? Between childhood and political theologies? I remember my baby’s first care-package, received during the COVID-19 lockdown. My aunties mailed us soft bibs and other cloth items that little ones need laundered endlessly. What struck me, however, was the enclosed card. It was signed, “Love, your Great Aunties.” I remember crying in shock. If my aunties were now great aunties, living 3,000 miles away, what would this mean for my baby? Who will teach them to drive? Which aunties will coach their middle-school basketball team? Who will tutor them in subjects I find confusing? Which auntie will be the one to always ask how they are—and wait to hear the answer because she actually cares? Who will be their Auntie Net, Aunt Bonnie, and Aunt Mel? My grief taught me something important. My relationship with my aunties was fundamental to my childhood, and thus, fundamental to me. And this was a childhood unique in many ways. I am a descendent of the Inupiat of the Seward Peninsula and the granddaughter of a survivor of the Wrangell Institute, a federal Indian boarding school with a reputation for extreme violence. My mom, aunties, uncles, and grandmother grew up in Sitŋasuaq (Nome, Alaska), and my Amauq (great-grandmother) Irene was born on Iŋaliq (Little Diomede). My father’s family is conservative British/Irish descendent Catholic. As a homeschooled kid in a radical conservative Catholic community in Seattle, I played basketball, and also attended “pro-life” rallies with my Dad and Uncle John. Juxtaposed with my pre-teen tutoring in math, I prayed the rosary by the side of the road while carrying anti-abortion placards. Children, religion, and politics are inseparable both in my childhood and my family history.
When thinking about childhood and political theology I think first of how both sides of my family formed me as a member of a wider community. Indigenous studies scholar Charles Sean Asiqłuq Topkok (Iñupiaq) illustrates the Iñupiaq values that my aunties embodied, when he writes that “every adult member in an Iñupiaq community has the role of an educator” (96). Inupiaq adults cooperate to educate children on a broad level—every adult is involved. As diaspora Inupiat formed by the assimilation cocktail of blood quantum and federal Indian boarding schools, the Inupiaq values my family embodied were practiced, but not discussed. Did my aunties, mom, and uncles know the extent to which their ways of being in the world were and are Inupiat? I’m not sure. Yet, the educational values of my mom’s family resonate in many Indigenous communities. For example, as Zoe Todd (Métis) describes the Paulatuuqmiut community in Paulatuuq, “Again and again, those to whom I spoke emphasized the importance of family and of bringing children out onto the land. Such occasions reaffirm relationships, while also creating memories that are essential to both personal and collective identity.” (204). Interestingly, the Paulatuuqmiut land practices that Todd describes parallel pro-life rallies on urban sidewalks; both utilize the land as a site of theo-political education. Uncle John and Dad shaped our political selves as children via protest rosaries just as my Auntie Net formed us with her constant refrain to “BE NICE!” So, my education as a child in politics was mirrored between my Catholic and my Inupiaq family. What can these similarities tell us about the role of the child in political theology? The pro-life rallies of my childhood offer an interesting place to start.
U.S. Catholic political theology focuses on the child through a few key registers. In the “culture wars” of the abortion debates, the rhetoric of innocence rises frequently. Mélena Laudig’s essay in this series highlights the historical trajectory that codes the pervasive figure of the innocent, dependent child as racialized and classed, white and elite. And Laura Simpson’s essay illustrates how this racialized notion of innocence shows up in debates about the U.S. prison system, specifically fueling a perceived need for carceral structures. In conservative Catholic and Christian circles, innocence is articulated through a notion of care, or harm reduction. Fetuses are termed “preborn babies,” full human beings with inherent dignity (per the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching), who are particularly vulnerable and in need of defense. Innocence thus articulates a kind of binding morality, a morality that seeks strong regulatory laws based on particular, religiously determined needs of the collective. The underlying premise of binding morality, however, is not only harm reduction, but conformity to tradition, and bodily and spiritual purity, or, “a matter of preventing the violation of group norms.” The political theology of the pro-life rallies of my childhood articulated protest as care for the vulnerable, while also performing, within family and community structures, a normalization of relational isolation—family members of all ages would be cut off if (when?) moral conformity became contaminated. Purity represents the greatest difference between the value of education embodied in the Inupiat and Catholic sides of my family—my Aunties have never required conformity to maintain relationality. So, innocence and political purity entwine in the first Catholic figure of the child.
Related to the child as innocent is the child as an object of (non) reproductive capitalism. Brenda Destro, a member of the Department of Human and Health Services under George W. Bush and Donald Trump, wrote about adoption for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). She correlates legalized abortion to the decline in adoption rates and describes the subsequent frustrations of the “well-educated” and “financially secure” Boomer generation’s desires for adoptable children: “they soon learned there were not enough babies available to meet this growing demand.” Here, Destro paints a failure of the free market to supply the babies in demand. She is not alone in such views. Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle’s podcast names the non-Indigenous desire for adoptable Indigenous children as one thread informing legal activism against the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Indeed, Destro’s focus on the class and education of those seeking to adopt elides the inherent racialized aspects of adoption. Destro unwittingly underscores the racializing aspects of adoption through a dig at ICWA: “There are even cases where a child remains in an abusive home because placement would mean she would be adopted by a family of another race.” The innocence of the white, affluent child—through the lens of adoption—trickles down to the white, affluent (and well-educated), Catholic, heterosexual, married couple. Now, the innocent child, the preborn baby, is not only in need of defense; it offers hope for those seeking available children. The child morphs into a consumable good.
Yet, as Destro’s correlation between abortion and adoption, and her critique of ICWA illustrate, these specific figures of children are not kept at the level of an apolitical religiosity. Indeed, the right-to-life rallies I attended as a child were organized by a brother organization to the National Right to Life organization—a Super Pac that contributes primarily to Republican candidates. And both the unborn and the adoptable child arose in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022). Justice Amy Coney-Barrett’s contribution to the oral arguments sought to “clarify” the positive role that safe haven laws could provide for those experiencing unwanted pregnancies. Such laws were articulated as an avenue for unwanted pregnancies to provide children for the adoption market. Performance studies scholar Peggy Phelan notes that correlation between abortion and adoption arose again in a footnote of Justice Samuel Alito’s written opinion: “[N]early 1 million women were seeking to adopt children in 2002 … whereas the ‘domestic supply’ of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life and available to be adopted had become virtually nonexistent.” As Phelan goes on to state, “Currently, about 1.3 million abortions are performed each year in the United States” (178). Ultimately, what the two Catholic Justices leverage, albeit briefly, is the twinned figure of the child as innocent, rare goods at risk of death who could instead be made available to adoptive families. Innocent preborn children become objects of (non)reproductive capitalism. These stories of the child persist within and extensively beyond Catholic media. Yet, there is a third, covert figure of the child operative in U.S. Catholic political theology. The child as problem arises specifically in questions of settlement payouts for Catholic sex abuse.
The Child as Problem
As the Catholic Church continues to experience the ramifications of its practices with pedophilic priests, particularly where the statutes of limitations on sexual abuse crimes are being lifted or extended, the child emerges as a problem. For example, in 2014, the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which sits in the unceded territory of the Lenape (Lenapehoking), needed monies to fill a $39.2 million budget deficit. The Archbishop, when announcing the planned sale of roughly 700 acres of land for around $56 million dollars, said, “It’s similar to what families have to do when their expenses are greater than their income.” However, the question of budget was conspicuously absent when a potential extension on the statute of limitation for sex abuse crimes was brought before the 2016 Pennsylvania Congress. In a letter read at all masses, the Archbishop urged parishioners to politically oppose the legislation. His letter quoted the New Jersey Catholic Conference to state, “Statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade.” In the mid-Atlantic region of the Catholic church, children are here painted as, at best, unreliable historians. At worst, these children, rhetorically distanced from the Catholic community, are greedy opportunists attempting to undermine Catholic life. The earlier Catholic focus on the innocence and desirability of children morphs; these children are no longer pure, they’re a problem.
Indeed, alongside rhetorical tactics that seek to undermine survivor testimonies, the letter framed the legislation as a specific attack on private institutions. In Philadelphia-area parishes, names of senators who agreed with the extension were published in church bulletins through verbiage that framed their vote as directly targeting the Catholic Church. The abuse of children by the church was reframed as an attack on the church. The child can no longer be innocent or in danger; instead, the church takes on this danger and the presumption of innocence in the face of faded memories. Indeed, even the relationship of the child to the market has shifted. Now instead of an asset, the child becomes a liability. The problem child, like the innocent child and the consumable child, highlights the deep entwinement of Catholic politics and religious life. Subsequent legislation provided an avenue for 438 survivors to settle for $81 million from the Archdiocese in 2019. Where did these funds come from? Circling back to the connection made above between ICWA, abortion, and adoption, the problem child also illustrates the ongoing connection between Catholics and Indigenous nations. Without Catholic access to and privatization of Lenape lands, sold for $56 million in 2014, would the sex abuse settlement payments have been possible?
Indeed, the ability to balance the Philadelphia diocese budget arises from the long history of Lenape people being tricked into land dispossession, renamed the Delaware, and pushed further and further west. Many children from reservations in Oklahoma, including the Delaware reservation, were sent to boarding schools, and of the 95 schools operative in Oklahoma, at least 14 were run by Catholics. Curtis Zunigha (Delaware) named the boarding school efforts to tear down, then rebuild “Indian children [after] several generations into the image of little brown-skinned Christian white people.” At the national level, the stories told of the schools run by Christians, predominately Catholics, correlate a too-frequent clerical/religious culture of child abuse with genocidal efforts to “kill the Indian” in Indigenous children. Boarding school style education was inextricable from Indigenous land dispossession. Today, we see that a culture of ecclesiastical child abuse entwines again with dispossessed Indigenous lands; Lenape land provided financial safety for a diocese on the cusp of sex abuse settlements.
Ultimately, I name these three figures of the child in Catholic political theology in order to trouble them. The innocent, consumable, and problem child in conservative Catholic politics was undermined in my own life by the unconditional love of my Aunties. Their love persists today. My toddler carries it, from them and through me, within their very self. Today, my toddler refuses to wear anything “uncomfortable” or not soft. They care nothing about looking a particular way, or meeting the gender norms their friends all embody; their focus is on ease of movement and the feeling of softness against their skin. Western parenting models might name this an assertion of independence, but for me, it goes deeper. My Aunties have helped my toddler, as they helped me, establish a sense of worth that practices a self beyond conformity—a self that is loved and cared for in all facets of our needs: intellectual, playful, and practical. How might my child and I leverage the love of our family and ourselves to promote decoloniality that resists anti-Indigeneity with the persistent, sometimes subtle, power of our Inupiat aunties? Perhaps we can start by telling our stories, by listening to the stories of the Indigenous lands we inhabit, and unpacking the stories of the institutions and structures in which we are enmeshed. Here, that has led me to a political theology of the child that values self-worth, being-beyond-conformity, and unconditional love. The question that remains for me is: How do these values inculcate my own praxis of decoloniality that pursues the return of Indigenous lands and the flourishing of Indigenous children, and thus, Indigenous life?