Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity, Children's Rights and Discrimination on grounds of Birth


He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chastiseth him betimes
Proverbs 12:24

In the past the Christian Church condoned all manner of evil done to children. It tried and executed them for witchcraft, and for other offences. It saw nothing wrong in beating them frequently and severely for minor wrongdoing - even for other people's wrongdoing. It terrified them with stories of Hell. It allowed them to contract arranged marriages. It failed to speak out against child labour because it saw nothing at all wrong in the practice. For many centuries The Church opposed the education of poor children, except in the few cases where boys could be drawn into its own service. Girls were denied education altogether. In punishing children for sins they had not committed there seems to have been almost no concept of fairness or rights. Thus, the Church made much of the concept of bastardy:

Bastardy, or illegitimacy, was a condition imposed upon a child by the Canon Law as a punishment for the sin of the parents who conceived it by illicit connection. By a legal fiction, a child born out of wedlock was no one's child, filius nullius.

The idea of punishing children for the acts of their parents could easily be justified on scriptural grounds:

...I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
(Exodus 20:5, see also 24:7).

Also, as theological authorities pointed out, God had punished the children of Sodom by death, for the sins of their fathers , so the punishment of innocent children was easily justified . Good Christians were, as they pointed out, only following God's own precedent.

The stigma of illegitimacy has now virtually disappeared in secular societies, and the civil law has been amended, but Canon law continues to discriminate against the illegitimate. In the Church of England they cannot for example become bishops. Other Churches stick to traditional line that illegitimacy is a bar to ordination. In the past the Church punished other children for the supposed sins of their fathers, and grandchildren for the sins of their grandfathers .

The Church has always been very strong on punishment, and has only very recently adopted a cautious stand on corporal punishment for children. As usual the worst excess could be justified on biblical grounds:

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chastiseth him betimes Proverbs 13:24

The blueness of the wound cleanseth away evil... Proverbs 20:30

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correctionshall drive it far from him. Proverbs 22:15

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. Proverbs 23:13-14

The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. Proverbs 29:15

At the time of writing there is still a steady flow of children who die at the hands of Christian parents and guardians who interpret these passages in the traditional way. Several are reported in national newspapers each year. Under secular pressure corporal punishment of children in schools was made illegal in many countries in the late twentieth century. Church schools - and only church schools - were still mounting legal challenges to this into the third millenium . There arguments were based on the biblical passages cited above, which, as the complainants pointed out, not only permit but require corporal punishment.

Institutional abuse also continued well into the twentieth century, physical, emotional and sexual. The abuse was widespread, and hardly a secret within the Churches, yet no one seems to have though of informing the secular authorities. Children without parents to look after their welfare were particularly vulnerable. The "orphans" who were taken from their parents and sent to British colonies were routinely abused, along with real orphans. To take just one example abuse continued for over 90 years at an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy until it was exposed in 1976. Nuns had used a red hot poker on one child to "exercise the Devil", and forced another to put her leg in boiling water (causing permanent damage) as a punishment for not washing in hot enough water. Another developed a dangerous infection after her toenails were pulled out by a nun using pliers. Injured children were hidden from visitors in an underground cell without bedding, ventilation of light. Sexual abuse by priests and other men was "routine". Professor Bruce Grundy, who investigated the Order's activities referred to the "Madness, ruthless and sadistic madness, on the part of at least some of the nuns, and the depthless depravity on the part of some of the men who inhabited the place" . These activities were far from unusual, and similar behaviour has been exposed in numerous Christian orphanages throughout the world. Not only is the behaviour widespread, but the silence of even non-participating nuns and priests is entirely typical.

The medieval Inquisition was permitted to torture witnesses, but not if they were girls below the age of 12 or boys below the age of 14. This of course did not stop its zealous officers, who believed themselves to be doing God's work, and who needed to answer to no-one when they ignored the rules. In England children over the age of seven were liable to the death penalty, and few if any clergymen seem to have found this at all questionable, at least until the rise of secularism. A thirteen year old was hanged at Maidstone as late as 1831 and a fourteen year old in 1833 . For years to come younger children would be sentenced to death, but were invariably reprieved, until the death penalty for those aged under sixteen was abolished in 1908.

To listen to the Church's current views on the subject of sexual abuse of children, one could easily form the opinion that the Church has always been opposed to sexual activity below the age of 16, or even older. In fact when the Church had control of these matters the age of consent was 7 (though marriage contracts were voidable up to the age of 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy). In practice a marriage between a grown man and a little girl was as good as any other in the eyes of the Church . In England the age of consent was raised to 16 in 1929 , though many other states which have retained Christian custom and practice have opted for the ages of 12 and 14. In the US, the state of Delaware retained 7 as the age of consent well into the second half of the twentieth century.

The Christian record on Children's rights is no better than its record on other matters. The Churches opposed the education of poor boys, and all girls. European Churches were responsible for the trial, torture, conviction, imprisonment and execution of children as young as five or six, often contravening the civil law. In the nineteenth century the Churches opposed the abolition of child labour, and continued to be party to a wide range of abuse, mental, physical and sexual well into the twentieth century. In short, the Church has never supported the rights of children. Mainstream Churches made no more effort to end child labour than they did to end slavery. In England, Anglicans consistently opposed unbelievers like Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill and Robert Owen, who championed the improvement of social conditions for working children. Children's rights are an invention of secular philosophers. Elsewhere, children's champions included almost anyone except the Churches. For example, the first law in Germany to prohibit the employment of children (under the age of nine) in facories, past in 1839 at the behest of the military authorities who were concerned at the poor physical condition of their recruits. Nowhere did any mainstream Churches lead the move to protect children.

As in every area of reform, the Churches have followed secular opinion and very few Churches are now prepared to defend the opinions that they held with absolute certainty in the nineteenth century.