Terry Mattingly, On Religion
---- — It was a blunt, honest, raw question and Deacon Greg Kandra knew it would stir deep emotions and fierce arguments among Catholic readers.
The question's originator, a Catholic mother of six, stressed that she sincerely wanted to know: "Why don't parents take screaming babies out of church?"
Nearly 200 online comments later -- with Kandra moderating comments to keep the dialogue constructive -- legions of Catholic writers are still airing their "screaming babies" differences at his "The Deacon's Bench" website and elsewhere online.
The author of the original letter added: "When I politely ask the parent of a screaming child why they refuse to leave Mass so they don't disrupt it for everyone else, they get angry at me! ... There were four screamers at the morning Mass -- every Saturday the same families show up with screaming babies AND STAY in the chapel with them! People have expressed their desire that they leave the kids at home, but they don't."
Reactions on the other side were just as harsh, with Catholics expressing anger at those who glare at parents who bring noisy toddlers to church, allowing their children to act up Sunday after Sunday.
"Jesus embraced children, folks, and so does our church," read one typical response. "If you don't want to hear them cry, the solution is not to remove the holy little ones from the church. The solution is for you to go to the 7 a.m. quickie Mass or the solemn high Mass that takes three hours. Find a Mass kids aren't going to and shut yourself up in that one."
Catholics on one side accuse the others of being too judgmental. Then Catholics on the other side -- often from earlier generations -- argue that today's parents are not sensitive to the needs or others or strict enough when disciplining their children.
Believers on both sides insist that they are defending the holiness of the Mass itself, as well as its role in the lives of their children.
Part of the problem, noted Kandra, is that Catholics on both sides have grown up in an era in which it is far too easy to "become lazy and spoiled," often jumping from parish to parish seeking the right "fit" for their personal tastes and prejudices. What if their current parish's Mass schedule doesn't fit a child's soccer schedule?
"Why should we be surprised," noted Kandra by email, when "they can't abide something as normal -- and as intrusive -- as a baby's crying? ... It's vexing, and more than a little ironic, that a church that climbs on soapboxes and carries banners and prays endless rosaries in defense of life can be so intolerant of life when it's in the pew behind you, bawling.
"I still like what one priest said: A church without crying babies is dead. Let the babies come and cry. That's a sign of life."
Still, it's crucial to note that almost everyone agrees that priests need to ask the faithful to maintain some sense of decorum and discipline during services, noted Erin Manning, who posted during the original "screaming babies" debate, as well as on her own "And Sometimes Tea" website. It isn't safe, for example, to let little children wander around the sanctuary during services.
But in the end, one person's "screaming baby" is another person's child who is merely crying for a few minutes before slipping into a nap. There are also parents who hesitate to rush misbehaving children to the parish "cry room," where other kids may literally be playing with stacks of toys and ignoring the service altogether, Manning said via email.
Most of all, it's crucial for experienced parents to pass along what they know to parents in the next generation -- many of whom were raised in smaller families and, thus, never learned how to care for younger siblings.
"It's easy to forget that many of today's young parents are not only relying on daycare, etc., but grew up in it themselves," said Manning. In churches today "we have second- and even some third-generation parents who honestly don't know what sort of discipline is possible with young children or how to instill it. As the second oldest of nine children I knew ... that discipline was possible and required only patience, consistence and the willingness to keep trying even on days when nothing seemed to be going right."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS.