I read Mariella Frostrup’s column in the Observer on Sundays wherein she offers advice on various problems. This week’s problem is as follows:
“The dilemma: A friend of mine, going through a tough divorce from a man she’s been with for almost 20 years, wants me to be godmother to her son, who is four. She wants to have both her children (her daughter is almost six) baptised as Roman Catholics so they can secure places in the best local schools, which happen to be RC. She is an atheist and the kids’ father was baptised Catholic, but hasn’t practised for years. He sees the kids only every six weeks or so, as he lives abroad with the woman he left my friend for and has a demanding job. I am a Catholic and although I don’t practise as much as I should, it is something I believe in and, having been blessed with a great godmother, I take the role seriously. My friend says there are no other decent schools in the area and I’d hate to ruin the children’s chances, as I am very fond of them, but I don’t feel it’s right to promise to be godmother when I am pretty sure they are only being baptised to manipulate the system. I am worried about how to tell her this, so any advice would be much appreciated.”
Now, normally, I tend to more or less agree with Mariella’s advice. This problem strikes me as a genuine one and, if I were the person asked to be godmother, I would find it a little difficult to know what to do. So with one thing and another, I was interested to see what Mariella’s opinion might be. I was surprised by her tone and her vehemence. Now, tell me, am I allowing my “faith to justify a nasty streak of judgemental arrogance” or is Mariella being unfair to the catholics? Her answer is below, I would be very interested to know what you think – particularly the atheists.
“Where have you claimed this extraordinarily elevated strip of moral high ground from? Am I missing something? Your friend has paid you a great compliment, is offering her children to the church despite her own misgivings, and you are thinking of turning her down? I’m struggling to understand your motivation. To tell you the truth, I’m struggling to understand why she has chosen you as a godparent. Are you the only Catholic she has ever met, aside from her estranged husband?
I may not be the best judge of Christian values, having a few reservations about the side effects of organised religion. Your condition – a disproportionate sense of your own moral superiority – is one of the most prevalent. Your letter confirms one of my worst fears: that some people allow their faith to justify a nasty streak of judgmental arrogance. Whether it’s Bin Laden on western civilisation or you on your friend’s religious conviction, neither is particularly palatable. It’s hard to comprehend how this family lacks the qualifications to join the congregation. You are in no position to comment on the children’s father’s commitment to Catholicism when you admit to failings of your own. Need I remind you of the oft-quoted, seldom-embraced ‘Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone’? You’re busy hurling boulders at your pals while failing to live up to your own duties. Can you really be sure your good intentions justify your conviction that you are the superior believer? If every non-practising Catholic were struck off the register, you’d instantly halve the Vatican’s cache of souls. Isn’t your God the one who welcomes into his arms all sinners? Perhaps because he’s doing it you think you don’t need to.
As a Catholic you are no doubt aware that those poor little innocents aren’t welcome in the Kingdom unless baptised. This means that even in the worst-case scenario, where their morally promiscuous mother is merely paying lip service to Catholic teachings in order to get her kids an education, you still emerge a winner. You will have managed not only to play a part in their eventual reunion with their heavenly father, but increased the flock by two souls. Your attitude makes me wonder about your credentials to be a godparent. Your job is to ensure this four-year-old is instructed in the faith, not to question his mother’s motivation. Your moral outrage over the fact that she harbours ulterior motives deserves some scrutiny.
Bribery has always gone hand in hand with conversion and education is one of the biggest carrots on offer, whether it’s in the UK’s inner cities or an African village. If your friend is only going through with her children’s baptisms to cynically secure school places, she certainly won’t be the first or the last. She’s not unique in being enticed by gifts on earth to consider the bigger picture of securing a place in heaven. If all Christianity had ever offered was the promise of a semi in a pearly gated community in the afterlife, its converts would be sorely depleted.
Thankfully, people turn to religion for many reasons besides the arrogant presumption that being a Christian is better than being anything else. You should be delighted to have been asked, eager to embrace the opportunity to introduce your godson to the church you subscribe to, and determined to do all you can to help your friend through these difficult times. Were you capable of all or any of these, then perhaps your smug sense of moral superiority might have a little more justification.”