I read Mariella Frostrup’s column in the Observer on Sundays wherein she offers advice on various problems.Â 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.Â 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.Â So with one thing and another, I was interested to see what Mariella’s opinion might be.Â I was surprised by her tone and her vehemence.Â Now, tell me, am I allowing my “faith to justify a nasty streak of judgemental arrogance” or is Mariella being unfair to the catholics?Â 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.”
Katherine Mauricio says
Both are very judgemental. The “friend” feels guilty about becoming the boy’s godmother due to her beliefs. Mariella is not right either. We are indeed missing the most important point: The only way this boy can actually get a better education is by being baptized in this case. Then why not do it for his sake.
Children should be put first.
I know that if I was asked to be a Godparent by a friend I would be flattered, but would have to decline the offer politely. No matter what their religious flavour.
I’m the Son of a C of E Vicar. I was Baptised as a babe, when I had no choice. Later I was sent to confirmation class as a youth. When I also had no choice. I also spent a good few years sitting at the back of a church on a Sunday afternoon, waiting, whilst my Dad baptised I don’t know how many babies. After all these years I can’t remember the actual words that the God Parents had to say, but I can still hear some of the words my dad said when he splashed the water on the babies head:
“I sign you with the sign of the cross, to show that you accept the faith of Christ crucified….”
I do remember that the Godparents stood up and promised to introduce the child into the church. This is something I couldn’t do in good conscience. I could also never get married in Church as the the first words of the service are:
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God…”
This is because I’m Atheist/Agnostic, depending on what sort of day I’ve had.
Even though I’m Atheist/Agnostic. I probably take religion of all sorts more seriously, than many a believer or adherent. In this situation there is no way in the world I’d stand as Godparent and I can understand why the “friend” is uneasy about being a Godparent.
Some people may say:
“You don’t believe/don’t know. What harm is there in accepting the position, turning up and just saying the words”
Even though I’m an unbeliever/Don’t know I still have a personal moral stance. I ain’t going to lie for you. If you’re my friend I’d also prefer that you didn’t send your children to a faith school. If your kid’s bright & you bring them up right, they’ll probably get along just fine in any school. They’re probably better off not being indoctrinated in a faith school and being allowed to grow up & then making their own mind.
My Brother and his wife were put in a similar situation. Their nominally Catholic friend asked them to be Godparents to their twins. They were flattered, but didn’t know how to say “No, we’re not believers & we’d be lying if we said we’d introduce your children to ‘The Church”.
Luckily there was a thinking priest involved, who asked why their friend wanted her twins baptised. Her answer was:
“I’m not sure, it’s just something you do isn’t it?”
He suggested that she go away & think about things. This got Bro’ & SIL out of a sticky situation as they promised to be ‘Odd’ Parents
Same sort of party with cake, to welcome the little buggers into the world, but no church ceremony where they had to lie.
In the above example I dunno why Mariella went off on one in the way she did. Maybe she’s got ‘issues’ with the Catholic Church. I know I do.
The Jesuits *spits* have a saying:
“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”.
This is probably very true. I’d much prefer that children were taught to think, learn & decide for themselves and not be indoctrinated with a faith until they can decide for themselves. I was lucky. I eventually got to make my own mind up.
I’m afraid I agree with Mariella, though I don’t like her tone. I think she could have phrased her comments better.
I’m not an expert on the Catholic Church, but here’s my position on godparents: in this day and age where families are strewn across the globe and many children don’t grow up with loving aunts and uncles down the road, godparents can play the role of being a “special” grown-up to their godchildren. If they are religious, they can share their beliefs, if not, they can share other wisdom they have acquired over the years. My kids have wonderful godparents who look out for them, take an interest in them and make them feel a little bit special – some of those godparents are Catholic, some are Mormon, some are agnostic, some have New Age beliefs, some are Anglican and some are atheists. I think my children are learning that the world is made up of many different kinds of people with different beliefs and that no one religion has the key to the Kingdom.
I agree with Katherine in that all are wrong in this instance. Mariella is being pithy, the godmother is being judgemental, and the mother of the children is sacrificing her chidren to be indoctrinated into a faith, not because she is unsure about catholicism, but because because ofsted determine the catholic school to be ‘better.’
I am in a position where the ‘best’ schools in the area are a catholic school and a c of e school. I couldn’t in all conscience send my children to either, despite the fact that I went to a faith school.
I respect a person right to believe and practice, I am dubious about schools that teach one faith above another, and I feel saddened for anyone who feels that their atheism is of less importance than a recognised religion.
I sympathise with the godmother. In the ceremony, as far as I remember, she actually has to promise to ensure that the child is brought up in the Catholic faith if the parents don’t do it. I’m sure she wouldn’t be thanked if she arrived regularly to bring the child off to Mass etc. or even started to talk to him about religion. So she would be solemnly promising something which she knew to be a lie. I don’t think it’s fair to ask her to do that.
Daddy's Little Demon says
Mariella’s point (once you sift through the abuse) is valid enough, but this makes her seem bonkers.
from a strategic point of view the Mother deserves a gold star.
I do sort of agree with Mariella’s point that she should welcome the opportunity to help the children to follow a faith even though the mother doesn’t subscribe to it. She doesn’t need to be so harsh though – she is being unfair. I can understand the godmother’s scruples – probably at least partly to her being lapsed herself…
Did you type the whole passage out for our benefit? Thanks!
I’ve just realised that I was quite happy to ask my sister who is an aetheist to be my daughter’s god-daughter and she was very happy to accept on the basis that she could use her enhanced position to influence the child’s fashion sense (a much needed duty given her mother’s weaknesses in this area). Maybe she didnt mind lying as she’s an aetheist? (Don’t howl all you atheists out there). Anyway we covered the bases by getting a Catholic priest friend to be godfather – we had to as the other candidate for godfather is also an atheist, but of the principled variety who won’t even attend the ceremony but is delighted to come to the party afterwÃ rds!
Whatever way you look at the dilemma and the advice, Mariella was vicious in her delivery and must definitely have “issues” with one or more Churches
Thank you for all the comments which I note are all, regardless of views, far, far more more temperately phrased than Mariella’s. We’re just all wonderful people. Am particularly intrigued to see that Cha0tic’s father is a vicar. Who knew?
Hmmm. I don’t know what my answer to this one would be. Given that neither of my children are baptised and that I don’t see baptism as a requisite to getting into heaven, I wouldn’t see that as a particular reason to becoming godparents – simply in order that someone else’s children got baptised and therefore into heaven. On the other hand if I was asked to be godparents to friends’ children – friends who had no faith – then I think I’d see it as something I would be flattered to be asked to do – and I guess I would see it as an opportunity to at least introduce them to the basics of the Christian faith and bible stories etc. The friends I have with no faith at all have chosen not to have their children baptised. Although our children are not baptised they were dedicated (they will get baptised if and when they decide to do so) and they do have godparents – and we particularly picked those who we thought would take the job seriously rathe than just friends…. I’m just waffling aren’t I? I guess I’m saying although initially I sympathised with the questioner I think I agree more with Mariella, although her way of saying it could be significantly improved….
Good grief. I think Mariella is the one being judgemental!
I think I’m with geepeemum on the being a godparent in order to introduce children to church. I don’t think being baptised means you will be saved (or not means not) but I do think that it’s how you join the church, whatever age you are. And I would probably accept, and then bombard the poor child with religion. It would only really be practical if you lived nearby, though.
Note to self: find religious birthday present for soon-to-be-two niece/goddaughter.
I think I’d have more qualms about writing a letter of recommendation for a secondary school for a family who blatantly go to church in order to get into that school. Our poor vicar has to do it all the time.
PS I had a thought that, unless the father is actively present at the baptism, the priest might not agree anyway, with no baptised parent present…
Flabbergasted at all of this says
I think that the Mother has made her decision, and asked her friend to participate. Being a Godparent is a special request..for in the Catholic Church..as the Godparent, you promise to make sure the childs learns the religion. This puts the onus on the Godparent, should the parent not follow through. The Mother, I read somewhere in here is willing to offer her children to the church..in order for them to get a decent education. It is not the Church who is receiving the children per se..it is the induction of the Holy Spirit into their lives..so in other words..it is introducing the child to God. I think it is honorable should both parties participate.
As for being baptized when you were born, or very young, I imagine your parents did what they thought was right at the time. It is not a life sentence, as we all mature and go our own way. It doesn’t mean your are bound to one religion for life.
There is no need to get nasty, or judgemental about any of this..and it is really not a matter of conscience. It there are guilty feelings..then just ask yourself..what would Jesus do? He wouldn’t turn anyone away. Come one, come all.