Why children cannot choose their religion
A naive Australian judge has ensured that the children of a mixed-faith marriage will suffer confusion
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Last week, an Australian court granted an injunction to the estranged Roman Catholic husband of a Jewish woman, forbidding her from arranging future bar- and batmitzvah ceremonies for their 10-year-old son and eight-year-old twin daughters.
In seeking the injunction, the father claimed his only wish was for their children to be allowed to decide which of their parents' religions to adopt when they reached an age at which they could make "an informed and voluntary choice".
The judge clearly agreed. Explaining his decision, he declared: "Australia is a multicultural and secular society. These children are fortunate in that they have the opportunity to directly experience the culture and traditions of the religions practised by each of their parents".
It seems these opportunities must not extend to a bar- or batmitzvah. With all the attendant celebrations and gifts, the father presumably feared his children might unfairly be sucked (or suckered?) into Judaism. Either that or else he mistakenly supposed these Jewish rites of passage to be equivalent to Catholic communion and confirmation by marking formal entry into their associated faith - which they decidedly are not in the case of Judaism.
Not only did the judge's decision betray incomprehension about religion, it failed to honour the parents' respective entitlements. Most importantly, it harmed the children.
Clearly, when the couple married, neither foresaw that their marriage would fail. Yet, even with the recklessness that only Cupid's arrow can induce, they ought to have realised that, even should the marriage succeed, any children of theirs could not effectively be brought up in both of their faiths and that they would have to choose which one to pass on to those children. Not to do so would have meant that they were taking neither religion seriously.
It is disingenuous for the father now to claim that all he wants is for his children to decide when they are up to the task. Within the Catholic Church, it is quite normal and customary for children to receive their first communion at seven and undergo confirmation at 12. By then, the Church considers their reason sufficiently mature to enable them make a free and informed decision whether to enter it fully.
Save, perhaps, for Jesus of Nazareth, no one can be simultaneously both an observant, identifying Jew and a Christian. By acceding to the father's request, the judge has merely impeded and muddled the children's religious development. He should have ordered the parents to decide in which religion to bring them up, or, still better, have left the decision to the parent in whose effective care they were - in this case, the mother.
Even at the best of times, mixed marriages are hazardous in terms of the religious formation of any progeny, and invariably a recipe for disaster upon their breakdown. Couples of different faiths contemplating marriage should not think they can safely avoid these difficulties, no matter how right to them it might feel on the night of their honeymoon.
In any event, no matter how children are brought up, they will acquire some view about religion non-autonomously. We don't expect them to decide all their beliefs for themselves. Why should religion be the exception? There is always room for doubt and rejection later. Ask Tevyeh the Milkman.
David Conway is Senior Research Fellow at Civitas