As the economy in Europe worsens, babies are being abandoned at an increasing rate, so much so that charitable institutions have reintroduced a very old device, “the baby hatch.” Desperate mothers and fathers place their infants in the hatch at an agency, orphanage or church, an electric sensor goes off, and caregivers come to the rescue.
Something much like this was used in the Middle Ages, and for a significant time after — a secret door at a monastery, convent, hospital or church, where children whose parents could not care for them would be left (anonymously) and be cared for.
Child abandonment is nothing new. A little history lesson will go a long way in understanding today’s situation and the Church’s place in it.
In ancient pagan Rome, babies were abandoned out of desperation to be sure, but many, many more were abandoned because the Romans fully and happily approved of infanticide. If a baby was deformed or unwanted, he or she would be abandoned with no moral regrets whatsoever. Roman law even demanded that deformed infants must be killed, and exposure was the means to do it.
Abandonment through exposure was, then, very common and had nothing or little to do with hard economic times. The children who didn’t die were picked up by slavers and pimps.
When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, that began to change. Constantine introduced harsh penalties for child exposure, but also unprecedented remedies for the innocent children; the Christian imperium would “bestow freely the necessary support on all persons whom they observe to be placed in dire need.”
In the very Christian sixth-century Justinian Code, the Christian imperium declared:
“Those who expose children, possibly hoping they would die, and those who use the potions of the abortionist are subject to the full penalty of the law — both civil and ecclesiastical — for murder. Should exposure occur, the finder of the child is to see to it that he is baptized and that he is treated with Christian care and compassion. They may be then adopted … even as we have been adopted into the Kingdom of grace.”
Christianity changed everything, especially how to deal with desperate people and their babies. In evangelizing Europe, the Church changed its culture from a pagan affirmation of abandonment by exposure to Christian compassion, where the baby was abandoned into the arms of the Church.
Lesson No. 1: Christianity is the reason why both Christian and non-Christian charitable organizations in Europe are providing baby hatches. If it weren’t for Christianity, Europe would still be practicing pagan infanticide. But there is little doubt that, if Europe sinks more deeply into secularism, its current affirmation of abortion will bring it to embrace ever more cheerfully the ancient “right” of Roman pagans to infanticide. There won’t need to be any more baby hatches, or the hatches will be opened on the other side by those running something even more horrible than abortion businesses.
Lesson No. 2: The collapse of the European economy provides an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to display the greatest charity, the greatest self-sacrifice, the greatest love for those falling through the secular safety net — not just the babies, but the parents as well.
Pagan Europe embraced Christianity, in large part, because of the extraordinary love shown by Christians to the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, the persecuted — all those who found themselves desperate and in need of a miracle. The pagans could not match it, as the pagan emperor-revert Julian the Apostate grudgingly conceded.
Although he wanted to wipe Christianity off the face of the earth, he was forced to admit, “Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of the Christians as their charity to strangers. … The impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.”
Julian’s attempt to turn the Roman Empire failed, and, as a consequence, Europe was Christianized. Christians won by the grace of God, but that was in no small part the grace of God, as witnessed in their extraordinary witness of charity: taking care of the desperate and abandoned, those who’d fallen down into, or never climbed up from, the very bottom of society.
The Church has that same opportunity today.
Europe, once strong, once Christian, is now both feeble and secularized. Its weakness and collapse are, in fact, due in great part to its secularization. Europeans abandoned their Christian heritage and embraced the secular state as their church, as a substitute for the Kingdom of God, as the provider of all things, the wiper of all tears, the solver of all problems and the hope for a new Eden on earth. The European welfare states are collapsing, in part, under the weight of their trying to take the place of God.
Whatever the complex causes of this collapse, the effect is real. Very real. Real people are really suffering. Real fathers and mothers are really desperate. Real babies are being abandoned. And here’s the really bad news: It’s only going to get worse.
And that’s why the Church has to be there.
Not the Church demanding that the European Union do something to take care of all the people falling through all the gashes in the social net.
Not the Church demanding that governments with impossibly huge deficits not cut their unsustainable and bloated social-welfare programs.
Not the Church lobbying the state.
But the Church, there on the front lines, spending its own money, using its own resources, using its own people, sacrificing itself.
That’s the Church that won Europe to begin with. That’s the Church that astounded the ancient pagans and can astound the modern secularists. That’s the Church that can win Europe back to the faith again.
Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., has published nine books, with another coming out this fall with Scott Hahn, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700. He is currently working on a book on the Church and the secular state. His website is BenjaminWiker.com.