Well, not quite the devil, and not only in this footnote. I mean a footnote to the New American Bible, the translation endorsed by the American Catholic bishops and the only one offered on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  (It is also the English Bible offered on the Vatican website.)

These footnotes often infuriate me.  But they are footnotes, after all, and rather insignificant footnotes at that, so I would not bother to post on them, except that the case I am considering implies several important lessons, about which more below.

The verse is Matthew 18:3, but I’ll give the context:


At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”


He called a child over, placed it in their midst,


and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

And the footnote on verse 3 reads:

Become like children: the child is held up as a model for the disciples not because of any supposed innocence of children but because of their complete dependence on, and trust in, their parents. So must the disciples be, in respect to God.

Now, what is annoying about this?  First, it is unqualified (no “perhaps” or “it seems”). How exactly is the scripture scholar who wrote this so confident of this meaning?  Isn’t that degree of dogmatic certainty incompatible with the attitude of a scholar?  How can scholarship establish this claim so definitively?  To me, it’s a mystery.

Second, the contrast it draws, and its rejection of an alternative view, are entirely unnecessary: Wouldn’t it have been easy enough for the writer to observe that Jesus’ remark is not merely about innocence but also about dependence?  (One must certainly find the word “supposed” objectionable, for many reasons.  Is it really so difficult to say that a child is innocent?)

Third, the underlying supposition of the remark is misguided, that is, that Jesus just meant one thing, so that if he meant X, he could not have meant Y.  Doesn’t the language of the Eternal Logos have a different significance from mine or yours?  We are aware of several centuries of writing by the highest spiritual authors on what is known as “the practice of spiritual childhood.”  On what basis do we wish to claim that the Eternal Logos might not have meant all of this teaching, and more, in this one remark?

Fourth, simply as a comment on children, the footnote writer’s observation looks misguided.  I have some experience of raising children, and I would not have placed “complete dependence” on the top of my list of a child’s salient traits: a newborn baby, perhaps, but not a child.  In fact, from the very earliest time almost the whole goal of a parent is to teach his child to be independent!  No, if I were asked to draw up my own list, I might have said something like, “youthfulness, earnestness, wonder, delight in simple things, absence of ambition, simplicity, sincerity, humility” –and indeed innocence (not “supposed innocence”)–as the chief notes of a child.  And surely Jesus looked for these notes in his disciples also, not simply their “complete dependence.”

Fifth, and most obnoxiously, the footnote contradicts the tradition of the Church.  You can begin to discover that tradition in matters involving Scripture by consulting the Catena Aurea, the “Golden Chain” of  commentary on the Gospels compiled from the Fathers by St. Thomas.  Here is what that work says about that verse:

Jerome: Jesus seeing their thoughts would heal their ambitious strivings, by arousing an emulation in lowliness; whence it follows, “And Jesus calling a little child, set him in the midst of them.” Chrys.: He chose, I suppose, quite an infant, devoid of any of the passions. Jerome: One whose tender age should express to them the innocence which they should have. But truly He set Himself in the midst of them, a little one who had come “not to be ministered unto, but to minister,” [Matt 20:28] that He might be a pattern of holiness.Others interpret [margin note: see Origen in loc.] the little one of the Holy Spirit whom He set in the hearts of His disciples, to change their pride into humility. “And he said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” He does not enjoin on the Apostles the age, but the innocence of infants, which they have by virtue of their years, but to which these might attain by striving; that they should be children in malice, not in understanding. As though He had said, As this child, whom I set before you as a pattern, is not obstinate in anger, when injured does not bear it in mind, has no emotion at the sight of a fair woman, does not think one thing while he speaks [p. 623] another; so ye, unless ye have the like innocence and purity of mind, shall not be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven.Hilary: He calls infants all who believe through the hearing of faith; for such follow their father, love their mother, know not to will that which is evil, do not bear hate, or speak lies, trust what is told them, and believe what they hear to be true. But the letter is thus interpreted.Gloss. interlin.: “Except ye be converted” from this ambition and jealousy in which you are at present, and become all of you as innocent and humble in disposition as you are weak in your years, “ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven;” and since there is none other road to enter in, “whoso shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven;” for by how much a man is humble now, by so much shall he be exalted in the kingdom of heaven. Remig.: In the understanding of grace, or in ecclesiastical dignity, or at least in everlasting blessedness.Jerome: Or otherwise; “Whoso shall humble himself as this little child,” that is, whoso shall humble himself after My example, “he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

So you see that the footnote directly contradicts the tradition of the Church which has been passed down by holy doctors and saints.

But what are the lessons which I said could be drawn from this?  Unfortunately this misguided footnote stands for so much that has been wrong in the practice of the faith by American Catholics these last several decades.  I do not mean merely the age-old temptation, of someone who has a narrow technical skill, to speak as if an authority on broad and important matters.  (Socrates in the Apology noted that same deficiency among the Athenians, almost 2500 years ago.  Scripture science wrongly pursued has obviously hurt the Church in this way.) I mean rather that when someone has an office or position of trust to fulfill vis-a-vis the Church, we frequently see that he interjects his own somewhat idiosyncratic opinions and preferences, rather than being faithful to the tradition and community, which gives his office any sense at all.  (Surely the private opinion of the Scripture scholar who wrote the footnote has no claim, on its own, to be “the” opinion which explains this verse for all Catholics.) We see also in the footnote the work of someone whose tendency is to severe the relationship among ages of the Church rather than to bind together and unify.

But frankly the footnote lamentably also shows something of an institutional lack of self-respect, that we Catholics would publish a Bible with such faulty and misrepresentative footnotes attached — and that even though thoughtful people are well aware of the deficiencies of the notes, they stay there, and they stay uncorrected, year after year after year.  (In private contexts I refer to this lack of institutional self-respect as “we Catholics are the schmucks.”)