Childhood as Absence

In “Material Children: Making God’s Presence Real for Catholic Boys and Girls and for the Adults in Relation to Them,”[1] Robert Orsi describes how religious meaning is created for both adults and children through their mutual interactions: “Children signal the vulnerability and contingency of a particular religious world and of religion itself, and in exchanges between adults and children about sacred matters the world is in play” (Orsi, 77). The religious instrumentality of human interaction is an important pillar within Orsi’s theory of religion. Whether it involves children or people with disabilities, the element of difference or “absence” fuels the discourse that generates interior religious identity for all, including those in relation to whom those absences can be said to exist. In a way analogous to the spiritualizing mechanism of the “discourse of the holy cripple” (Orsi, 44), children become sacred sites in Catholic culture by virtue of their “missing qualities” (Orsi, 78) in relation to adults: “Young people and persons with disabilities are assessed against and imagined in relation to normative models of what they are not – adults in the case of children, persons without disabilities in the case of those with them – so that they wind up being defined by absence or by what they lack” (Orsi, 78).

And in much the same way that the “discourse of the holy cripple” produces knowledge within Catholic culture concerning the spiritual status of people with disabilities, that is to say a knowledge that is defined by the power relations existing between people with disabilities and those without them, Catholic adults exercise power through the use of angels to instil among their children a certain knowledge of themselves that becomes ingrained in a form of a moral self-reflexivity: “Children were warned that although they might forget ‘how near your angel is,’ their angels were always attentive to their behaviours and their thoughts – children were meant to know that angels knew what they were thinking and feeling and to understand that the angels knew they knew” (Orsi, 106).

A parallel can be drawn between the effect of angels on Catholic children and that of the panopticon prison design on prisoners, as described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. In the panopticon prison design, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen, thus forcing the prisoners to assume that they are being watched at all times. As a result of this “constant” supervision, the prisoners’ knowledge about themselves and their self-perception changes – in their minds they effectively become the undesirable delinquents of society who have to be watched at all times in order to ensure that they do not revert back to reprehensible behaviour of the kind which got them into prison in the first place. In much the same way that the panopticon allows instances of power and authority to produce knowledge among communities of prisoners through constant oversight, the angels of American Catholicism, through their constant attentiveness to childrens’ behaviours, effectively instil within Catholic culture a certain knowledge among children: “angel lore cast children as fundamentally in need of constant supervision, moral scrutiny, and accompaniment, a need endorsed by the fear of (or the threat of) harm and death. When children moved over to make room for their angels on the seat next to them in church or in school, they were moving themselves ever more securely into the moral and cosmic world that adults were making for and with them in the media of Catholic devotionalism” (Orsi, 106).

Note on methodology: while Robert Orsi’s theories regarding American Catholicism are certainly interesting and creative, his methods can at times seem questionable. In “Two Aspects of One Life,” Orsi provides us with specific details regarding the life of his own grandmother, much of which seems trivial, or at least not directly relevant to the production of theories of religion. For instance, Orsi describes in detail his grandmother’s living accommodations in the Bronx, where “old and demented widows still  shop for themselves in the bodegas and Korean markets that replaced the Jewish delicatessens and Italian groceries in the neighbourhood and forever burn pots they forget on their stoves” (Orsi, 121). It is unclear what any of this has to do with the academic study of religion. Furthermore, Orsi goes to great pains to describe the true nature of the religious bond existing between his grandmother and Saint Gemma Galgani, but admits that in fact his grandmother revealed very little about that relationship to him: “My grandmother and I never talked about her devotion to Saint Gemma Galgani and so there are limits to what I can say about the inner meaning of this bond” (Orsi, 138). This statement would appear to undermine much of the findings he puts forth in this chapter regarding precisely the inner meaning of that bond.  


[1] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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