Sarah Smith Bartel, PhD
The Christian family’s identity as the domestic church is a relatively new topic for theological reflection in Catholic circles. Since its reintroduction at Vatican II it has grown in popularity, though its theological meaning requires development. Much of the writing on the domestic church focuses on the married couple. This dissertation seeks to rectify a lack of attention to the child’s role by looking to the life and teaching of the French Carmelite nun, St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). Her “little way of spiritual childhood” helps illuminate the qualities of childhood which witness the gospel. This study presents a historical survey of the origins and development of the theology of the domestic church, from its foundations in scripture to the term’s use in the writings of Patristic, Orthodox, and Protestant authors. The survey emphasizes Catholic writings on the domestic church from the term’s reemergence at Vatican II to its treatment in works from contemporary Catholic theologians and spiritual authors. This study engages this same selection of sources for their views on the child before investigating the life, writings, and sayings of St. Therese of Lisieux. A foundational principle for this study is that the Christian family has the nature of a domestic church because it participates in the ecclesial and sacramental reality of Christ’s nuptial covenantal with the Church, the “great mystery” of Ephesians 5:32. St. Therese’s life and thought help specify the quality of the child’s witness in the midst of this “great mystery.” She discovered the essence of spiritual childhood in an attitude of trusting confidence. She also discovered her own vocation to be love in the heart of the church. Children are love in the heart of the domestic church by embodying and enfleshing the fruitful love of the nuptial covenant of their parents and of the church. They demonstrate the attitude of trust and confidence necessary for all Christians who receive God’s covenantal promises.