Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Children in Crisis

A report card on the well-being of children, released in February by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Center, sparked off a round of soul-searching, as reported by Fr. John Flynn in a Zenit article. The "Innocenti Report Card 7" is the latest in a series of reports from the United Nations Children's Fund designed to monitor and compare the performance of developed countries in securing the rights of their children.

A UNICEF press release explained that small northern European countries dominated the top rankings. Nevertheless, there wasn't a consistent relationship between the wealth of a country and the child's well-being. Then US and Britain placed low in the rankings.

Christopher Caldwell, writing in Financial Times, observed that the report's section on poverty was misleading. According to the tables, countries such as the United States and Britain suffer more from child poverty than nations such as Greece. In fact, what the report measured was inequality, and not poverty, with results favoring countries with more generous welfare systems and lower levels of immigration. Other commentaries soon argued that if British children are badly off, one of the main causes is the disintegration of family life, something not remedied by more government spending. Both Britain and the United States have in common a higher level of family breakdown than the other countries surveyed, according to Philip Johnston in London's Telegraph newspaper. Johnston observed that the study found substantial evidence that children in single-parent and stepfamilies tend to be worse off than those living with both biological parents. In an accompanying article, Lesley Garner opined that improving child welfare in Britain doesn't mean spending more money, but rather putting children first. This means that parents should spend more time with their kids and build stronger family relationships.

Other measures, ranging from more family meals together, teaching good manners and encouraging more sporting activities are also needed, argued Garner. One critic mentioned one weak link:"policies that encouraged more parents of young children to enter the workplace and put the demands of their careers before the needs of their children." Minette Marrin, writing in the Sunday Times, London, recommended a cultural change, and called for "moral disapprobation" toward single parents and men who abandon their children. Instead of being afraid of being "judgmental," she said, society should disapprove such actions, due to the social problems they cause. The recommendation could also be applied to the USA.

The need to defend the family is also a hot topic in Italy. Earlier this year, the government unveiled a bill that would give legal recognition, and a series of benefits, to cohabiting couples, including those of the same sex. The move sparked off a fierce debate with many Catholic bishops and organizations arguing that the proposed law will undermine family life. Carlo Casini, director of the Italian pro-life group Movimento per la Vita, wrote a book on issues related to family life just prior to the presentation of the current proposal. Casini observes in his book how many people seek legal recognition of same-sex relationships on the grounds of a need to avoid unjust discrimination against homosexuals. Others argue that a man and a woman living in a de facto relationship, and who love each other, are no different from a married couple. Casini comments that answering this challenge to the traditional status of marriage and the family means reflecting on the nature of these institutions. When the Catholic Church, Christians, or political groups defend marriage between a man and a woman, and the resulting family they form, it is not discrimination, or the imposition of religious principles on a modern secular society, according to the pro-life leader. Casini points out that the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends the family: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state" (Article 16). In addition, the constitutions of a number of European states specifically mention the family as playing a vital role in society. Protecting marriage and the family falls within the role of the state in promoting the general public good of society, Casini also maintains. If family life fails, then in turn this has a detrimental effect on society and the state.

The Pope has also spoken out repeatedly to defend marriage and the family. Marriage has a truth of its own, based on the "the sexually different reality of the man and of the woman with their profound needs for complementarity, definitive self-giving and exclusivity." "We are well aware that the family founded on marriage is the natural environment in which to bear and raise children and thereby guarantee the future of all of humanity," stated Benedict XVI in an Angelus message. The Pontiff noted that the institution of marriage is in crisis, and that it faces many challenges. "It is consequently necessary to defend, help, safeguard and value it in its unrepeatable uniqueness."

On Feb. 12, addressing the participants in the International Congress on Natural Law sponsored by the Pontifical Lateran University, the Pope spoke even more clearly about the need to reject legislative moves that weaken marriage and the family. If a human law goes against what is written in our hearts and nature regarding marriage, Benedict XVI stated, then this will "dramatically wound" what should be the very foundation of society. Unfortunately, he noted, the legal status of the family is under attack from many pressure groups.

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