It’s a pity we teach metaphysics to students before they have children. There is nothing like the happy presence of a son or daughter to make us thankful for life, and to God for giving it. While delighting in our children, how easy it is to grasp the all-important distinction between essence and existence, between something thought and something actually there. Parents can remember the time before their children were born, and be glad for the love that brought them into being.
The presence of children puts most everything, but especially ideas, into perspective. Children help strip us of the foolishness with which we serve ideas, turning them into idols, as we act without regard for their lived consequences.
Children remind us that before we go chasing after abstract notions of happiness, rights, justice, or love we should think ahead to how these ideas will be incarnated in future generations.
We are at a crucial juncture in our cultural life: the abstractions of post-war politics are being called into question by the very children they were meant to benefit. Ideas about rights and entitlements, ideas which fueled both the civil rights movement and the “Great Society,” now encourage divisive ethnocentricism and nourish a permanent welfare class.
Explosive resentments are building on every side. Meanwhile, everyone claims they are doing what is best for children.
Many of us once sympathized with the liberal rationale that welfare provides people access to the basic needs of life and encourages their happiness. The reason we can no longer sympathize is simple — welfare has not worked: rather than provide equal access to opportunity, it has spread poverty and unhappiness among its recipients.
The appeal to rights has also lost its force in defending the status quo. To have a “right” once meant that other citizens could not obstruct your exercise of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. In the mid-twentieth century a “right” somehow became the obligation of the government not merely to remove obstructions to exercise but also to guarantee outcomes for its citizenry, whether or not its citizens actively sought those outcomes for themselves.
Those who lament over a “country” that cannot educate its children, or make them happy, are confused. Countries do not raise children — families, friends, and communities do.
Our public policy tragically suffers from the same confusion, and, as a consequence, discourages children from growing up, from taking the initiative and providing for themselves. Any country or parent who proudly keeps children dependent and submissive is more concerned with displaying generosity than in doing the right thing.
It is clear that justifying further social assistance programs like those of the last thirty years cannot be done in the name of children. A nation that really cares about its poor can find a better way, one based upon a more realistic view of human motivation and aspiration. Otherwise, the nation will remain dysfunctionally mired in liberal guilt over the relative affluence acquired by the fortunes of birth, the care of families, or the rewards of personal effort.
There was a time when the happiness we wished for young children was different than the happiness we wished for older children. In their youth we wish them a happiness that includes not only prosperity but also a responsible, morally good life. When children are older, and have been buffeted by life’s disappointments, parents often consider their children happy if they “feel good” about whatever they are doing, about whatever they have done. These lowered expectations, the diminution of the meaning of happiness, seem to have become this nation’s wish for the poor. Surely the Catholic social teaching of a “preferential option” does not mandate treating the poor as if they were hopeless cases destined forever to be wards of the state.
At the core of our cultural confusion, and much of our public policy, is a misunderstanding about the end of human life. In helping people, we try to serve psychological and emotional needs to the neglect of the mind and will, the wellspring of human action. Veritatis splendor reminded us that true happiness requires “that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called.” The continuing political debate over welfare, and its effects on children, will require us to think about what this maturity means for loving our neighbor.