“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?”
This question, posed by Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’,” has been rattling around my brain. It seems like every morning I see news stories that belong in a dystopian novel: Up to 1 million species face the threat of extinction; Congress fails to pass protections for infants born alive after a failed abortion procedure; within one week of each other two young men sacrifice their lives to protect their peers from gunmen at school.
The world in which our children are growing up is one in which common sense and common ground have been sacrificed for all-or-nothing ideological commitments that lack a consistent application of principles.
The responses to these challenges are hardly child-friendly.
When it comes to offsetting or reversing the devastating effects of climate change, some propose population control as the only viable solution. The logic is that fewer children will mean a lighter burden on the earth’s resources.
But Pope Francis has been quick to point out the problem with this reasoning: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way that can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”
A better way forward is to consume less and differently, in such a way that more people have what they need and without overburdening or altering the landscapes other species inhabit. And this can all be done while respecting the natural ecology of human reproduction, which the Church has borne witness to from its beginning.
It’s a tough sell to say that declining to provide life-saving or palliative care to newborns who survive an abortion is the best available option for them. Anyone who comes into the emergency room with a life-threatening injury has to be treated. How can an infant be denied the same care in the same hospital?
What does it say about us that we apply an arbitrary litmus test to unplanned or severely disabled children about their wantedness, one which determines whether they live or die? Every human being aches to be wanted. Every person who is infirm or disabled requires assistance. Every dying person deserves a good death, one marked by communal love, not sterile isolation.
Pope Francis said, “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities — to offer just a few examples — it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.”
Just a few weeks after we marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, Riley Howell and Kendrick Costillo — both still on the verge of adulthood — tackled gunmen in their schools to protect their peers. Adolescents should not have to make such grave and final decisions about laying down their lives, nor should their schools be places of carnage.
The predictable, all-or-nothing debates on firearm restrictions and mental health services ensued. But I wonder, will we have the courage to look even deeper into the ecologies of our homes to assess how today’s families are faring? Why young men and women are experiencing isolation, anger, anxiety and depression at unprecedented rates? How parents are doing at a time of economic bifurcation and political polarization?
At 17 weeks pregnant, I am now pre-occupied with the question of what kind of world my child will inherit, whether the next generation will know the line between dominion and domination.
Children instinctively see the world’s beauty; they wonder at it. They recognize the good in each another and in us. They are comfortable with their dependence and vulnerability. Children show us how the world ought to be.
It was one Child who saved us; maybe others — if we protect them — can help us, too.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College and a columnist for Catholic News Service.