By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY — How much have things changed since the U.S. bishops issued their pastoral, “Putting Children and Families First.”
Not so well, said Dino Durando, director of the Office of Family Life in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Some areas that the bishops highlighted in their 1991 document have gotten better, though they are far from “good.” Others have not changed at all. And other areas have gotten even worse since the bishops issued their call for public policies that put the welfare of children and families squarely at the center.
And then there are other challenges, particularly technology, that weren’t even around 23 years ago.
Durando, the father of nine, held up his smartphone to his audience at an Oct. 4 workshop during the Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly.
“We should be raising children to be in communion not only with God, but with each other,” he said. “When I go home, and I am checking my e-mails, I am not at home. I am still at the office. Communion is not being formed.”
• The U.S. bishops noted that in 1991, there were 1.6 million abortions. That had dropped to 1.1 million abortions in 2013 while the U.S. population has increased, but still far too many abortions.
• In 1991, 25 percent of teens were dropping out of high school. Today, that number has been reduced to 10 percent, while average SAT college entrance exam scores have risen.
• In 1991, more than 8 million children lived in families without even basic health insurance. Today, with the increase in population, the number is down to 7.2 million.
But on the worse side of the ledger:
• Twenty percent of U.S. children lived in families with incomes below the poverty line in 1991. Today, the number is 22 percent.
• Some 11.5 million children were hungry or underfed in 1991. Today, the number has soared to 15.9 million.
• There were 2.5 million cases of physical, sexual or emotional abuse of children in 1991. In 2013, there were more than 6 million cases reported.
And on the “haven’t changed” side:
• The U.S. infant mortality rate is still the highest among 20 industrialized nations. In 1991, 76 babies died every day before they reached their first birthday.
• The leading cause of death among adolescent males of all races and ethnicities is still gunshot wounds.
• The U.S. still has the highest divorce rate, the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest child poverty rate, and the highest abortion rate in the industrialized world.
This is symptomatic of a society that is seeking fulfillment in relationships other than with God and with each other, Durando said.
“That is the spiritual reality of our culture,” he said. “If we are not satisfied with God and in our human relationships, we seek to find fulfillment in other places. And it makes us really miserable.”
Durando asked his audience to consider how much better society would be had we followed the U.S. bishops call to put children first in every decision we make.
“We haven’t figured out the plain fact that children come first,” he said. “When children come first, everything else works out. When we live in a culture that does not put children first, bad things happen.”
The bishops addressed “a whole host of issues” in their 1991 document, Durando said.
“Does it talk about abortion? Yes. How could it not? But it is a whole host of issues,” he said. “They have everything to do with how we respond to the Lord. It is a measure of our culture. Is it a good culture or not as far as it treats its children?”
Durando noted that the rise of ancient Rome had much to do with its “cult of family” that built up families. Its downfall happened when it lost that.
“When the family goes south, the culture goes south,” Durando said.
“The challenge here is forming children into a loving community,” he said. “Do our children learn what real love is? Do they understand that the revelation of love that Jesus gives us is that love is service to others?”
Children who learn to love and to serve others have also been taught their own dignity. Then, they see the human dignity in others. By serving them in love, then they can show others their own human dignity, Durando said.
“Showing people their dignity is an important part of showing the Gospel,” he said.
Durando said that the seven principles for advocating public policies that strengthen children and families are still solid ideas, 23 years after the U.S. bishops articulated them.
• Analyze every decision and program from the home to international relations on its impact on children and families.
• Insist that state and federal policies on the economy, taxes, education, immigration and human services support children and families rather than undermine them, while encouraging self-help rather than dependency.
• Those with the greatest need required the greatest response. This is the “preferential option for the poor.”
• Encourage policies, particularly in the areas of taxes, education, child care, heath and work, that hold families together rather than drive them apart.
• Work against the forces that threaten families and children, including poverty, unemployment, lack of access to health care, lack of decent housing, and discrimination.
• Advocate for policies, such as the earned income tax credit, that reward responsibility and sacrifice.
• Recognize that foreign policy is also children’s policy. Global poverty, war and systematic injustice threaten the lives of millions of children.