By Frank Wessling
“Every child brings us God’s smile.” This theme for Respect Life Month in the Catholic Church is a reminder of something written by Carl Sandburg: “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.”
The early 20th-century prairie poet from Illinois was not thinking of babies in the womb, but his exuberant, expansive view of life might have led him to see with honest eyes that “God’s opinion” is apparent long before birth.
For Catholics paying attention to the church’s own exuberant, expansive view of life, it is the child in his or her full range of needs, not merely the baby, who calls to us. Because we resist abortion as the answer to anything, some people claim we care too much about unborn life and not enough about the child. This is simply not true on the policy level. Our official institutional pro-life/pro-child stance may not be obvious, though, in what we do with our resources, both personally and politically.
There are thousands of children — across the country, literally millions — who do not have a decent chance for the good life that reflects “God’s smile.” They live in homes too poor, attend schools too poor, are surrounded by models of despair and evil rather than hope and good opportunity. They are often the innocent victims of personal weakness in parents and other adults around them.
They are also victims of reluctance in our society to assume the spirit of solidarity, of co-responsibility, of care for the common good that is preached consistently at the highest levels of the church. They are victims of our failure to build a social safety net that can reliably mitigate and even prevent the early spiritual crippling or death of children.
Too many are physically hurt, or prevented from thriving, because of a weak and porous safety net. We have a painful example of this right now here in Iowa. Revenues for state-funded programs are down so much as a result of poor business conditions that Governor Chet Culver has cut budgets by 10 percent. Who will be most affected by these cuts? The poor and otherwise vulnerable Iowans who most need the help of state programs, among them poor children.
It is a sad irony that this Sunday, Oct. 18, was designated as Cover the Kids Day by the Iowa Department of Human Services. This should be a time when we collectively support all efforts to give needy children health services they may be missing. It should be a time when we collectively dedicate ourselves to keeping all children bright-eyed with hope. Instead, it’s a time when a hole has opened in their safety net.
The free and low-cost health care programs the state provides, such as hawk-i (Healthy and Well Kids in Iowa) exist because we pay taxes and we support particular priorities through our voting and other political activity. This may be a time of scarcity affecting those programs and all other state budgets. But what will happen when a new time of plenty returns? Will we remember Cover the Kids Day and push our representatives to quickly restore the budget cuts, or even expand such coverage and give it higher priority?
Will we think of pushing for living wage laws, or bringing the minimum wage up to the purchasing power it had 30 years ago?
Will we, in other words, be more serious about working together to ensure that God’s smile is evident in the life of every child, and not simply a slogan? Our integrity as the Catholic pro-life party, the party of God’s preferential option for the poor, is involved.