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The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ most recent contribution to our national debate on the family, a statement entitled Putting Children First, approved last November, calls our attention to the worldwide trend of declining child well-being. With each passing year, in the United States and around the world, it is getting harder to be a child. To such a stunningly consequential fact, the bishops tell us, moral and political attention must be paid.

There is much good sense in the attention that Putting Children First pays. To begin with, the bishops, unlike some children’s advocates, recognize that children are not a stand-alone constituency. The bishops understand that the most important “children’s program” is a stable, loving family; that the parent is the child’s first and most important teacher; and that the role of the church, the school, and the state should be to support, rather than supplant, the parental role.

The bishops also usefully focus our attention on moral reasoning and ultimate ends. It is refreshing to find at least one report on children that does not insist on framing the issue in terms of dollars saved and lost or the health of our economy. Mercifully, the bishops refrain from calling every good thing an “investment.” They know that more vital matters are at stake.

At the same time, like the report of the National Commission on Children and other recent initiatives, Putting Children First does call for a wide range of new public policies. The bishops want better health care and more affordable housing. They want more jobs. They endorse child tax credits, family-sensitive workplace policies, tougher requirements for child support payments, and a host of other public initiatives—almost all of which the authors of this essay find reasonable and commendable.

Given these virtues, therefore, it may seem uncharitable to find fault with Putting Children First. Yet the bishops’ statement is deeply flawed. And what is wrong is not simply this or that detail, but rather the document’s master idea, its defining narrative. Throughout, the bishops offer us not only flabby and misguided sociology, but also, and more seriously, flabby and misguided moral reasoning.

First, sociology. When the bishops speak of the family, they have a particular family in mind. It is the family of women and children. To be sure, they speak of “parents” and, late in their discussion, applaud the ideal of the two-parent family. On page twenty-five of the twenty-nine-page statement, they put in a brief good word for fathers. But clearly the family model that animates their concern and dominates their report is the female-headed family.

The bishops marshal all the familiar evidence to support their focus on the mother-child family. They point to the growing number of children who grow up in single-parent families, most “headed by women who are more likely to live in poverty.” They state that “mothers and children make up an increasing proportion of the homeless in our land.” They tell us that women and children are exploited both economically and sexually, assaulted daily by pornography and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. They remind us that women and children are more likely than others to go to bed hungry. In essence, the bishops tell us, the mother-child family is the home of the helpless and the exploited.

This particular sociological understanding of contemporary family life, so prevalent in today’s elite discussions, might be termed the sociology of the Christmas appeal. Its core moral claim is captured by the venerable holiday reminder: “Remember the neediest.” Only Scrooge, of course, could ignore such an appeal. Certainly, the many women and children in our society who struggle in harsh circumstances to live decent lives ought to exert a powerful claim on our compassion and on our resources. Yet by making the beleaguered mother-child family the central focus of their attention, the bishops offer an inadequate and distorted account of family problems.

First, with the one exception noted above, the bishops are virtually silent on the subject of men. Fathers and husbands are largely missing from this document. The word “husband” does not appear at all; the gender-neutral “parent” or “parenting” is much preferred to its gender-specific variants. The bishops offer no affirmative portrait of paternal authority, provision, or influence. If a young man in a parish in Omaha or Austin were to read this document, seeking wisdom and instruction on bow to be a good family man, he would find little guidance. By ignoring the role of men in the family, the bishops overlook what is arguably the most consequential trend in American society today: male flight from family life.

Approximately one-third of our nation’s children today are growing up without the daily provision, discipline, sponsorship, and love of their biological fathers. The empirical evidence on the social costs of fatherlessness is so strong that one wonders why the bishops overlook it. Some 70 percent of juveniles in long-term correctional facilities, for example, did not live with their father while growing up. And considering their focus on poor children, it is especially odd that the bishops ignore the relationship between the growing incidence of fatherlessness and the growing incidence of child poverty. It is simply not the case that contemporary economic trends are driving otherwise stable families into poverty, as one might conclude from Putting Children First. In fact, even in difficult economic times, nine out of ten children in mother-father families avoid poverty. Rather, it is that a contemporary social trend—fatherlessness—is driving children into poverty. Today, for the first time in our nation’s history, the majority of all poor children live in mother-headed households.

Finally, the bishops’ sociology offers an excessively narrow reading of the family as a social institution. The bishops portray families as needy claimants on our compassion. Utterly missing from this document is any sense of the family as a core institution of the civil society: an institution that society depends on to provide essential social goods. The bishops tell us what families need but seem oblivious to what families do.

Imagine that the bishops were describing not families, but business corporations. Surely, they would not limit their focus to the needs of unemployed workers. Surely, they would consider the institutional role of the corporation in capital formation, in the structure and organization of work, and in the distribution of goods and services.

Yet families, like corporations, serve a broad range of social purposes. We depend on the family to transmit values, to foster character and competence, and to generate social goods. If corporations produce economic capital, families produce social capital. Consequently, for families, as for corporations, the moral category of compassion is simply insufficient, by itself, as a way of describing the social goods that are at stake.

Their weak sociology leads the bishops into weak moral reasoning. Putting Children First would have us believe that the principal problem facing families and children is a deficit of societal compassion and political will. To improve the well-being of children, the bishops say, we must “use our values, voices, and votes to hold our public officials accountable and shape a society that puts children first.” Yet this challenge, stirring as it is, is insufficient. It fails to acknowledge that the principal problem facing children today has to do less with flawed public policy than with flawed moral behavior.

We see the bishops as the inheritors and custodians of a rich repository of moral wisdom on the family. In a society dominated by the trendy fashions of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, we look to the bishops for stronger stuff: for much-needed help in writing our cultural scripts of family life. This is their special province and unique responsibility. Yet in the effort to reconcile trendy sociology with their own moral tradition, the bishops fail to do what we most count on them to do: make moral distinctions. Instead, they employ language that obscures or conflates morally distinguishable situations and actions.

The bishops base their moral claim on the biblical injunction of St. James: “Religion pure and undefiled before God is this, to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.” “In our day,” they go on, “the orphans and widows are poor children and single parents.” This statement is no mere rhetorical flourish. It is the bishops’ central explanatory metaphor, the sustaining core of their morality. And it is deeply confused.

In our biblical and republican traditions, a specific meaning and moral claim is associated with widows and orphans. They have lost husbands and fathers through death. Widows are women whose husbands have died, and orphans in this sense are not so much children without parents as children without fathers. It is this meaning of widow and orphan that Abraham Lincoln intends when, in his Second Inaugural, he calls upon the nation to “bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan . . .”

It is simply not true—empirically, historically, or morally—that there is no meaningful difference between “mother-headed households” and “widows and orphans.” The escalating number of mother-headed families in our society today is not due to the deaths of fathers, but instead to two behavioral phenomena: divorce and out-of-marriage childbirth. On these two issues, we might expect the bishops to speak up. Yet they not only fall curiously silent about those issues, they employ a framework of analysis of family life that invites the rest of us to ignore them as well.

In their equivocations, the bishops offend common understandings and diminish their own moral authority. Ordinary men and women understand that there is a difference between a widow and an unwed mother. There is a difference between a man who dies and a man who deserts his family. And there is all the moral difference in the world between the widows and orphans of whom St. James spoke and the mother-headed families of whom the bishops speak.

Just as they fail to confront men’s failure to meet their family obligations, the bishops also ignore the moral agency of women. While it is true that the mother-child bond remains the strongest of all family bonds, women, too, increasingly make choices today that are hostile to children’s interests. And while it is true that women have been abused, abandoned, and exploited, women are not simply victims in a cruel world. Women, too, determine outcomes for children through their own activity. The most striking example is the growing number of women who choose to have children outside of marriage. There are also women who divorce casually and frequently. Yet the bishops are so eager to avoid the appearance of sexism or gender bias that they scrupulously resist any criticism of women. The irony is that this failure to criticize women or to bold them morally accountable comes perilously close to the worst kind of sexism—treating women as moral inferiors.

The larger irony is that in their effort to be sociologically current and culturally relevant, the bishops seem to forget that their distinctive role is to criticize contemporary fashion. We look to the bishops to guide us in our moral choices, to offer models that are countercultural in the sense that they are not derived from contemporary secular culture. Yet the bishops’ statement is anything but countercultural. It has no cultural bite. It would go down easily at a Beverly Hills fundraiser or at a meeting of the New York Times editorial board. What Putting Children First most conspicuously lacks is a consideration of moral agency and choice in the decline of children’s well-being. Or, to put it more theologically, what is missing is a consideration of sin.

And herein, sadly, lies the final and greatest irony: The more the bishops call for compassion but ignore responsibility—the more they obscure and conflate moral categories, the more their script for family life resembles the scripts for “Murphy Brown”—the less influence they will retain as serious writers of our cultural script and the less authority they will wield as our teachers in matters of family life.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is a Research Associate at the Institute for American Values in New York. 

David Blankenhorn is President of the Institute.

Image by via Creative Commons. Image cropped.