Published May 17, 2001
The Catholic Difference
Some people never quite get it.
Take Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who is said to be contemplating a run for the presidency. In his new book, Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, Senator Wellstone wrote this about education reform: “Our national goal must be to insure that every child, by kindergarten, knows the alphabet, colors, shapes, and sizes, and how to spell his or her name. This will require well-paid professional teachers, assisted by skillful and well-paid teaching assistants.”
In other words, it’s the government’s job to teach your kids how to tell red from blue and squares from circles. Here we have the reductio ad absurdum of the myth of the public school. Here is the net result of the Democratic Party’s enthrallment to the National Education Association, and to other lobbies for maintaining the government’s monopoly on tax dollars for elementary education. Perhaps in the second Wellstone Administration the Department of Education would see to it (with proper NEA involvement, of course) that potty-training is adequately attended to from sea to shining sea.
Then there was Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most recent entry into the child-protection lists. Senator Clinton opposed a Bush nominee for the chairmanship of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, in part because the nominee opposed certain regulations on baby-bath seats. USA Today breathlessly noted that the seats in question had “been associated with 67 infant deaths,” creating the impression of bath-seats devouring children. The Washington Post clarified the matter, noting that “there have been 67 deaths associated with the [bath seats], most occurring when the parents left a baby unattended.”
As John Miller and Ramesh Ponuru of National Review commented, “Aha! So babies drown when parents put them in bathtubs and leave the room. Long ago, when some people still cared about such antiquated notions as personal responsibility, there was a word for this: negligence.” Does that word exist in the Newspeak of Senator Clinton’s child-care village?
In the debate over President’s Bush’s faith-based social welfare initiative, there has been a certain reticence about using the word “character.” Yet it seems virtually certain that the primary reason why religiously-informed social service programs are successful in helping break men and women out of the cycle of poverty is that they transform lives. They develop character: the habit of making morally good choices. And the optimum time to start developing the habit—or virtue—of moral responsibility is in childhood. For virtues, like muscles, need exercise if they are to develop. The longer we have to work on the musculature of the moral life, the better-tuned and more supple our moral sinews will be.
That is why strengthening the two-parent family ought to be a high priority for any genuinely compassionate public policy. Two generations of experimentation with “alternative” families and “no-fault” divorce have produced a grim bill in broken lives. Those problems aren’t going to be satisfactorily addressed by government-sponsored coloring books, pace Senator Wellstone. Nor will they be resolved by efforts to substitute federal regulatory agencies for the moral habits of parental responsibility, pace Senator Clinton..
Moral choice is a burden—the distinguishing burden that the Creator laid on human beings. Learning to carry that burden lightly is of the essence of becoming a mature human being. For we are all born capable of freedom: rich, middle-class, or poor; white, black, Hispanic, or Asian-American. To be fit for freedom means to be responsible—to live my freedom in such a way that my own life, and the lives of those I touch, are both ennobled. As the distinguished social critic, Midge Decter, recently wrote, “Whether a person is a slave or a billionaire, a homeless vagrant or a king, his moral conduct remains his own. They can beat and starve and even kill him, but they cannot make him immoral; only he can do that.”
To love children, truly, is to wish for them the burden and the glory of moral responsibility. It doesn’t take a village to do that, Mrs. Clinton’s book notwithstanding. It takes responsible adults—the kind of adults who know that they ought to teach their children the alphabet and that kids can’t be left alone in the bathtub.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.