The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences held its 12th plenary session April 28-May 2 on the theme: "Vanishing Youth? Solidarity with Young People in an Age of Turbulence." On the first day's morning session, Cardinal López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, took up the topic of "The Gift of Life."
He focused on the earliest moments of the relationship between the two generations: that is, the transmission of life. Human procreation, the cardinal explained, is seen by the Church as the fruit of total self-giving. In this context children are considered as the supreme gift of marriage, and the family is a sort of sanctuary of life.
Children are both a gift and a responsibility, the cardinal pointed out -- a gift that comes, in first place, from God. They are also a joint responsibility for husband and wife. The "we" of the parents becomes the "we" of the family and from the first moments of a child's life a process of education begins. Unfortunately, if the parents do not fulfill this responsibility, then children pay a high price. In some cases they can be considered as "orphans with living parents," said Cardinal López Trujillo.
Families also face challenges from outside, he added, referring to pressures from neo-Malthusian circles that seek to restrict the number of children. Other difficulties stem from within, when a selfish view of sexuality prevails, in which love is not given as a gift, but is reduced to pleasure.
In the face of these difficulties Cardinal López Trujillo called upon families to provide children with values on which they can build to give meaning to life and to themselves. This "urgent need to communicate certainties," he said, is all the more important in a world that extols subjectivism and moral relativism.
In his presentation, Kenneth Arrow, an economics professor at Stanford University, argued that the ethical obligations of parents to children have not been thoroughly explored. Today's secular discourse sees all individuals as having rights and obligations, Arrow said, "but there is no special emphasis on the parent-child relation."
Seen from an economic perspective, resources flow from parents to children, who are not yet productive members of society. So, in a utilitarian perspective it is difficult to develop a theory of justice that would provide sufficient accommodation for children. Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker took economic theory a step further, by considering children as durable consumer goods, hence allowing their welfare to enter into a family's welfare. Seen from this perspective, parents act as trustees for their children.
Arrow considered it important to further develop this concept of the trusteeship of parents. This is particularly important in the light of the ever-greater number of single-parent households. The spread of unilateral divorce has had a significant negative impact on children's welfare, he added. Moreover, the state's capacity to compensate for the defects of poor family situations is very limited.
Pierpaolo Donati, from the University of Bologna, also looked at some of the problems faced by children and young people. Among the challenges he mentioned:
-- Science and technology applied to human procreation threaten the dignity of the human being right from the moment of conception.
-- The erosion of the family as a social institution removes one of the primary protections for children.
-- Economic pressures have diverse manifestations: the exploitation of minors as workers; a disregard for those who are not producers; and pressure to adopt a lifestyle centered on materialism.
-- Psychological and cultural pressures make the transition from adolescence to adulthood more problematic.
Donati also noted that, paradoxically, the proliferation of declarations and charters of children's rights and reports on their situation has done little to improve matters. In many cases they have become little more than an indicator of problems, more than achieving any real progress in protecting children.
Overall, Donati insisted, we need to question the type of world civilization we are building and what place children and young people will have in this civilization. Too often, he said, today's secularized culture is taken up with a fear of the future, perceiving only the risks and difficulties.
Against this view the Church expresses hope in young people. Donati quoted Pope John Paul II's words in "Tertio Millennio Adveniente," No. 58: "The future of the world and the Church belongs to the younger generation."
A diversity of challenges
Some of the presentations during the meeting made evident the widely varying nature of problems facing young people. Paulus Zulu, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, dealt with the problem of excluded children in Africa. In many cases governments are unable to deliver basic goods and services to the population. This leads to high levels of infant mortality, hunger, and serious deficiencies in education.
Mina Ramirez, from Manila's Asian Social Institute, in the Philippines, also noted problems related to health and education. Child labor and sexual exploitation also present a series of challenges.
Kevin Ryan, from Boston University, spoke about the condition of young people in North America. He noted three dominant factors:
1) A troubled and weakened family. The United States and Canada combined have 88.3 million people under age 20. Changes in family life in the last few decades mean that there is much less contact time between parents and children, along with a reduction in parental authority. Looser marriage bonds and economic pressures further stress the family.
2) Resource-rich, but uneven schools. North America is home to many fine universities, but many of its elementary and secondary schools are academically poor, with mediocre results. Whereas education once served as a social leveler, the tendency now is for it to be a source of social stratification.
3) The highly sexualized, media-driven cultural world of the young. Television, the Internet, music, instant messaging and a growing number of portable devices means that young people spend more hours in contact with the media than in the classroom. Often the media exploit sexuality and drown out awareness of the physical and psychological costs of uncontrolled sexual activity.
Added to this last factor is the difficulty in transmitting the faith to young people. Catholic teen-agers, moreover, fare worse than other Christian groups when it comes to questions of religious practice and beliefs.
Ryan called upon the Church to launch a global effort by both clergy and laity to evangelize the young, starting with parents who have to be the first religious educators of their children. This new education program must develop improved educational materials and will require the participation of large numbers of the laity.
It must, however, not be limited to learning, Ryan said. The young need to be taught how to act as Christians and to be given opportunities to witness to their faith. Ryan also urged that a large part be given to prayer and worship as part of a renewed educational effort. Handing on the faith, then, is a key way adults can show their solidarity with the next generation.