Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor renowned for his challenging analysis of social trends, lectured Thursday night at Washington's Kennedy Center to an audience that included two Catholic cardinals and a motley group of very religious and distinctly non-religious people. He presented slides showing graph after graph that looked like gaping sharks' jaws. Again and again the lines that show trends in America between rich and poor open wider and wider. The gaps get larger. That's true for education, nutrition, participation in sports, and teen pregnancy. Putnam's message is that inequality is unmistakable and it is getting worse.
So what is going on? Lingering on the story of two young women, Putnam painted the picture of utterly different fates that had nothing to do with the merits of the young women, but everything to do with the education and prosperity of their parents. He hammered home the point that today there is little sense that all children in a community are "our kids." That was true, he suggests, in the past, where communities, whether towns or in cities, cared and took responsibility for all children. But with the widening gap between the lives of the poor and the prosperous, the sense of common ground, a common fate, and common responsibility has vanished.
Putnam's message was more suggestive than prescriptive but the implication is unavoidable. We must leave aside poisonous political debates and face the core challenge before us if we are to live in a decent and thriving society. We need to find a way to rekindle a common caring about the welfare of ALL "our kids." Only that way can the yawning gaps be narrowed.
Pope Francis returns to very much the same message again and again in the document he gave to President Obama when they met a few weeks ago: The Joy of the Gospel. We simply must, he argues passionately, rekindle a deep sense of caring for those who are vulnerable and who suffer. The Pope laments that "a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own."
Why did these messages feature so prominently in a meeting termed enticingly (and rather mysteriously) "The Courtyard of the Gentiles," co-sponsored by the Vatican, the Archdiocese of Washington, and Georgetown University?
The thread that links the different perspectives is the quest to give meaning to the term "the common good." And the role of faith? To return to the words of Pope Francis: "We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them."
The challenge I took from the Courtyard discussions echoed during very different meetings in Washington: the World Bank IMF "Spring Meetings", normally the dry stuff of international finance. But in World Bank president Jim Yong Kim and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde's appeals to end poverty and to address inequality they make a similar appeal to care, and then to translate that caring into action. The rhetoric may be drier than that of their religious counterparts but their motivation looks in the same direction.
Many, among them Pope Francis, other courageous faith leaders, and many "gentiles", seek ways to appeal to the good angels of caring and a sense of the common good. One vehicle is the phenomenon of "days," when there is a common mobilization for a cause. There are so many today it's hard to keep track.
But tellingly two that fall today (April 11) and tomorrow (April 12) speak to a concern for neglected children and to their mothers. The goal is to kindle caring and to translate caring into action.
There is a movement to make April 11 the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. To my mind we should cringe every time we hear the fact that women in some communities are 2000 times more likely to die in childbirth than in wealthier societies, then look for ways to help. It is so clear that those deaths, that suffering can be prevented. Solutions are well known. What's needed is will and organization and ending maternal deaths belongs high on the priority list of every religious leader.Take Cambodia as a case; examples of remarkable faith run programs are inspirational but they engage only a fraction of those working in poor communities.
And tomorrow, April 12, is the International Day for Street Children. These children, whose names we rarely know, are surely the saddest and most vulnerable group of the world's neglected. We don't even know how many they are, but they number in the million. The strongest advocates tend to be driven by their faith to help children whose problems are complex and who are not easy to help.
These are two among many causes that reflect a passionate will by advocates and analysts to do something about "our kids," to work for the common good. In each case it takes more than waving a magic wand for the challenge to be met. Will, organization, funds, and monitoring are vital. But so, in both cases (maternal health and street children) is a cultural change, a true awakening of both hearts and minds of the community at large. Caring for "our kids" means engaging ourselves for a larger common good than our personal welfare and that of our own tribe or family or community. This is the essence of human rights, of fairness and equity, and of the best of faith.