“A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on,” said Carl Sandburg. The presence of an infant in a stroller brings instant smiles to pedestrians or riders on the subway. Yet in the Catholic tradition we read that the infant is “born in a fallen world and tainted by original sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1250). Hence the necessity of infant baptism.
Some biologists and psychologists are now uncovering evidence to support more optimistic judgments concerning the infant. They affirm that infants show signs of altruism, charity and concern for others even before they are taught this. Such conduct seems not to be motivated by a desire for some reward. They describe babies as innately sociable and helpful to others. One boldly states that children are altruistic by nature. Frans de Waal, a primatologist, writes, “We’re programmed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response.”
Doesn’t this make sense and conform with our experience? We affirm that we are born in the image of God, and that God is love. Still, there is no denying children are born into “a fallen world” tainted by sin. Now, instead of setting forth a doctrine on Limbo, the catechism more kindly says that “as regards children who have died without baptism, the church can only entrust them to the mercy of God” and allow “us to hope there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism” (No. 1261).
The church itself is beginning to balance its teaching on original sin with a touch of original altruism.
Mind the Gap
Efforts to lessen the difference in opportunities available to men and women have made significant progress in some regions of the world. The World Economic Forum reported in October that of the 115 nations studied, representing 90 percent of the world’s population, over two-thirds have shown gains. The greatest have taken place in developed countries of the North: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, with Iceland ranking first. But in some respects, progress regarding equality of the sexes has been lagging. The co-author of the forum’s report, Saadia Zahidi, director and head of constituents at the World Economic Forum, said that the nations examined had closed about 90 percent of the gap in education and health but only 50 percent in economic participation and opportunity and just 15 percent in political empowerment.
Scandinavia received special commendation in the latter category for women’s active participation in politics. Sweden, for example, has an equal number of male and female politicians. In economic terms, too, Scandinavia ranks high, with women holding a majority of professional and technical jobs. Much poorer countries have also made gains. Thus South Africa and Lesotho are among the top 10, at the sixth and tenth positions, respectively. The Philippines, for the first time in four years, did not make progress, but it remains the leading Asian country in the rankings. Disappointingly, given its unparalleled resources, the United States fell from 27th place to 31st place. As Melanne Verveer, the U.S. ambassador at large for global women’s issues, has observed, “We have a long road to go no matter where we live.”
Christmas is coming. Is your goose about to be cooked if you cannot find the right present for everyone on your list? Take a breath and step back this season. You can give yourself and some craftspeople and farmers in the developing world a break by taking your Christmas list online to shop on fair-trade networks. We know many of the articles of clothing, toys and other gifts that will be happily handed over to loved ones around the tree on Dec. 25 have origins that are significantly less joyful. They come from sweatshops and barracks-style factories, where workers have been treated badly by subcontractors for major labels in the United States and where child labor is not unknown.
An easy way to circumvent that system is to shop at fair-trade sites like Serrv International (www.serrv.org) or Sweat Free Communities (www.sweatfree.org). You can buy goodies, toys and clothing through these alt-commerce networks that get closer to a Catholic ideal of matching ends with means in a just economy. It is a system that protects human dignity and encourages the authentic development of people while promoting relationships instead of alienation between consumer and producer. And for that person on your list who already has everything? Why not just get them nothing—except a donation to a worthy charity like Catholic Relief Services, Heifer International or Oxfam? A contribution in their name toward mitigating human misery outside the Western comfort zone will do a lot more to add the meaning to the season than the quickly lost or broken gizmo of the day.