If the current debate over the marriage amendment in Wisconsin has highlighted anything, it's the importance of the family, not just for the individuals who constitute it but also for society as a whole.
At the close of the 2006 legislative session, a bi-partisan proposal was signed into law as 2005 Wisconsin Act 467. This law directs the Joint Legislative Council (JLC) to create a special committee each biennium in order to study ways of strengthening Wisconsin's families.
W-2 and child welfare
The Special Committee on Strengthening Wisconsin's Families formed by Act 467 has chosen to begin its work by focusing on the state's most fragile families. Specifically, it is studying the Wisconsin Works (W-2) Program and the child welfare system to determine how to improve collaboration between the two systems in order to support, strengthen, and, in some cases, reunify families.
The W-2 program exists to assist custodial parents of dependent children to find work and support their families. Persons eligible for W-2 may not have financial resources over $2,500 (car and home excepted), and their gross income must be at or below 115 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). These income limits include the income of a co-parent or spouse. For a family of four, 115 percent FPL means an income of $1,917 a month or $23,004 a year. Recipients of W-2 benefits may receive them for up to 60 months.
The child welfare system assists children in need of protective services (CHIPS). These may include abandoned, abused, and neglected children, or those in need of special care. In the gravest circumstances children are removed from their homes and either placed with relatives (kinship care) or sent into foster care. In 2005, a total of 7,624 children were removed from their homes. Of these, about 20 percent went to live with relatives and the other 80 percent went into foster care.
Broad range of issues
Although the committee is expected to submit its findings and proposals early next year, its work will be far from over. Act 467 gives the committee six years to address a broad range of issues. Some of these include: identifying the qualities of successful families and recommending legislation to support these qualities; identifying and supporting private initiatives that strengthen families; delivering state funds to families; changing tax codes to support and encourage the formation of families; and addressing health care needs.
It is too early to tell how the committee will focus its work. But the fact that legislators seem prepared to take such a comprehensive look at families bodes well for the common good.
To receive notices of hearings and follow the committee's work, go to www.legis.state.wi.us/lc and click on 2005-06 Legislative Council Interim.
Barbara Sella is associate director for education and social concerns of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.
John Paul, Benedict:
Throughout the recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on faith and reason at Regensburg University, attempts have been made to drive a wedge between Benedict and his papal predecessor.
The Arabic satellite TV network, Al-Jazeera, for example, ran a series of cartoons featuring a John Paul-figure releasing peaceful doves; the doves are then shot down by Benedict from the roof of the Bernini colonnades surrounding St. Peter's. The last images in the series have John Paul weeping, head in hands, while Benedict, holding a smoking shotgun, smirks.
All of which is silly and vulgar, of course. But it isn't that far from the views expressed by some Catholics, lamenting what they allege to be the drastic difference between Wojtyla's and Ratzinger's views of Islam.
Weigel to speak
The 1994 international bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, was John Paul II's most personal statement, a summary of his convictions about faith, prayer, the papal mission, other world religions, and the human future. As such, it has a special claim on our attention as an expression of Karol Wojtyla's views, which were honed by an acute intelligence and a long experience of the world.
One section of Threshold is devoted to Islam; in it, John Paul expressed his respect for "the religiosity of Muslims" and his admiration for their "fidelity to prayer."
As the late pope put it, "The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all."
But do these expressions of respect suggest, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli did, that, unlike Benedict XVI, John Paul II put Islam "on the same plane" as Catholicism? Hardly. Here, again, is the authentic voice of John Paul II, from Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
"Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God's self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.
"Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity."
In other words, there isn't a millimeter of difference between John Paul II's substantive evaluation of Islam and Benedict XVI's. John Paul II was a master of the public gesture; but to read from his public gestures of respect for Islamic piety an agreement with Islam's understanding of God, man, and moral obligation is to make a grave mistake.
John Paul II would have completely agreed with Benedict XVI's critique, at Regensburg, of a theology that reduces God to pure will, a remote dictator who can command the irrational (like the murder of innocents) if he chooses. And, like Benedict XVI, John Paul II knew that such misconceptions can have lethal public consequences, because all the great questions of the human condition, including political questions, are ultimately theological.
Benedict XVI bears the burden of the papacy at a historical moment in which religiously-warranted irrationality is a lethal threat to the future of civilization. He and his predecessor have the same view of the sources of that irrationality.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
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Perhaps a priest's instruction for a couple to follow their conscience implies that a couple should do what they want, because life can be difficult.
People sometimes say that the priest who married them said contraception was allowed. After Vatican II, many Catholics received confusing advice. A wife from Richfield, Minn., agreed:
"Too many people today have adapted the Church's teachings to fit their own needs rather than remain faithful. In 1966, when my husband was in school, we got caught up in adapting the teaching on birth control to fit our need.
"We already had two babies, a one-year-old and a three-month-old. Needless to say, we weren't anxious to have another one soon, as I was working and my husband was in school full time.
"We talked to a priest at the Newman Center who instructed us to form our own opinion as the 'Church' didn't really know if it was a sin or not. He said a lot of the college kids were coming to Communion on Sunday even though they were on the Pill. He didn't refuse them because he claimed the Church was no longer sure.
"While deep down inside we basically knew the right answer, we talked ourselves into believing that if the Church was unsure, then it couldn't really be a sin for us."
Some Catholics say they tried to live the Church's teaching without understanding why the Church teaches what she does. A mother from Crestline, Calif., relates her experience:
"I have been a Catholic all my life. I learned my prayers, my catechism, and all of the rules. I followed the rules - not because I understood them as wise and loving guides from God but because I was afraid if I didn't follow them I would go to hell.
"When my husband and I experienced some severe marital strain, my fear was not enough. I began to resent God for burdening me with NFP [Natural Family Planning]. I did not regard my five children as blessings. I kept thinking that God was trying to break me. Perhaps he was.
"About eight weeks into counseling we talked about NFP. The counselor, a Christian, asked me about the Church's stand on birth control. I knew the rule but not the reason. He said that he would like me to explain to him the Church's belief and would I look it up.
"Lo and behold, I finally - after two years - listened to 'Life-Giving Love' [audiotapes]. I am now a Catholic in my heart. From the bottom of my soul, I thank God that he [was willing to wait] so long for me to listen and understand what he was trying to say. I won't be afraid to announce another child when God chooses to bless me again."
A survey of Catholic couples that we conducted noted other influences to use contraception: the secular press, nursing school teachers, not knowing or understanding the Church's teachings, pressure from friends, not having a prayer life, lack of faith, lack of instruction at Pre-Cana classes, and even classes at a Catholic college. These negative influences must be counterbalanced by our growth in faith and in knowledge of the faith.
The more we comprehend the reasons for Church teaching, the more we obey from the heart, especially when difficulties come.
Kimberly Hahn is co-author of the bestseller Roman, Sweet Home, Our Journey to Catholicism, with her husband Scott. This column is syndicated by www.OneMoreSoul.com and is reprinted from Life-Giving Love (St. Anthony Messenger Press).
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