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Contending for the Poor

We all, each and every one, need help navigating the complexities of life. We are all vulnerable and poor. We all need a decent society with decent laws and decent religion. We’re contending for such decency, and not for ourselves alone.

Last night I was awoken by a young child in tears. Her leg hurt, it seems, although her explanation was difficult to understand through the sobs—a cramp, perhaps, or growing pains? I’ll sheepishly admit to a momentary feigning of sleep—one moment, no more—in hopes that my wife Amy might stir and leave me to my slumber. But then I did what a parent does and offered my groggy solace and care. She is not yet six, after all, although “as clever as clever,” and I’ll certainly hope she will remain “six now for ever and ever,” to slightly misquote A. A. Milne.

I sometimes feel as if I haven’t slept uninterrupted through the night in sixteen years. It’s not true, but I’ve somehow aged twenty years in those sixteen. Now the oldest is buying a car—I’ll likely age another twenty in the next five.

It’s impossible to not have concern for your children. You care so much for them, wish their good, feel their losses, share their sadnesses, and they are just so little and the world often so large. Before I had children, I read but didn’t comprehend Wendell Berry’s description of waking “in the night at the least sound/in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be.”

Perhaps little is not the right word for it; poor might be better. In Prayer as a Political Problem, Jean Daniélou suggests that the word can indicate those in poverty or those who are poor in spirit, but he is concerned especially for “those who lack money, education, and rank.” According to Daniélou, Christianity is concerned for the poor in all three senses, but is especially “a religion of the poor … those who form the great mass of mankind.”

In this sense, the poor are not those lacking earthly goods, but rather those “not numbered among the elite,” those who, unlike the heroes and saints, need the help and support of society and law to sustain faith, morality, family, and decency. That is, most of us are poor in this sense, the great numbers of the faithful “which exists today in Brittany and Alsace, Italy and Spain, Ireland and Portugal,” as well as Kansas and New Jersey. We are those people formed and sustained in faith and life by the heritage of the Judeo-Christian world. We need help, like children, and most of us are unlikely to stay the course without assistance.

Daniélou continues, somewhat angrily, that it is this same people, the poor, those most needful of the support of the leaders in law and religion to aid them, “which feels itself betrayed by those groups … whom it sees as more concerned with dialogue with Marxists than with work for its defense and growth,” even as that same Marxism “seeks to destroy that most sacred thing, the faith of the poor.” Leaders of state and Church have fiddled, says Daniélou, while the poor have had their faith unmade. This is a far greater loss than the crises of faith among the intellectuals (the rich): “It is much more serious when a Christian people is destroyed, for it can be built up again only after a long and patient effort.”

Well, where are the fathers to comfort and protect the poor from those who would impoverish them all the more? Who are the mothers who encourage and shelter the young from those who seek to devour?

Public Discourse has always committed itself to public reason, to the idea that men and women of good will, however much they disagree, can become locked together in argument. Argument grants dignity to the other by recognizing them as responsible, reasonable, intelligent, and committed to the truth. But argument is not merely disinterested theory and propositions—it contends. At Public Discourse, we remain committed to reason, to engagement, and to good manners in doing so, but we’re not about to shy away from contending for the truth either. Our authors, in their own way, know it’s a serious thing when the poor, as Daniélou means it, or the young, are left unprotected. We’re contending for them, on their behalf.

Consider the recent exchange between Gladden Pappin, Lyman Stone, and Kelly Hanlon, James R. Harrigan, Antony Davies, and Daniel Burns about family policy and the baby bust. Not every argument made is to everyone’s taste, and the authors are contending with each other. But they are contending also for the truth of the matter, and whatever their differences, they are disagreeing in service of the good, and the poor. If you disagree with them, contend with them, but do so with the same rigor and commitment they have attempted in their essays.

So, too, Charles Camosy, in his Open Letter to Pope Francis on Prenatal Justice, passionately argues on behalf of the littlest and poorest among us. It is, Camosy argues, “time to stand up firmly and forcefully for their dignity” in a culture willing to violently discard the unborn. Camosy is, father-like, contending on behalf of the poor, and asking the Holy Father to do the same.

Similarly, Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., reminds us to consider again the lessons of COVID. Of course, the state should preserve and protect life, but if we misunderstand the full span of the human good, we risk ignoring “the right to worship and the free exercise of religion, the right to marriage, the right to pursue education, the right to work and gain a living, some reasonable freedom of movement, the pursuit of psychological health through various forms of leisure, and the freedom of public debate with regard to social norms.” This is, as much as anything we’ve published recently, a defense of the poor in their full dignity and need.

Cana Vox’s Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Sex is akin to the parent waking up, yet again, in the middle of the night to care for the confused and frightened, those who ought not be left alone but accompanied and guided in their fears and desires. Too often, debates about sexuality look like moralism, but in our eyes, this is about the nurturing of love and the caring for those who simply need help navigating the complexities of life.

That’s all of us. We all, each and every one, need help navigating the complexities of life. We are all vulnerable and poor. We all need a decent society with decent laws and decent religion. We’re contending for such decency, and not for ourselves alone.

Thank you for reading Public Discourse.

R. J. Snell

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