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Original Altruism

“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 Commerce

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.

Comments

MICHELLE FRANCL-DONNAY DR | 12/27/2009 - 10:57pm

Perhaps because women are the majority in the population in Sweden (as they are in the US) - they should be a majority in the professions? 

RICHARD OUELLETTE FR | 12/16/2009 - 10:49pm

I think that Anne Chapman is heading in the right directdion.  the fact that God has created us in the image and likeness of God is and "original Blessings" and not so much a sin.  Church teaching at times is confusing.

Paul Louisell | 12/13/2009 - 10:55pm

The sexes will never be "equal".  They will always be different.  Thank God.

6466379 | 12/13/2009 - 4:03pm
Re: Current Comment on "Original Altruism" as follows, "Empathy is an automated response," according to primatologist Frans de Waal (what's a primatologist?) and adds, "we are programmed to reach out." Additionally, some biologists and psychologists say this begins early on at birth, when babies show, "signs of altruism, charity, and concern for others, even before they are taught this."

If all this is true, I find myself wondering if it may lead to a more precise understanding of Augustine's Original Sin teaching which is a Dogma of the Church. As I understand it the mechanics of Dogma are, in a sense, evolutionary and as such subject to the prods of truth and the pulsations of Faith which can make the incomprehendible, comprehendible! But never fully so it seems.

We are told, Adam and Eve created in a Sate of Grace were led into the Original Sin by Satan's trickery and as a result all humanity inherits than sin automatically. But in view of what biologists and psychologists and others say about babies showing "signs of altruism, charity and concern for others, even before they are taught this," might it be possible to interpret the Original Sin teaching as more of a "predisposition" to sin, than sin itself? In other words, are we born with the "predisposition" to sin, from which actual personal sin can later arise, rather than the actual inherited primordial sin from Eden's folly?

I find this exciting to think about, but because I'm not a theologian, just a simple man who knows a little about many things, but not very much about anything, I can't help but wonder if my "dabbling" is nothing other than "much ado about nothing!"
J B | 12/12/2009 - 9:29am

In many countries, including those in the third world, and in many professions (formerly dominated by men, such as medicine and law), women no longer have to fight to be treated as fully equal to men. 

But not in the church, where women are barred from access to a sacrament, due to their genetic makeup.

How long before half the ordained clergy are women? How long before half the bishops are women? How long before half of those who create the teachings of the bodiless entity called the "magesterium" are women?

How long before the Roman Catholic Church owns up to its institutional sexism, apologizes to women, and makes restitution -  and we hear the words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa?

Patrick Murtha | 12/11/2009 - 7:01pm
Equality between men and women has always baffled me. If there are more men in a certain positions, such as in the United States, negative terms, "disappointingly," are employed by the writers. Now if there are more women in the certain positions, positive terms are used. Such as Scandinavia receiving "special commendation" and "In economic terms, too, Scandinavia ranked high, with women holding the majority..."

What I find curious, as curious is the only word that fits here, is that Scandinavia should be rebuked for now going too far for allowing women to have the majority, just as the U.S. is for not going far enough. That would be true equality. Just a thought.
daisy swadesh | 12/11/2009 - 5:57pm
Yes! Children are born with an innate capacity for social behavior-to love, to feel empathy, with a sense of reciprocity and that balance called fairness-and altruism. We have "mirror neurons" that help us identify with and learn from the behavior of others. But like all social behavior, babies must have the emotional support to develop those innate abilities. Babies are in the symbiotic bonding stage of attachment for the first three years and they need someone consistently there for them to bond to. I'm glad to hear the Church is beginning to catch up on its understanding of the innocence of children.

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