Yes, we’re talking about the Proclamation again. Please set aside, for a moment, gender issues. Please set aside as well the interesting interpretational questions (what is a Proclamation, anyway? what kind of normative force does it carry?) except as necessary to focus on what is, to me, the single most startling and loaded phrase in the entire document. I’m talking about this sentence:
Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.
That’s an incredibly broad statement, and it appears to tie in to specific legalistic language. In particular, and doubly startling, this sentence uses the powerful language of entitlement.
The immediate question, of course, is this: Against whom does that entitlement lie? And the related issue — who, exactly, is the enforcer of the entitlement?
It seems possible that there is no enforcer, that the language is just an empty phrase, an unfunded rhetorical mandate. This seems wrong, in part because so much of the rest of the Proclamation seems designed to carry at least some normative weight. But it’s certainly a possibility, since the other options are themselves pretty jarring.
One option is that the church is intended to be the enforcing agent who will make sure that this entitlement is fulfilled. This is limited, since the church can only enforce church discipline. But it’s still a powerful potential position. For example, if a child was not “born within the bounds of matrimony, and reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows,” that child could have a claim in church court to enforce that entitlement.
That’s an incredible position. That could mean, for instance, that a church disciplinary body might revoke a single parent’s church privileges until that parent remarried. Or perhaps that a church disciplinary body could state that a couple’s divorce would result in loss of church privileges. This could mean that an unmarried, pregnant woman could be required to marry, since the child is entitled to be born to married parents. In addition, this means that an unmarried man might be pressed into service and required to marry a pregnant woman, again in order to enforce the child’s entitlement. These are pretty drastic remedies. But then, the language the Proclamation uses is itself drastic — this is not just something beneficial, but is an actual entitlement.
Another possible enforcing body is the state. Here, the potential remedy is even more eye-opening. Perhaps the state would intervene in instances where a single parent was raising a child, requiring marriage. Take any of the scenarios above — pressing unmarried men into marriage in order to preserve the entitlement to a birth to married parents, for instance — and add the coercive power of the state. The state is not limited ot church discipline, but could actually put people in jail for violation of these entitlements.
Both of those possibilities seem drastic. And yet, what are we to do with this language of entitlement? We’re back where we started, and the reason is the adoption of such loaded, rights-oriented language, in such a broad, sweeping way.
I don’t think I’m willing to put the entitlement on either the state or the church, as institutions. The potential remedies are just too crazy. Who, then, is the party against whom the entitlement lies?
Perhaps the entitlement lies against the individual members of the church. This is sort of an intellectual cop-out, however — after all, many children don’t have any connection to church members; many church members are unable to do anything about any entitlement. If a little boy came up to me and said “my parents aren’t married and it’s your responsibility as a church member to resolve this, because you believe that I’m entitled to a home with a married mother and father” I wouldn’t know how to respond.
So how should we read this phrase? I’m really not sure, at the moment. But it is a huge step in some direction — I can’t say which. It’s a strong repudiation of anti-government rhetoric often adopted by church members, that there are no entitlements and that FDR made the whole entitlement thing up one day. It’s a strong suggestion that we ought to be doing something as members, if not to actively enforce entitlements, then at least to combat oppressive laws that work directly against them. But what kind of normative weight does that statement itself carry? I just don’t know.
Hopefully some of our readers will have ideas as to how that line might be read. Meanwhile, in a follow up post, I’ll add some additional thoughts of my own as to how we might give credence to the idea of a child’s entitlement to a family.