In his Lenten message Pope John Paul II spoke of “situations of persistent misery which cannot but impinge upon the conscience of Christians, reminding them of their duty to address these situations both as individuals and as a community.”

The word “impinge” means to make an impression on, to come into a relationship with, to strike. Are today's “situations of persistent misery” impinging on us?

There are people living in misery even in the United States: single parent families, the unemployed, immigrants struggling to make it, women dealing with the aftermath of abortions. We are often vaguely aware that people must deal with grinding misery but all too often it does not involve us. We live our non-involvement and call it by another name: “I'm busy.”

Recently I heard John DiIulio, a professor at Princeton and an expert on crime, talk about the problem of education for the poor in large urban public schools, “a situation of persistent misery.” He sees the school problem as, among other things, a literacy problem. Many children come from homes where the mothers did not finish school. Thirty-seven percent of the children in kindergarten do not know their ABCs. They come from broken families and have known only broken relationships. The public schools are not teaching them to read, a key to helping them break the cycle of poverty. By the year 2006 there will be 30 million teenagers, the largest number we have ever had, and many of them who live in large urban areas will still not be able to read. However, there is much that can be done at the margins to help these young people.

DiIulio said the literacy problem in all large cities is an ethical question that should touch everyone. These young people live in our community and are not being served adequately by the public school system, their families or the church. A large number of illiterate teenagers do not feel they are part of society and will easily get into trouble. We all should feel a certain sense of responsibility to do something to turn that around for the sake of the common good.

DiIulio is practicing what he preaches, devoting the rest of his life to helping churches in big cities find better ways of reaching out to the poor.

We have expanded scientific knowledge but we have cheapened life by classifying people as wanted or unwanted.

The misery of these young people is the direct result of broken families, and of the lack of positive cultural influences of church and school. The culture of rap, sex and drugs is there to fill the vacuum. These young people are victims of the “culture of death” no less than those unborn children who are aborted by their mothers. They are alive but lack the positive experiences that go into shaping a young mind and heart into a responsible human being. They lack a “culture of life.”

At the end of the 20th century there is a huge gap between the advance of technology and medicine and the condition of our moral purpose as a society. We have expanded scientific knowledge but we have cheapened life by classifying people as wanted or unwanted. The unwanted are the poor, the elderly, the disabled and children who cannot read. Society's lack of virtue is breaking down bonds that are necessary for a healthy and vibrant way of life, and for the task of addressing misery.

We might say that these cultural attitudes do not really affect our lives, but we would be wrong. The attitudes of radical autonomy and indifference to children are presented in the TV shows we watch, in the movies we choose and in the magazines we read. Fashion magazines often present androgynous, emaciated women in freakish clothes, not women who are serious about their lives and work.

The mindset that does not want children does not want to deal with situations of persistent misery in a positive human way. The tendency is to throw money, one resource we have in abundance, at the problem and turn it over to a bureaucracy. The attitude of the “culture of life,” on the other hand, must be one of commitment to finding a “human” solution to today's problems. To say that the problem of literacy is an ethical question for all who live in large cities is to frame the question in a human way. It is to ask the community, not just the government, to try to solve it. We have to find more human solutions for those who suffer: the weak, the frail, the elderly, those who are not “useful” any more. A highly technological society, with computers, gadgets, videos and digital TV, tends towards habits of utility to the point that we value only what is useful to us and forget about the bond that ties us to our fellow citizens and their needs, especially those in situations of persistent misery.

What will it take for us to be impressed, for our hearts to be moved?

Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.