The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October 2014 and the Ordinary Synod on the Family in October 2015 have made reflection on the vocation and mission of the family, both in the Church and in the modern world, very timely. So during 2015, Theology 101 will explore the Church’s teaching on many of the themes that are being considered by the two synods.
The destiny of humanity
In order to provide the necessary context for a consideration of the single-parent family, we must first orient ourselves to our ultimate end. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in the first paragraph of the first page that we were created freely and out of love by God for eternal life in communion with God. Communion with God, who has revealed himself as a loving Trinitarian communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is then the destiny planned for humanity.
It follows that if we are to truly live and be most fully alive, it only makes sense that we need to live in harmony with that for which we are made. Communion with God, i.e., being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing with God (Ph 2:2), becomes the goal and foundation of Christian life.
The family as communion
One of the ways in which we live into communion with God is through the family, which is a union of a man and woman in marriage with their children, according to the catechism. The family itself constitutes a communion of persons that is a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. Further, according to Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio (21), the Christian family is “a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church.”
The family is the original cell of social life. It is a community where one can learn moral values, begin to honor God and exercise freedom in a good way. The family offers opportunities to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped and the poor. It is an initiation into life in society, as the family teaches us to see others as brothers and sisters of our one heavenly Father.
Communion upon communion
The Christian family is founded on the communion of persons that is marriage; on the “intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state.” In the 2009 Pastoral Letter “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) stated, “Through baptism, men and women are transformed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into a new creation in Christ. This new life in the Holy Spirit heals men and women from sin and elevates them to share in God‘s very own divine life. It is within this new Christian context that Jesus has raised marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament. He heals marriage and restores it to its original purity of permanent self-giving in one flesh (see Mt 19:6).”
By revealing his own love as the perfection of all love, God reveals the deepest meaning of all marital love: self-giving love modeled on God‘s inner life and love. The U.S. Bishops explain: “[T]he principal and original self-gift is the unitive, mutual self-gift of the spouses to each other. In their marriage promises, the spouses pledge love and fidelity for as long as they live. The transmission of life is a sublime, concrete realization of this radical self-gift between a man and a woman. The mutual married love of man and woman becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man[kind], because as mutual self-gift, it is at the same time creative self-gift.”
The single-parent family
The final document of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October 2014 (8) recognized that many “children are born outside of marriage, in great numbers in some countries, many of whom subsequently grow up with just one of their parents or in a blended or reconstituted family.” In addition to these “out of wedlock” births, divorce, separation, outright spousal abandonment and the death of a spouse all contribute to the increase in single-parent families we see today throughout the world.
The Church’s response
The Church necessarily and rightly affirms the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage. The Church also asserts the right of every child to be born within the context of committed, marital love because it provides the best conditions for raising children.
The U.S. Bishops have repeatedly pointed out that a committed marriage is the foundation of a family. In their 1994 document Follow the Way of Love, they asserted that marriage “strengthens all the members, provides best for the needs of children, and causes the church of the home to be an effective sign of Christ in the world.”
At the same time, the Church is also conscious that people struggle with their own weakness and, at times, encounter tremendous life challenges as they attempt to make the journey of faith. For this reason, the Church has been clear, for example in the final document of the aforementioned extraordinary synod, that “people need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life.” (11)
The synod called for respect to be shown to those who suffer unjustly because of the actions or death of a spouse. Pastoral care, material assistance and guidance must be directed to single-parent families to help them bear the responsibility of providing a home and raising their children.
Approximate number of single parents in the U.S
Children being raised by single parents in the U.S
Percentage of custodial parents who are mothers
Percentage of U.S. population living in poverty in 2009
Percentage of single mothers and their children living in poverty in 2009
At a Glance: Follow the Way of Love
In the end, perhaps, Follow the Way of Love most appropriately captures the pastoral tone of the Church’s response to single parents:
Single parents: to be faced with all the responsibilities of parenting by yourself is a challenge that touches the very core of your life. We bishops express our solidarity with you. We urge all parishes and Christian communities to welcome you, to help you find what you need for a good family life, and to offer the loving friendship that is a mark of our Christian tradition.
Wherever a family exists and love still moves through its members, grace is present. Nothing – not even divorce or death – can place limits upon God’s gracious love.
And so, we recognize the courage and determination of families with one parent raising the children. Somehow you fulfill your call to create a good home, care for your children, hold down a job, and undertake responsibilities in the neighborhood and church. You reflect the power of faith, the strength of love, and the certainty that God does not abandon us when circumstances leave you alone in parenting.