Today’s “Widows and Orphans”

Senior Editor’s note: Robert Royal and the EWTN “Papal Posse” (with host Raymond Arroyo and Fr. Gerald Murray) are in Philadelphia to cover the main reason for the Holy Father’s journey to the New World: his attendance at the World Meeting of Families. As Bob Royal points out in today’s report on yesterday’s events in New York, the family is close to the pope’s heart, although (as in the pope’s speech at the U.N.) some clarifications are needed. – Brad Miner

The care of widows and orphans is a constant theme in both the Old and New Testaments. Exhortations and provisions for their treatment are spelled out in Deuteronomy and Exodus. The book of Job, the Psalms, and in particular the prophets, continually point out the mistreatment of widows and orphans as an evil that will be avenged by God.

In the New Testament, Jesus berates the Pharisees for their injustices to widows (Mt. 23:14). St. James emphasizes care for widows and orphans as a major “work” which should characterize the faith of Christians. (Jas. 1:27) Greek converts complained to the Apostles that their widows were not receiving the same treatment as Hebrews (Acts 6:1). And St. Paul points to various factors that should govern the treatment of widows in Timothy’s congregation. (1Tim. 5:3ff.)

In the early Christian social environment, the average lifespan was about thirty-five years – mostly the result of extremely high infant mortality. If we adjust for that, the life expectancy at age 10 was probably about 45-47. Women, of course, have always lived, on average, longer than men. Thus widows, including widows with children, would outnumber widowers. And for early Christian communities, a constant challenge for social justice would have been the needs of widows whose breadwinners had died, and also their children.

In modern times, in spite of longer life spans, and the social networks available in industrialized countries, the problem of assistance to widows and their families still remains. Perhaps an even more formidable problem now, however, for the Church as well as governments (in the aftermath of the sexual revolution and the era of no-fault divorces) is the plethora of divorcees, who often become impoverished guardians of single-parent families. Particularly affected are housewives who depended on husbands for support, and are suddenly abandoned, left to “pick up the pieces.” And then there are workingwomen whose income after divorce is insufficient to maintain a home, provide for children, and so forth.

Today the Church is debating whether Catholic women, who are frequently in that situation, and have subsequently remarried, can receive Communion. The cases often involve divorcees abandoned by spouses who decide they are gay, or wreak violence on their spouse and children, or just decide that they want to be free of children or to remarry. Certainly such women are vulnerable to remarrying not just for love and companionship, but also from the additional motive of subsisting and raising their families, where no substantial public assistance is forthcoming.

In a sense, newly divorced women are the counterpart to the widows that the early Christians were enjoined to care for. Some parishes have instituted associations for single parents, to help address this problem. But if the Church is going to remain faithful about the indissolubility of sacramental marriage for members who have been divorced, are there any effective measures for helping such single parents to retain their dignity, remain celibate, and provide for their children and their education?

"The Widow’s Mite" by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
“The Widow’s Mite” by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
            In my own family, I have seen cases in which divorced wives with three or more children eventually had to move in with relatives for years, after all attempts at economic independence had failed. But extended-family arrangements are often not available, and this is a “charity” that certainly deserves organized assistance from the Church. For many such divorcees, it is not enough to say, “be well and provide for your family – but if you had a sacramental marriage, remember that it is indissoluble.”

There are also contemporary counterparts to the early Christian “orphans.” Probably the most visible examples are the child victims of divorce, unwanted, subjected to neglect or cruelty, often runaways, often passed from one “foster family” to another.

Orphanages now seem to be passé, no doubt due in part to fears of the “Oliver Twist” syndrome. And there are some serious real-life cases, such as the recent revelations of scandals at Irish orphanages run by the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy, or the sex abuse charges against the former St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont. If you check, you will find that there are still some orphanages under Catholic or Protestant or private auspices. But many of them have changed their title to “children’s home,” many have diversified into centers for finding foster care or treatment for children with special needs. And some of the “orphanage” websites are simply for “alumni” of orphanages that ceased to exist decades ago, but wish to keep in contact with each other or former staff.

In the days before abortion became a quick fix for unwanted children, I had a relative who put all of her children in an orphanage in California run by Catholic nuns. But now, as with Catholic schools, there are hardly any nuns left to carry on such a demanding ministry.

Foster care seems an alternative to adoption for some people, but with a very uneven record for handling fatherless children. Numerous pro-life organizations exist and deserve support, but hardly any of them focus on adoption – which seems to be the most obvious positive response to the temptation to abort. Just a few organizations specialize in helping women throughout their pregnancy as well as finding them good and competent adoptive parents.

There are innumerable couples wanting to adopt children – a process which involves long searches, considerable expense, and red tape. Pope Francis is now moving to make arrangements for marital annulments speedier and less complicated. Making adoption easier is certainly no less important, and may help reduce our appalling abortion statistics. Perhaps some of the demonstrators at abortion facilities should hold signs saying, “We will help you complete an adoption.”

There are of course still numerous widows and orphans in the Biblical sense; but modern changes in morals and the prevalence of easy divorce have created problems that share a family resemblance.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Chris Rawlings

    That is a lovely thought. Of course, like virtually anything, it is vastly easier to let them do what they like and then go on and on about how sweet and merciful we are in so doing. What you suggest would require not only fidelity to Christ, but also a truly sacrificial commitment to those who really need it. How many in the Church are willing to gut it out on both fronts when the temptation to smooth it all over for the sake of being “pastoral” awaits? For that matter, am I willing to spend money to support these postmodern “widows?” You get the sense that keeping the Barque in good shape will increasingly demand more and more of us all.

  • givelifeachance2

    Adoption would also stem the tide of test tube (ivf) conceptions making it a signature charity for the Church. However our shepherds in America have allowed themselves to be bullied out of the field by homosex activists moaning about not being allowed to adopt from our adoption agencies. Instead of standing and fighting, a la Kim Davis, most bishops have simply closed down their adoption agencies.

  • Jill

    It is not difficult to place a child for adoption. Simply mention the availability of a baby and yearning couples will flock to your door with lawyers in tow and money to support all and any assumed costs related to delivering the baby into their waiting hands. It’s almost as easy as walking into Planned Parenthood pregnant and walking out not.

    No, what I hear from good Catholics is a very negative attitude about any woman who would choose to place her baby for adoption, as if she is abandoning him or her. Do we not understand that we are also adopted, we who call ourselves children of God and siblings of our Lord Jesus? I have heard this more than once and each time it broke my heart.

    I hope it is still up and running, but there is a maternity home in Escondido, CA, which serves only mothers who intend to place their babies for adoption. Lamb of God Maternity Home is its name, I believe. This is what is needed in far greater numbers.

    • tad

      very good thinking / thank you for your comment

  • LAM

    Howard, Your article led me to redisover these reflections on the wounded heart of a wife who has given herself totally and completely to her husband and children.

    “The wife (abandoned by her husband) remains an unfinished symphony,

    clamoring for spiritual understanding.” Anonymous

    “Great is the sorrow of a woman when her husband abandons his responsibility

    to her and seeks what he calls, ‘freedom’ from what is his own flesh and blood.”


  • craig

    The stats I have read say that 70+% of divorces are initiated by the woman. While it is undoubtedly good for the church to tend to women who were divorced unwillingly, it is scandalous and pernicious to make no distinction between widows and women who divorced for frivolous reasons.

    • Howard Kainz

      The fact that the divorce was initiated by the woman does not necessarily imply that it was frivolous — for instance where it was the only way to stop abuse and cruelty to herself or the children.

    • Sophia

      I believe it was Mark Twain who said: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Stats, as you say. The statistics tell us nothing about the reasons or motives for initiating a divorce. I know many who divorce frivolously; but I believe that many more do not…especially in cases of abuse, neglect, infidility, etc. when there is no longer hope for help when help is desparately needed. The Church does not help in these matters…more often than not, the advice is: go get a divorce and then come back and we will help you get an annulment. I know for a fact that such cases make up a good part of that 70% statistic. No doubt there are good men who have found the same thing when it comes to the Church, divorce, and annulments. Statistics tell us nothing about details or motives. In my opinion, for Catholics these days, it is the Church who is frivolous when it comes to marriage.

  • Elizabeth Duran Gessner

    Excellent! I’d never thought of the “single mothers” as being the “new widows.” But is what they are. A great insight! Time for a new religious order…

  • Howard Kainz

    The St. Vincent de Paul societies in many parishes may include such cases in their umbrella projects. But I’m not personally aware of any organizations oriented specifically to aiding widows and abandoned wives and children. The definite organizing in the early Church for helping widows should be an incentive for starting modern counterparts.