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?
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 orphanage.org, 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.