In the late afternoon on a muggy day this past summer, I attended a funeral for a friend’s mother. A woman who had spent her working career as a nurse and her retirement years volunteering with AIDS patients, my friend’s mom lived into her late 90s. The testimonies at the funeral were moving. Her friends and family spoke about her kindness, her devotion to the marginalized and her deep and devout love for the Catholic Church that had sustained her over the course of a very long life. But when her children got up to speak, both of them returned again and again to the same topic: their mother’s care for them as a single parent.
The relationship between single mothers and the Catholic Church is not always an easy one. Because the church has long defined marriage as central to lay Catholic identity, Catholic single mothers have sometimes stayed hidden in the shadows.
The history of Ireland’s mother and baby homes, where so-called “fallen women” and their children were subject to horrific treatment at the hands of Catholic religious orders, has become widely known thanks to a number of journalistic and government investigations. Similar homes existed throughout the United States. Physical and mental abuse, rampant disease and early death were common in Catholic-run homes for single mothers. An investigation by the Marshall Project into mother and baby homes in the United States revealed that these homes were “at least as numerous” until the mid-20th century as they were in Ireland—and “at least as brutal.” The so-called “fallen women” who populated these homes, according to the historian Estelle Freedman, experienced a greater stigma than male criminals of the 19th-century.
While the church’s treatment of single mothers has greatly improved, some of that stigma remains. In a survey of Catholic women commissioned by America and conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, single Catholic mothers reported mixed experiences of parish life. The survey revealed that “Catholic women are more likely to agree ‘very much’ that divorced and remarried Catholics (25 percent) and non-heterosexual Catholics (25 percent) are more welcome in their parish than unwed Catholic parents (16 percent).” Most of the widowed and divorced parents who responded said their parishes were only “a little” or “somewhat” welcoming, and nearly 18 percent said their parishes were not at all welcoming. More than half of women overall said their parish provides no or little support for new mothers (52 percent) or child care (55 percent).
It is not news to Catholics that change in the church is slow, particularly when it comes to the status of women.
It is not news to Catholics that change in the church is slow, particularly when it comes to the status of women. In the case of births out of wedlock, women have long carried the burden of responsibility for whatever sins may have led to their becoming single mothers. In his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis wrote, “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough to simply apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”
But attitudes toward single mothers vary widely from parish to parish. The pope spoke out against priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers in 2016, saying that denial is a form of “pastoral cruelty.” When it comes to the baptism of the children of single mothers, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says only that at least one of the parents must promise to do their best to bring up the child as a Catholic. Yet even in Berkeley, Calif., the famously liberal city where I teach, the priest at my former parish told me he had received a phone call from a sobbing woman who had been told by the pastor of another local church that her child could not be baptized there unless she was married.
According to the last U.S. census, nearly a quarter of children in the United States are being raised in single-parent homes, and the majority of those are single-mother families. That means there are over 10 million single mothers, about half of whom are divorced, a third of whom have never been married and a smaller number who are widows.
The pope spoke out against priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers, saying that denial is a form of “pastoral cruelty.”
There have been multiple stories in the past few years of single female employees of Catholic churches, schools and colleges being fired for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Morality clauses, which require teachers at Catholic schools to agree not to bear a child out of wedlock, enter into a same-sex marriage or use birth control, have received increased attention in some dioceses. In 2014, Shaela Evanson of Helena, Mt., became pregnant and was fired for violating the morality clause of the contract at the Catholic school where she taught. The single mother Christa Dias was fired by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2010 when she became pregnant through in vitro fertilization, and on a Reddit thread from 2016, a devout teacher at a Catholic school fretted about expediting her wedding after she became pregnant so as not to lose her job.
The difficulties single mothers face in the church are not new. Although my friend’s mother was a churchgoing Catholic until her death, as a divorced woman in the 1960s, she sometimes faced judgment from fellow Catholics, with the added stress of raising two children on her own as a working woman. Vacations were a rarity, the kids often wore second-hand clothes, and money was so tight they took in roomers to make ends meet.
Ashley Doherty, who is in her 60s and was widowed in her 30s, says that when it came to parish life as a single mother, “I felt on the outside looking in at the time, without anybody being deliberately rude.” Ms. Doherty grew up in Mississippi during the era of segregation and says that the church of her childhood treated a single-parent family or any family without a large number of children as problematic. For those kinds of families, “it almost becomes a requirement that you acknowledge your second-class status before you’re allowed in the door,” she says.
Ms. Doherty says the prejudice toward single mothers in the church may be part of a larger reaction against other kinds of relationships—same-sex couples, unmarried couples living together and so on—that stray from the ideal of a “traditional” family. As the rise of feminism in the second half of the 20th century began to change society’s views of the roles available to women within families, the church struggled to understand how to deal with the presence of single mothers who may have previously stayed hidden in congregations. By the 1970s and ’80s, these women were discovering a kind of self-agency as they saw single, empowered women more widely represented in popular culture.
Ms. Doherty says the prejudice toward single mothers in the church may be part of a larger reaction against other kinds of relationships.
“It’s not like we were having single mother marches,” Ms. Doherty says. But their presence did become more mainstream, and they were less ashamed of their status. Before feminism, she says, single mothers “were almost content to be in the back of the back of the church.” But even after the feminist revolution, “the time constraint and the inability to participate” that Ms. Doherty encountered as a single mother meant it was difficult for her to really feel engaged in parish life, even though she chose to remain Catholic.
That experience led her to question whether to bring up her daughter in the church, and she ultimately decided that it would be her daughter’s own decision. When her daughter was in junior high, Ms. Doherty realized her daughter’s catechesis classes were thin on theology, and she told her daughter it was up to her whether she would continue with them. By the time her daughter was 13 and the time for confirmation had arrived, Ms. Doherty says she told her: “You can walk out any time. This is not mandatory.” But her daughter chose to be confirmed, stayed in the church and is now raising her own children as Catholics.
Donna, a single mother in her 30s, who asked that her last name be withheld, says that her experiences in the Catholic Church have also been mixed. Donna was divorced at a time in her life when she was lapsed from the church, and her child from that marriage was not baptized. When she returned to the church a year ago, she was told by the pastor of her local church that in order for her child to be baptized, she would need to get an annulment. She contacted her local archdiocese, but they never returned her calls.
In her years as a single mother, it was partially the church’s attitude—exemplified by that unreturned phone call—that caused her to again distance herself from the church. Single motherhood, she says, means “you never get a break, you never rest or are able to take a step back,” which for her meant that spiritual questions had to move to the back burner in favor of survival. The logistical and financial assistance she did receive did not come from the church but from her artistic community. At times, she says, she felt “branded with a scarlet letter” in church and adds that she had never “encountered a Catholic community that helped me out personally.”
Single motherhood means “you never get a break, you never rest or are able to take a step back.”
Donna is now engaged and pregnant again. Although she left the church before because she felt “treated like the sum of my mistakes in life,” she says her current efforts to get her first marriage annulled, get married in the church and have her child and soon-to-be-born second child baptized are the result of “a lot of growing up” and an effort to move past “nasty” experiences with church staff and to “keep my eyes on Christ.”
Donna says that any kind of support from the church for single mothers would have been enormously helpful to her in the past but that some members of the clergy seem afraid to offer it “because of a misplaced fear of glorifying divorce or glorifying premarital sex.” A single-parents group, a Bible study or simply providing a place where single Catholic mothers could get together and share their experiences, she says, was pretty much impossible to find.
Acknowledge, Accept, Support
It is telling that while I was researching this essay, my searches turned up only one group for Catholic single parents that promoted itself in ways that were easy to find on the internet. That group meets at St. Thomas More church in Austin, Tex. Founded in 2003 by two single parents from the congregation, the group was given approval by both the pastor and the diocese. The participants mirror the larger demographics of single parents in the United States: While single fathers do attend the group, about three-quarters of the participants are single mothers, and a majority of those are divorced. At their first meeting, 25 single parents showed up, and they made it their goal to identify the issues faced by Catholic single parents and to meet the needs of the single parents in the congregation.
The number one issue they identified, according to the program’s current director, Jaquelyn Mika, was that the single parents did not know where they fit in the Catholic Church and did not feel welcomed. They also learned that what single parents in the congregation needed was primarily “emotional, practical and spiritual support.”
Ms. Mika, a single mother to grown children, says that in terms of practical support, child care is the number-one priority for single mothers who attend the group, so the parish provides free babysitting during the meetings. The format is simple. The group meets monthly and is facilitated by a moderator. It provides an opportunity for single parents to discuss their lives in what Ms. Mika calls a “safe and confidential” environment, with opportunities to speak but not a lot of pressure to do so. The parish also offers supplemental monthly meetings for single parents with guest speakers offering talks on topics of special interest to parents, including the psychological issues common in single-parent households, the legal issues faced by single parents as well as health and budgeting. On the spiritual side, the group has hosted speakers on the annulment process and on catechesis for children. They also offer social events that parents can participate in with or without children.
The group has also provided support to single-parents groups at other churches and has identified three areas where single parents feel their pastoral needs are not generally being met. Those include acknowledgment, acceptance and support. Acknowledgment, Ms. Mika says, can mean anything from occasional recognition in prayers at Mass to sensitivity from pastors and church staff. The needs of single parents are different; and time, money and child care are all high priorities. Acceptance includes reassurance that they do have a place in the church and not being made to feel like “second-class citizens.” And support can range from providing child care to a church forming its own single-parents group.
Ms. Mika says attendance can fluctuate from meeting to meeting because of the logistical challenges single parents face, but that the numbers are not the priority. Forming community is. While her group was enthusiastically supported by the local diocese, that has not always been the case for groups in other churches that have sought help in starting a similar ministry. And occasionally, people just stop attending. But an email Ms. Mika sent, written by the former director of the ministry, says not showing up can actually be a sign of success: People often arrive for the first time feeling spiritually broken, and after six months to a year of attending the group, they sometimes feel so much better that they just move on. Simply having a place to feel acknowledged, accepted and supported is enough to create change.
Groups like the one at St. Thomas More can help break the stigma around single mothers in the church, but as the Catholic single mothers I spoke to testify, it is also a matter of acknowledgment and acceptance from congregations and pastors. Pope Francis called a single mother who had written him in 2013 and offered to baptize her child if she could not find a priest who would do it. But the fact that the woman expected to be turned down by priests in the first place reflects the same second-class status that many single mothers experience.
In their experiences on the margins of the church, these self-sacrificing women who stick with the church even when it pushes back against them might actually be prophetic witnesses to the power of faith. It is worth remembering that the first person to spread the news of Jesus was not the apostle Paul but the many-times-married Samaritan woman he met at the well. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,” John’s Gospel tells us. Perhaps it is time for the church to begin listening to these women, too.