“Is the Church against or in support of single parenthood?” I was asked to address this question at a discussion forum. But the question, as formulated, already suggests that single parents are cast in dark light. It sets them up as stigmatized. That is why, in the interest of pastoral sensitivity, I consider it fitting and necessary to reformulate it.
Out of pastoral sensitivity, the question is or ought to be: what is the position of the Church on single parenthood? But there is a more fundamental question, and that is: who are single parents? It is often the case that by “single parent” is meant a woman who is bringing up a child outside wedlock. But there are men who are single parents. Pope St. John Paul II was brought up by a single parent.
His mother died when he was a little boy, at which point his father became a single parent. In one of his biographies, the great Pope is reported to have said that, as a little boy, he would wake up in the morning and find that his father was already kneeling down by his bed praying. That challenges us to differentiate between those who are single parents by choice, and those who are single parents because circumstances beyond their control have made them so.
A widower or a widow who chooses not to remarry and continues to provide parenting to his or her children is a single parent, not by choice but by circumstance. Such a single parent is different from a woman or man who chooses to have a child out of wedlock. There are people who chose to be single parents because, rightly or wrongly, they have chosen the path of divorce or separation. Increasingly, there are women who, because of the desire to have a child, and the pressure society puts on them, would take the option of having a man to father the child without marrying them.
They are single parents by choice. There are two issues at stake, in that last instance, and the issues are not to be reduced to single parenthood. To reduce the two issues to single parenthood would amount to dealing with an effect while overlooking the cause. What then are the two issues? The first is the issue of sexual activity outside marriage, which is promoted by the deliberate choice of having a child outside wedlock. Sex speaks a language. We must therefore inquire: what is the meaning the sexual act? Another way of asking that question is: when two human beings are having sex, what are they saying to each other? When two human beings are having sex, they are not just communicating to each other the fact that they are sexually attracted to each other, or the fact that they are sexually aroused.
They are not just communicating to each other the fact that they desire to have children. When two human beings, male and female, are having sex with each other, they are saying to each other: I love you totally, I give myself to you totally, and I accept you totally. They give their bodies to each other. But the human body is not just a bundle of tissues and attractive sex organs but the representation of a person. In their mutual gift of two bodies, they are saying to each other that they love and accept each other mutually, totally, and, if their gift of their two bodies to each other is total, then they are saying to each other that this mutual donation of their two selves is in perpetuity, not just for the sake of conceiving a child.
In one word, the sexual act means there is a total, mutual and perpetual gift of two selves. Love is what gives meaning to sex. T hat is why our sexuality represents our capacity to love and be loved. This is quite different from seeing sex as what you do either for pleasure or for procreation. It is what you do for love, and love is open to new life. In the sexual act, two persons are saying something to each other. By having sex with each other, they are saying that their love is mutual self-gift of two persons. The gift of their bodies to each other in the sexual act is an expression of total love capable of bearing fruit in new life.
This truth about the sexual act is deliberately contradicted when the choice is made to have a child out of wedlock in an act where the man, who ought to be a father, is reduced to a sperm donor. The man is reduced to and used as sperm donor by the woman, and the woman is reduced to and used as object of sexual gratification by the man. Both partners reduce each other to an object in a depersonalizing sexual act. But there is a second issue with deliberate single parenthood. It is the conflict between the desire of a woman to have a child and the right of the child.
The choice of sexual activity outside marriage for the sake of procreation may satisfy a woman who strongly desires to have a child. But the child so conceived is unjustly treated right from conception, I should say even before conception. For, whereas every child has a right to two parents living together and bringing up the child together, the child in this instance is a child robbed of full parenting.
A child is a fruit of love, not the outcome of utilitarian sexual encounter, not the outcome of a laboratory experiment as is the case in artificial insemination. But it would be unjust to women if one were to overlook the role of cultural perception in the matter of single parenthood. There is a tendency to refuse, in the name of our “African culture”, to recognize a woman’s dignity as human because she is not married, or because, although married, she is childless, or because, although married with children, she has no male child.
It is a cultural perception that puts pressure on many women in our society. Those who would justify this way of looking at the woman would have us believe that it is in consonance with African culture. But that points to the need to interrogate our understanding of culture. Culture is not just a product, culture is a process. In fact, the product is the outcome of a process. If culture were just a product, a finished product, as some would think, then culture would not evolve. Some would want to do everything the way “our ancestors” did them.
But culture is an ongoing cultivation of the human person which calls for change where and when there are aspects of culture that violate human dignity. Moreover, a static culture is a dead culture. T he Gospel challenges every culture to allow the grace of God to heal and elevate it. For us Christians, whatever is in culture that violates human dignity violates the Gospel. That is why the teaching of the Gospel is countercultural, even as we have to assume the task of inculturation, which is the task of bearing witnessing to the Gospel in and through a culture.
We must have the courage to liberate ourselves from a musegraphic incarceration that would make us do things just because our ancestors did them and only in the way our ancestors did them. It is a sin to reduce a woman to a baby producing machine who must be discarded because, often for no fault of hers, she cannot find a suitable husband to marry, or is yet to have a child, or yet to have a male child. On the part of the woman, it is a sin to make a deliberate choice of having a child outside wedlock. But if we sin, God’s forgiving love is available.
The Church is minster of God’s mercy, not minister of God’s anger. The Church has an obligation to support all parents. Thus, in every instance of single parenthood, whether it is by choice or by imposition of circumstance, the Church has an obligation to provide pastoral care for parents. Support for those who are single parents by choice is not support for single parenthood by choice.
The Church does not support the lifestyle of deliberate single parenthood which necessarily implies deliberate sexual activity outside marriage. For it is within the covenant of marriage that the sexual act speaks truthfully. But the Church that does not support a lifestyle of sexual activity outside marriage has an obligation to support all parents even when they have children outside marriage. T he pastoral care provided by the Church is for everyone whether or not their lives conform to her teaching on sexual morality.
To use the wisdom of St Augustine of Hippo, the Church has an obligation to hate sin but to love the sinner. And, when she assumes this obligation, the Church bears witness to the love of the heavenly Father of whom our Lord spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, the Father who lets his sun shine on the just and on the unjust, and who allows his rain to fall on the just and on the unjust.
• Rev. Fr. (Prof.) Anthony Akinwale, O.P, a seasoned scholar and academician is the Vice Chancellor of Dominican University, Ibadan.