THE family under discussion when the extraordinary Synod of Bishops convenes at the Vatican on October 5 will bear little resemblance to the family of 50 or even 20 years ago.
The blended and extended families created by high rates of divorce, remarriage and cohabitation – along with the worldwide migration prompted by economic turmoil and war – have combined to change forever the view of family as limited to a mother, father and their children.
But children are still most likely to live in two-parent families in all countries except South Africa, according to the World Family Map 2014, a research project sponsored by the Bethesda, United States-based non-profit Child Trends and a variety of educational and non-governmental institutions from across the globe.
“The family is the core institution for child-rearing worldwide, and decades of research have shown that strong families promote positive child outcomes,” co-director of the World Family Map and senior program director for education at Child Trends Laura Lippman said.
The report, co-written by Ms Lippman and W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, found that “growing up with a single parent is especially common in sub-Saharan Africa, in Central and South America, and in several English-speaking Western countries”.
One-fifth or more of children in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada live with only one parent, while Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe have the world’s lowest rates of single parenthood. In Australia, it is 18 per cent.
A third of births in Australia are to unmarried women compared with half in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
The report also found that “although marriage rates for adults aged 18-49 are declining worldwide, they remain high in Asia and the Middle East (between 47 per cent in Singapore and 80 per cent in Egypt), and are particularly low in Central/South America”.
The rate of cohabitation for adults aged 18-49 tops 30 per cent in some Central and South American countries and 20 per cent in some European nations, the report said.
Data from the US Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey shows that only 48 per cent of US households include a married couple and 34 per cent of households include only one person or two or more people without family ties of marriage, blood or adoption. Thirteen per cent of “family households” in the US – defined as one in which two members are related by birth, marriage or adoption – are headed by women with no husband present, while five per cent of family households are headed by men, with no wife present.
In a report prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, based in Coral Gables, Florida, Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, found that the “typical” American family that existed in 1960, with a breadwinner-father married to a stay-at-home mother, only applies to 22 per cent of US children today. Meanwhile, 23 per cent of US children live with single mothers, seven per cent with parents who cohabit with unmarried partners, six per cent with single fathers, and three per cent with grandparents and no parent present.
“Different families have different child-rearing challenges and needs, which means we are no longer well-served by policies that assume most children will be raised by married-couple families, especially ones where the mother stays home throughout the children’s early years,” Mr Cohen said in the report.
An associate professor of theology/religion at St Leo University in Florida Randall Woodard told Catholic News Service divorce was the biggest issue facing American families, “and Catholics in the US generally aren’t particularly distinct or different from the rest of the culture here”.
He said the synod would need to find a way to make divorced Catholics who had remarried feel welcomed into the Church, even if their status might preclude them from receiving the sacraments.
“Cultural issues are challenging to address for the Church because (they) can make people feel alienated, but often it’s the same people who need help,” Mr Woodard said. “What churches have (to be) better at conveying is, yes, these things happened, but you’re still welcome here. It’s the same message, with a different tone.”