Toward a New Definition of Family Beyond Wife+Husband+Children

As a Catholic feminist, I have devoted my professional life to advocating for women’s human rights in the United States and globally. I have used both religious and human rights frameworks to make the case for women’s equality and reproductive rights. In my work and personal life, I have seen the institutions of “family” and “marriage” used as tools to control women, our sexuality, and reproductive decision-making to protect patriarchal norms. But I have also seen the same institutions used as tools for creating spaces for safety, equality, and empowerment for both women and men.

There is great diversity in family structures and marriage across the world and over time, and today we see legal systems that shape, reinforce, or protect them. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every person has the right to marry and found a family, and that the family is entitled to protection by society and the state. Today, the United Nations continues to protect and assist families and has come to acknowledge that in different cultural, political, and social systems, there exist families of diverse structures and appearances. This diversity is not new and is demonstrated across world’s religions and centuries: Abraham had a concubine; Prince Siddhartha (who became the Buddha) left his family to follow his spiritual path; Jesus chose not to marry; Lao-tzu, the founder of Daoism, had no children; and Muhammad had more than one wife. This diversity of family structure challenges the notion that a single family structure is “mandated” by God, where men are in charge and women and children are subject to his commands. 

One type of family structure that has received little attention as it has evolved over time is the family formed by heterosexual couples that choose not to have children. My husband David and I, for example, made the choice to not have children. Neither Catholic social justice teachings nor Catholic teachings on family and faith address the value and dignity of couples who decide not to have children. In fact, in his recent Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis reaffirms the church’s position that marriage is reserved for heterosexual couples for the begetting of children.[1]

Sadly, Pope Francis’ letter ignores the experiences of those living in and creating their own diverse family structures, even though Catholics have coexisted in family units that are nothing like the Pope’s stated father-mother-child model: single adults, married adults with no children, single parents with children, children without parents, same-sex couples with and without children, multiple adults in a house without children and others with children—the variations go on. 

Catholic feminist and other liberation theologies insist on personal experience as a starting point in the process of liberation, putting the lived experiences of women and those who are oppressed at the center of theological reflection. In this spirit, my reflection on women, family, and religion is grounded in my personal experience as a Catholic woman deciding to create a family with my husband without children of our own. Instead of creating family for the purpose of children, we chose family for the purpose of giving and receiving love, providing safety and security, nurturing values of charity and forgiveness, and providing mutual assistance and serving others. In other words, we have created a family structure with these life-giving functions at its core.

Twenty-one years ago my husband and I met as full-time volunteers at a homeless shelter for women with children in Texas. There we saw how religion can be a force to empower women and families and can also be a barrier to women’s access to autonomy and financial stability to create and sustain their families.

The shelter was founded and run by Catholic nuns who believe in women’s dignity and rights; they created a space for women with children to “get back on their feet” through job and housing assistance, and education and counseling programs to support and strengthen them as individuals and as families. However, at the same time, the women we served who were pregnant had to decide between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals to receive their maternal health care. Whereas non-Catholic hospitals offered a range of reproductive health services, Catholic hospitals prohibited family planning counseling and contraceptive services, denying women the essential care necessary for them to make informed decisions about their health and family structure. 

The juxtaposition of women Catholic religious leaders, informed by the experiences of homeless women with children, following their faith to empower women, and male Catholic religious leaders (the US bishops) imposing their institutions to dis-empower women exposes the need for a more liberating approach to family structure formation. 

David and I worked side-by-side every day at the shelter. While we were there to serve others, we quickly realized how much we received from the women and children we served. Accompanying the women through their complex journeys toward self-sufficiency—with too many of them never reaching their ultimate goal—helped us understand our privilege in the world, as white, heterosexual middle class Americans. The more our eyes were opened to the gross inequities and injustices the women faced, the stronger our commitment to changing the world grew. From that experience, we personally committed to living a life external to our own—a life of service. Our family became the community of individuals who shared our love and commitment to serve others and fight for individual human rights. 

David and I soon promised love to each other forever, while at the same time we also decided not to get married.[2] David and I believed our promise of love and commitment to each other could be expressed and accepted outside of the institution of marriage. This came from my perspective as a Catholic feminist and my view that discrimination against women and LGBT individuals in the church is unjust and cruel, including denial of the sacrament of marriage to lesbian and gay individuals and the denial of the sacrament of ordination to women. 

For us, neither marriage nor children define us as family, and that is why we reject labels such as “childless by choice” or “child free.”  However, once married, not having children becomes a public decision, and I was not prepared for that. I did not realize how strongly communities and societies throughout the world assume that married women will have children—even among my fellow reproductive rights and feminist advocates. For me, a decision to have or not to have children is personal. But the public wants to know why—and has no problem asking. Most troubling is how often when I have answered the question about having children with a “no,” colleagues and family are quick to finish my sentence with “not yet.” I am still shocked by the common assumption across political and religious ideologies that married heterosexual women would (or should) have children. 

Choosing a family without children is a decision that comes with privilege—our access to reproductive health knowledge and care allows us to live out our decision to be without children with relative ease. Our education and progressive Catholic upbringings that instilled a deep respect for women and individual rights gave us the tools to engage in a thoughtful discernment process about marriage and children that made it necessary and possible to follow our consciences fully. 

With the momentum building around marriage equality, it is timely to reflect on the diversity of family structures that have existed throughout time across religious traditions. If the global community is committed to the protection of diverse family structures, individual dignity, and rights, we must move beyond notions of family solely based on marriage and children. That means we must ensure that women and men have the information, services, and support necessary to follow their consciences in decisions about sex and reproduction. The protection and promotion of family functions, such as safety, security, care, and love, is needed so that individuals can live among families of choice or necessity—which may or may not include marriage and children—and individual human rights are protected and promoted.

[1] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), June 29, 2013, 
[2] David and I ultimately decided to get married four years later. We could not ignore how important the sacrament of marriage was for our grandmothers and mothers, and marriage was a small sacrifice we could make for their happiness.

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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