A number of Woonsocket civil officials, educators, foster parents, clergy and interested neighbors met recently at the invitation of the Rhode Island Department of Children and their Families (DCYF) at St. James Episcopal Church in downtown Woonsocket. Woonsocket has 9,066 minor children. Of these, 33 percent have been referred to DCYF as the result of various forms of abuse, mistreatment and/or neglect. That’s 2,992 Woonsocket youngsters who have come to the attention of state officials. Woonsocket regretfully has the highest percentage of mistreated children in the state. Woonsocket also has the second highest percentage of subsidized housing in the state. Newport surprisingly holds first place in that race. DCYF officials listened attentively as teachers and parents shared stories about the difficulties children face in a largely lower income area like Woonsocket.
As the discussion progressed, the state officers inquired about the role of Woonsocket’s faith communities in dealing with the issue of child mistreatment. The Reverend Peter Tierney was present from the local Episcopal Church; the associate minister from St. James Black Baptist Church was there; and Father Daniel Sweet from Woonsocket’s Queen of Martyrs Church and I were the Catholic representation. Never at a loss for an opinion, I observed that DCYF and many of the concerned persons present became involved in the problem of mistreated children after the fact. Mistreatment occurs and then the helping agencies get involved. The root of the problem, of course, is before the fact, before youngsters are mistreated; and the root of the problem is the “marriage implosion,” as researcher Mary Eberstadt describes the sorry state of marriage and family life within the community at large and especially among lower income families.
In an old mill town like Woonsocket, sociologists find that less than 50 percent of prime-age adults are married. More than 35 percent of those who have been married are divorced. Nearly 25 percent of children are being raised by single mothers, while 60 percent of the children of mothers who dropped out of high school were born out of wedlock. Only 30 percent of the children in a lower income town are living with both biological parents. These figures come from Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010.” This is not the Woonsocket I grew up in. Nor is it the Pawtucket, Providence, Newport, Warwick or Cranston others might have grown up in. Changing attitudes and changing laws regarding contraception, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, abortion, surrogacy, divorce, homosexuality and transgenderism have altered the face of marriage and family life almost beyond recognition. Murray frankly “calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.” And the outlook for Black America is even more grim. Black out of wedlock births exceeded 70 percent in 2016
The Judeo-Christian Scriptural tradition, the Church’s sacramental life and the overwhelming testimony of history all exalt the centrality of marriage and family for insuring a wholesome human experience as well as a fruitful religious life. The primacy of Adam and Eve in the Bible’s narrative is no accident. For all their shortcomings, these first parents set the marital standard of an enduring union of one man and one woman open to new life. Jesus himself heartily endorsed this standard when he quoted word for word the Genesis account and then added, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” The New Testament is clear that the Son of God himself came into this world in a family context. Jesus, Mary and Joseph at Nazareth testify to the centrality of marriage in God’s plan for humankind.
Christianity’s two great social sacraments place the heart of the Church’s religious experience — priesthood — right alongside of the heart of the Church’s social experience — marriage. There can be no truly authentic Church without dedicated priests and there can be no truly authentic family life without enduring marriages. Rodney Stark, in his writing about Church history, notes that the conversion of the Roman Empire from paganism to Christianity resulted in no small measure from the witness of marital fidelity among the Empire’s many Christian soldiers stationed around the Mediterranean world as well as the adamant rejection by Christian spouses of abortion so prevalent in the pagan world. So even from a practical point of view, marital fidelity and concern for new life changed history.
The Woonsocket committee is wise to acknowledge the place of the “faith communities” regarding the current crises facing children, marriage and family. Marriage is as much a mandate from God as is the priesthood. Church and state must pray, instruct and work for the success of both vocations.