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January 17, 2023

Faith and the Family: A Reflective Conversation on the Church’s Interaction with Vulnerable Children and Families over Time

There is global agreement (illustrated by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [1989], the most widely-adopted human rights treaty) that optimal support for a child comes from a caring and protective family. In addition, Catholic social teaching (outlined in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church) seeks the whole development of the child within a family setting, affirming God’s plan for family to be a child’s most important source of love, emotional support, and spiritual guidance. Yet, when vulnerable parents and families do not have the resources to meet their basic needs or are otherwise unable to access fundamental protections, the risk of child-family separation increases.

Woodcut image of a family entitled "Watusi Family," by James Lesesne Wells (1988)
Woodcut image of a family entitled "Watusi Family," by James Lesesne Wells (1988)

Extreme poverty, inadequate access to social services, conflict, disaster, disability, forced labor, discrimination, and human rights violations have led to millions of children experiencing involuntary separation from their families, often living in fragile care environments worldwide—on the streets, in residential care settings or orphanages, in exploitive labor, trafficking, or migrating alone.

“Let us teach others, and learn ourselves, how to view crises, problems and wars through the eyes of children: this is not a mark of naiveté, but of farsighted wisdom, because only if we are concerned for them will progress be reflected in innocence rather than profit, and lead to the building of a better and more humane future.” – Pope Francis, Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence (November 4, 2022)

Decades of research have shown that children’s well-being is seriously impacted by involuntary child-family separation and lack of family care. Family separation, combined with the inappropriate use of alternative care, can lead to immediate and long-term physical, social, psychological and emotional harm. Children in such circumstances often experience abuse, neglect, lack of stimulation, and extreme and toxic stress, all of which have a profoundly negative effect on a child’s development and adult outcomes.

The phenomenon of preventable child-family separation is as old as time. Societal approaches to children at risk of losing parental care are largely informed by cultural beliefs and habits. Faith-based perspectives and responses are—and have always been—an important part of this equation. Christian faith communities have responded to child-family separation in various ways throughout history, contributing to both the propagation and prevention of child-family separation across time and contexts. It is worth considering the role of Christian faith communities and vulnerable families during American slavery, through interactions with Indigenous communities and the establishment of residential boarding schools, the development and use of orphanages and institutional care worldwide, and in response to refugee and migrant movements.

The Faith and the Family Forum will explore the theological dimensions of these issues and growing evidence about the effects of child-family separation on developmental outcomes across the life course. With a particular focus on the Roman Catholic faith, project partners will consider how the Catholic Church has justified or opposed the involuntary separation of children from their families in a variety of historical and regional contexts. Forum partners will also attend to important lessons learned and the Catholic Church’s efforts to support vulnerable children, families, and communities and prevent unnecessary child-family separation.

The forum is a joint project between Catholic Relief Services and the Georgetown University Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, in coordination with the Changing the Way We Care initiative and strategic partners. The forum is an emergent process, an ongoing conversation shaped by a collaborative design team of thought leaders committed to incorporating a variety of perspectives into the conversation, including those who have experienced child-family separation, faith leaders, programmatic actors, researchers, and other stakeholders.

We invite you to join us. For more information, please contact or sign up for email updates.

“The protection of the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a family environment and to receive nutrition, education, and support are duties of the family and society. Such duties must be guaranteed and protected so that they are not overlooked or denied to any child in any part of the world. All those practices that violate the dignity and rights of children must be denounced.” – Pope Francis, A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, (February 3–5, 2019)