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This week’s cover story details a new reality that has taken root in Europe and the United States -- alternative forms of family.

Family is no longer the exclusive domain of heterosexual couples and their children. More and more, single parents, divorced and remarried couples, and combined families are making claims on the language and culture of the family. Gay and lesbian couples, too, are openly professing their love and extending that love to the children they are adopting. They enroll their kids in school and sports activities, go to parent-teacher conferences and do their share of carpooling.

We are well beyond the point of debate over whether such alternative unions, “de facto” unions in Vatican parlance, and nontraditional family groups should happen. They have become a part of life and will increasingly play a role in church and society.

Some might see these developments as an affront to traditional family ethics and ideals -- selfless love, nurturing the lives of biological or adopted children, sexual intimacy within committed relationships and the limitless goods that can come from humans bound by choice, blood, circumstance and tradition. But something deeper and more significant could also be happening. It just could be that those traditional values, so important to preserve and foster, are spreading to nontraditional settings. Instead of seeing these new forms in confrontation with what is good in traditional marriages and families, we might view them as a new way of living what is good in traditional marriages.

The misfortune is that at a time when considerable energy should be focused on the implications of these new forms of family for church life and, conversely, on the implications of religious belief for these new expressions of family, few, except those inclined to condemn and dismiss, will go near such subjects. It is dangerous to ask new theological questions these days.

We hope our stories in this issue help the process of understanding by outlining some of the issues involved, by helping to raise some of the questions essential to discussing the issues, but most of all by introducing you to people who are daily wrestling with and living out the issues in the real world.

I am happy to announce that Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, noted author whose work appears regularly in these pages, is writing a special Lenten meditation series that will appear in NCR beginning in the Feb. 23 issue. Chittister, whose books include In Search of Belief (Ligouri Publications, 1999) and Living Well: Scriptural Reflections for Every Day (Orbis, 2000), will, in her inimitably provocative way, delve into the readings of the week, raising questions about how the ancient texts apply to 21st-century Catholic Christians.

We plan to run each reflection a week before the scripture readings are used in the liturgy in the event that parish groups, ministers or small Christian communities would like to use the Chittister pieces for meditation or to prepare for the coming week.

Extra copies can be ordered. For information call 1-800-444-8910, Ext. 2239.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001