November is Adoption Awareness Month in the United States—a national effort to promote the cause of the more than 125,000 children currently in foster care and awaiting adoption. Historically the Catholic Church has invested a great deal of its charitable efforts in the care of orphaned children, but recently adoption has become a battleground for concerns about religious freedom. The church is reluctant to place children with parents it deems inadequate—most prominently gay and lesbian couples—and these policies often run afoul of state antidiscrimination laws. Rather than compromise, some Catholic agencies get out of the adoption business altogether, as the archdiocese of Boston did in 2006. My own Midwestern diocese will soon follow suit.
It’s unfortunate that the church is abandoning its adoption outreach in these places—and equally unfortunate that an exemption can’t be made to allow Catholic Charities to continue to do its work. For Catholics, adoption is more than a useful public program; it is a response to the gospel imperative to serve the poor and powerless. But as an adoptive parent, I am frustrated with the official pronouncements from the church on the subject of adoption. When the topic is raised, it is often in the service of a political agenda, and usually with a focus on the needs of adults. There’s little confusion about what kind of family the church believes children should have: two parents, a mother and a father, married, stable, and faithful. But I hear too little from the church about the scandal of one child with no parents.
There are well over a half-million children living without parents in the United States today. Many have been separated from their parents for reasons of personal safety. The stated goal of the foster-care system is to reunite these young people with their birth families. But there are more than 125,000 children in foster care and institutional homes awaiting adoption, according to a 2006 report from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. Most of these children are between the ages of one and fifteen.
The church no longer runs as many orphanages as it did a century ago. Many dioceses cooperate with outside agencies, sharing information on available children and couples through social workers, in order to place children—most often infants—in adoptive homes. Some work with AdoptUsKids, an initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services that primarily addresses the needs of older foster children. But my sources in diocesan agencies around the United States tell me they do much less work in facilitating adoption than was done in the past. Crisis-pregnancy counseling is still a priority for Catholic Charities, but one diocesan director told me more of their contacts are choosing to keep the baby. In my home diocese, for example, there have been only five placements in the past seven years. This decline is part of the reason my diocese plans to discontinue adoption services, although I was assured that women in crisis pregnancies will be referred to a neighboring diocese or to a private agency.
Catholics often hear about adoption as an alternative in situations when a birth mother is unable or unwilling to care for a baby, and in particular for pregnant women who might be considering an abortion. Adoption also gives childless couples an alternative to fertility treatments that the church considers immoral. Pope John Paul II mentioned adoption in this context in Familiaris consortio (1981): “It must not be forgotten however that, even when procreation is not possible, conjugal life does not for this reason lose its value. Physical sterility in fact can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children.”
It’s important to acknowledge the anguish of couples who are unable to conceive—my wife and I were in that boat. The church is right to invite infertile couples to live their vocation in other ways. But to me it seems a mark of a certain narcissism that adoption tends to be promoted mainly as a solution for childlessness, rather than as a solution for the child. I see very little encouragement for families with children to consider adoption, despite the tens of thousands of children in foster care who might benefit from joining a stable family. This is a significant blind spot in the church’s moral witness. Our opportunity—and duty—to support life does not end when a child is born. The needs of parentless children ought to be a central concern for every Christian. After all, while it is possible for a marriage to thrive without children, it is much more difficult for children to thrive without parents.
The needs of children are very much a priority for the social workers and state agencies that serve them. My wife and I learned this when we adopted a “special needs” child in 2001, after a search that took years. (The meaning of “special needs” can vary from state to state, and even from one social worker to another; in our daughter’s case it means she has a serious medical condition that requires close attention.) We had looked into adopting through Catholic Charities, but my wife had just turned forty—the age limit set by the diocese. We turned instead to the state of Iowa. A social worker we met early in the process told us that her role was to advocate for the kids in her care, with an emphasis on their specific needs. We would have to be our own advocates, she informed us—the social worker’s job is to place children well, and that might mean we would be passed over many times as the agency worked to pair children with the parents who were judged best able to care for them. In the end, we were told “no” nearly twenty times before we were finally matched with our then-four-year-old daughter.
Many dioceses have curtailed their adoption services in response to laws that would require them to help gay couples adopt. These dioceses seem satisfied to focus their charitable outreach in other areas. I’m not convinced this is a wise course of action. At worst, it looks like petulance. At best, it reveals a lack of imagination when it comes to advocating on behalf of parentless children. My suggestion would be to retool adoption services rather than abandon them outright. The church could promote a broad, nationwide effort to encourage Catholic married couples (with and without children) to consider adopting children in foster care. Parishes could form adoption awareness-raising and support groups. Social workers could be invited to explain the adoption process, and couples who have been through the process could share their experiences with others. Once the word got out that my wife and I were adopting, we were astonished to discover that many of our friends and acquaintances had already adopted—or had been adopted themselves. Now that we have seen the needs of parentless children, we are eager to spread the word. And what better witness to life could we Catholics give than to help some of those 125,000 girls and boys in foster care?
Adoption is the mutual building of a family, as the judge who presided over our adoption reminded us: my wife and I adopted our daughter; she adopted us. It’s a beautiful, complex illustration of what the church’s vision of family can mean, and it’s a vital service to the most vulnerable among us. The church can work harder to call attention to the needs of parentless kids, and to encourage more prospective parents to consider this form of self-giving love.