Caring for others is found first in what Helen Alvare calls the interdependability of husband-and-wife. Speaking on restoring the marriage culture to a recent Love and Fidelity Network conference, she explained that this care reveals itself in the parents’ care for their child. Seeing one’s spouse care for a child leads to a new depth of love between spouses: “I love you for how you care for our child.”

During the Q&A period after the talk, I asked about the role of adoption—not just as a choice made by infertile couples—in restored marriage culture. In her brief response, she affirmed that adoption is a good thing and spoke about adoption as an exchange of gifts. This language is similar to that of Pope Saint John Paul II who, in his address to adoptive families in 2000 said, “To adopt a child is a great work of love. When it is done, much is given, but much is also received. It is a true exchange of gifts.” She assured me that her emphasis on procreative sex was in no way a negation or lessening of the significance of adoption.

I appreciated her response but was unsatisfied with it. It is one thing to affirm adoption as good in the context of civic society, but it’s another thing entirely to speak of adoption as necessary.  Not saying adoption is unimportant is very different than saying adoption is important.

A Lack of Language

I wonder if the hesitancy among many Catholics who’ve thought deeply about the family to explore adoption in more depth stems from a lack of a developed and theologically-rich language for use in speaking of the role of adoption within marriage culture?

We certainly have the data showing the negative effects of broken families and by extension the need for the Church to be much more involved in adoption. At the conference, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox presented compelling research to show that marriage and family are crucial for economic flourishing. Wilcox’s statistics could, in many ways, tell my own life story. My father, a black man, was imprisoned when I was born, while my mother, a white woman, was addicted to drugs and poor. Neither, you might imagine, attended college. See the statistics.

Wilcox said low-conflict divorces—such as when the mother and father didn’t scream at each other every night—are actually more destabilizing for children than divorces stemming from high-conflict. Immediately, I thought of my two biological sisters who were adopted by a married couple vastly different from the one that adopted me: their father had an affair and deserted the family. One of my sisters became a teacher, while the other dropped out of high school and had an out-of-wedlock baby. Watch the statistics come to life.

What stood out to me was how the research showed upward mobility to be limited in communities of single-parent households. Wilcox spoke of this in the language of an ecology, which calls to mind Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: the point for both men, one speaking from the social sciences and the other from theology, is that our actions and lifestyles are intimately and intricately connected with the world and those around us.

This language of ecology is crucial in understanding adoption. It is fundamentally an ecological reality because it does not concern itself only with the couple and the child. It also involves the child’s biological family, the native land of the child’s birth (read in the most local language possible: this street, this neighborhood, this house), the various mediating institutions involved (court, government agency, private organization) and their employees.

Adoption and Civil Ecology

Given the reality of our broken world, if we are to speak of strengthening civic society and restoring a marriage culture, how can we not speak of adoption? If adoption has a role in the ecology of civic society and if Pope John Paul II recognized that the the parent-child adoptive relationship is not inferior to the biological relationship, why do we not have a distinctly Catholic language for talking about the necessity of adoption in marriage culture?

Since adoption is unlike procreative sex in that not all Catholic couples need be open to adoption, the language of adoption cannot be applied to everyone prescriptively. Taking a cue from Scripture, however, orphan care and adoption can be talked about prescriptively when seen as a responsibility explicitly given to the Church. More specifically, since such care is commanded by the apostle Paul in direct letters to specific churches, an argument can readily be made that care-as-an-imperative should be internalized by each local parish church.

A distinctly Catholic language of adoption would likely be centered on adoption as the work of communities, not just individuals, with an emphasis on subsidiarity and thus locality. Similarly, this language should be rooted in Pope Paul VI’s understanding (in Populorum Progessio) of the progress of the human being’s development as needfully tied to the development of all humanity in the “spirit of solidarity.”

November is National Adoption Month. It would be appropriate for deeper thinkers than myself to take up the challenge and develop a language of adoption consistent with the great body of Catholic social teaching.

Further reading:

Pope St. John Paul II’s Address to the Meeting of Adoptive Families

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio