November is National Adoption Month. In officially declaring this month in a presidential address on October 28, Obama noted, “More than 400,000 children are in foster care across America today, and over 100,000 of these children are waiting for an adoptive home. Last year, over 23,000 youth aged out of the foster care system without having found their forever families.”
Adoption remains, to this day, one of those ideas that always sounds nice but is rarely acted upon. I cannot fault people for their hesitation. Adopting an older child has been, unquestionably, one of the most counter-cultural things my wife and I have done–more than attending grad school, more than wanting to teach theology, more than remaining an intelligent, scientifically-minded Catholic.
I can give you more statistics, and offer you heart-wrenching facts about caring for children without families. I can quote you without end from the Bible about the priority of orphan care in Christianity, and I can point you to endless resources to help begin your own journey to foster or adoptive care. But chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’ve heard this refrain before.
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As a systematic theologian, I am always looking for the root causes to belief structures, especially within Christianity. Why do we believe specific things about the Bible, about Christ, about God? What philosophical and theological ideas are these beliefs founded upon? How might a shift in underlying theological arguments change the way we see the world?
With this in mind, I’ve been doing lots of thinking lately about adoption, especially in light of the recent Synod on Marriage and Family. How does the Catholic Church explicitly promote adoption and foster care, and how might it approach the topic better? Don’t get me wrong: Catholic religious communities have long been leaders in children’s ministries here in the US and around the world. From Catholic Charities to St. Vincent’s Children’s Home to Boys Town, Roman Catholics are and hopefully ever will be deep in the trenches caring for foster and adoptive youth.
But it is not enough.
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To be Christian, I remind myself often, means placing yourself in the line of fire for the weakest and most helpless in the world. It means, quite literally, acting as Christ–ostracizing yourself from society for the sake of the tax collectors, the unbelievers, the children. When I combine this conception with the idea of systematic theological reflection, I find myself wishing for a different kind of theological approach to adoption. Instead of a better theology of family, or even a theology of “adoption,” I find myself wishing for a theology of children.
A theology of children shifts the methodological center of theology away from the idealized family of two parents and biological children, towards the difficult lives of children around the world. It would serve alongside the current theology of marriage and family as a reminder that some children, and some families, will never be served well by a theological approach which places biological nuclear families as the ideal model of Christian life. A theology of children shifts the emphasis and allows a space for the Church to say, yes, all children are our responsibility, and we must do everything in our power to see them loved. Through this responsibility, a theology of children offers possibilities for the future.
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Beginning a Theology of Children
A theology of children would begin with the child conceived, whether it be in a woman’s body, in a fertility clinic, or in a scientific research facility. The child’s life is sacred and fragile. Many children’s lives are ended at this stage, both accidentally and purposefully, and many more are ended before they reach the age of self-sufficiency. This alone is cause for lamentation, but lamentation is not enough. Of the approximately 130 million children born around the world each year, a significant percentage are born to parents who have not the capacity to care for them, often due to a combination of mental illnesses, poverty, and family pressures. The Church must care for these children.
First and foremost, it must support the families into which they are born. In the United States, this could be seen through supporting better healthcare for mental illnesses, better ways to reduce poverty and decrease wealth disparity, better laws to encourage adoption, and better support for parental leave. But such structural support for the biological families of the children is also not enough.
In the United States alone, the state of current structural support indirectly leads to many parents abusing their children—or letting others abuse them—through neglect, lack, or outright violence. In doing so, the parents pass along their own demons, addictions, and untreated mental illnesses. Many of these parents will never be punished by the state, and many will live entire lives of denial for the crimes they committed.
Thus, second, while the parents and families of these children need our mercy and love, a theology of children shifts our focus to their children who need our protection and care. It is important to concede at this point that modern state-run child welfare systems have the potential to save more children from abuse and harm in the 21st century than ever was possible in the past. These welfare systems operate, quite literally, on the charity of individuals, whether those paid by the state or those opening their homes to children. What children need, all children, without question, is unconditional love and support in a stable environment.
A theology of children focuses on this love, founded in the imago Dei, and names all of us the caretakers of this love for children.
Not just the married couples, with or without biological children, but all of us. A theology of children would remind us that this conception is not new, dating back from the Hebrew Bible to the countless single men and women through Christian history, religious and laypersons alike, who sheltered and cared for abandoned children and were named Saints for their actions.
A theology of children raises the question: if a nun were to request adoption of a child, would her order allow it? What about a brother or priest, who wishes to follow in the footsteps of thousands of years of priestly care of orphans, by volunteering to be a caring father to young man with no family? Furthermore, a theology of children admits that many people do not feel called to marriage or traditional vocations today, for a wide variety of reasons, and this fact does not make them unsuitable parents. If men and women are willing to devote their lives to a child in need of a home, a theology of children praises their gift of self-sacrifice in the rich history of the Christian and Jewish traditions.
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I wonder what that would look like, if my local priest adopted a teenager from foster care. Or if, in marriage preparation courses, couples were encouraged to consider adoption of various-aged children alongside biological childbearing. It is my hope for National Adoption Month/Decade/Lifetime. Not just to change someone’s actions within the system, but to rethink how we conceive of adoption and children theologically. Culture will always place the weakest on the fringes of society. Orphaned children cannot vote, often have terrible education, and are left with few resources when they hit 18 years old. Outside the United States, the situation is often far worse. If such children survive until adulthood, what kind of image of God do they know? What analogy of being can draw them to the Divine?
A theology of children answers these questions with a deep and lasting call to action: they will know God in our image, they will know God in our love, for we will not leave them abandoned.