I have spent much of my life in the Catholic world: first grammar school, then high school, followed later by almost 10 years in the Catholic press. It is telling that while studying journalism at Columbia University, I worked at a parochial school in the Bronx. I guess I could only wander so far from the fold.
When my wife and I decided to adopt a child, a Catholic adoption agency seemed the natural choice. We were in search of a community that shared our values to help shepherd us through a difficult process. After some research, however, we found that the agency that best met our needs was not Catholic. A local nonprofit agency offered an impressive array of services and support. Their values were in keeping with our values. In the end, it was not a difficult decision.
Part of me felt guilty for not supporting an important Catholic ministry. I imagine many young parents feel the same way when, for various reasons, they choose to send their child to public school. In my case, my feelings were complicated by the fraught state of the Catholic adoption industry. In Boston and elsewhere, church officials have closed adoption agencies rather than comply with state laws mandating that same-sex couples be allowed to adopt. The future of other Catholic agencies is cloudy.
I began this column thinking I would write about these challenges. Perhaps I would note, with sadness, that another era in Catholic life seems to be coming to an end. Catholic orphanages were once part of a vast network of institutions that sought to serve every Catholic’s need from birth to burial. Perhaps I would explore the reasons for this decline, such as the high rate of abortion and the exponential growth of the fertility industry.
Instead of dwelling on these facts, however, I would like to offer a more hopeful tale. Three years ago, my wife and I applied to be adoptive parents. Nearly a year later, we brought our daughter, Elizabeth, home. Though we did not use a Catholic agency, we were deeply gratified by the process, which we found to be profoundly pro-life.
Ours was a domestic adoption. Early on, we met with a group of other prospective parents to ask questions and discuss our anxieties. Agency representatives explained the process in detail. Over 50 percent of mothers who meet with the agency choose to keep the child. Birth mothers and prospective parents are assigned their own social workers. Newborn babies stay with temporary caregivers for a short time before placement to ensure that the birth mother is confident in her decision.
My wife and I found great comfort in these facts. It was clear that the agency wanted to make sure that a mother’s choice of adoption was the right one for her.
We also found ourselves persuaded by the logic of open adoption, in which adoptive couples are encouraged to maintain an ongoing relationship with birth parents. We agreed to do so because we believe it is in Elizabeth’s best interest. We want her to grow up with a full sense of her own identity.
Open adoption appealed to us for other reasons, too. In a real way, it seeks to make the world more welcoming to children. The sad fact is that some women do not see adoption as a legitimate alternative to abortion. They cannot imagine having a child and then never seeing that child again. Open adoption offers them a life-giving choice.
Our family life is now shaped by this practice. We exchange pictures and e-mail messages with Elizabeth’s birth parents. On a few occasions, we have met. We did not learn these habits from our church, but they feel true to our identity as Catholics. Sometimes you have to venture afield to find your way home.