Timothy P. O'Malley
The sacramentality of adoption

One of the radical insights of the Second Vatican Council is the salvific character of married life. Marriage is not a secondary vocation for those who are not strong enough to embrace celibacy, but instead offers an icon of love that the entire church is called to contemplate. The married couple’s self-gift, embodied in the secular activities proper to the married life, offers us a glimpse of what God’s own love is. Further, the married couple is divinized, taken up into God’s own life as they come to embody the same self-giving love manifested by Christ to the church. As one of the prefaces for the eucharistic prayer for the rite of marriage dares to say, “In the union of husband and wife you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace, so that the sacrament we celebrate might draw us back more deeply into the wondrous design of your love.” The vocation of marriage draws the entire church to participate in the logic of love manifested on the cross.

As a sacramental theologian, I have often considered how remarkable it is that something as ordinary as marriage could become a sign of God’s own salvific plan of love. My domestic commitment to sometimes making the bed in the morning, to sharing meals with my wife, of taking long walks in the summer, is necessary for the narrative of salvation to continue to unfold in the church. I thought about the salvific nature of the married vocation when my wife and I adopted a newborn. If indeed marriage is sacramental, drawing all of humanity to participate in the self-gift of Christ to the church, then perhaps the process of adoption reveals something unique about the Christian life as a whole. Adoption is a sacramental sign that gives us unique insights into the wondrous design of love that God has for all humanity.

The Stigma of Adoption

Before attending to the sacramentality of adoption, one needs to recognize that within U.S. culture there remains an unexamined, albeit significantly decreased stigma regarding adoption. On sitcoms, older siblings continue to taunt their younger brothers and sisters, telling them that they are adopted. When my wife and I decided to adopt, we were surprised to learn from our social worker that many birth mothers cease considering adoption as an option when their parents express disgust at the possibility that another couple would raise the child.

Catholicism, a faith that is wholeheartedly pro-life, has often done too little to counteract this stigma. For years I have attended a pro-life dinner in which the presenters have addressed the need for prayer and political activism (often using violent rhetoric) but have remained silent regarding the promotion of adoption within the various faith communities of our area. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which speaks with poetic beauty regarding procreation and parenthood, treats adoption as a last option for infertile couples to care for abandoned children. Such language implies that mothers who choose to give up their children for adoption are performing an act of parental negligence rather than witnessing to the very logic of self-gift at the heart of the church. Yet adoption is not a half-way house between the ideal form of parenthood and infertility.

What eventually drew us to use Lutheran Social Services as our adoption agency was their recognition that adopting a child was not a last resort for infertile couples and not a careless act by a birth mother who really should raise her own child. For this agency, the process of adopting is an act of human love, of self-gift, between strangers who are bonded together in the mystery of divine love for the very same child. And in this mutual self-gift, a child does not simply come into physical existence, but instead dwells in a family of love that stretches biological bounds.

Thus, essential to the Christian imagination is a treatment of adoption that gives equal weight to the manner in which the birth mother, the adopting couple and the infant present to us an icon of humanity taken up into divine life.

The Birth Mother

Though the culture of celebrity has reduced pregnancy to a status symbol, to watching for the “baby bump,” pregnancy should in fact elicit contemplative wonder among Christians. Think about how one’s entire body becomes the source of life for a child. Morning sickness is not merely an illness to be treated but a visible sign that the mother now shares every aspect of her being with another person. As the body changes and adjusts in preparation for a child, as the mother looks at 3-D ultrasounds, she comes to imagine the infant who is intimately a part of her. What will she be like, the mother asks herself? Are the frequent movements, the womb aerobics, a sign of a child whose activity will be ceaseless?

Now imagine nine months of dwelling with these questions, with the handing over of one’s body to the growth of a child, only to give birth one afternoon and to give this child to another couple—a couple who will learn to call your son or daughter theirs. Missing from Catholic reflections on adoption is adequate attention to the virtues of the birth mother. The reasons a birth mother might have for giving up her child for adoption are myriad: she may be too young to raise a child; she cannot financially care for the infant as she would need to; she is not healthy enough (physically or psychologically) to carry out her role as mother. But at the heart of adoption, the birth mother gives her child away as an act of love. She comes to recognize something that some parents never learn. Parenthood is not about the parent, the manner in which one’s identity or status is affirmed by having a child. Instead, parenthood is about love, about caring for those most in need. And the mother who gives up her child for adoption becomes the icon of authentic parenthood. She does not claim the child as her own. She may never hear her child call her mom. But fatherhood and motherhood are not about such titles. They are about compassion, mercy, the gift of self that a parent offers to a child. In the birth mother’s decision to put her child up for adoption, the purest form of parenthood is on display—a parenthood of total, self-giving love.

The Adopting Couple

Those couples who have children biologically often have close to nine months to prepare their homes and hearts for the arrival of a child. In the case of a couple who adopts an infant, the time may be closer to three weeks. There is a kind of precariousness to adopting a child, a fear that loving your potential son or daughter too early will lead only to disappointment if the adoption does not go through. The adopting couple exists in a space of the doubtful, of the unknown, of the unclarified. Yet as adopting couples can attest, when you hold the child to be adopted in your arms at the hospital, the only response you can give is the entirety of yourself. One no longer cares about the possibility of a wounded heart, of a love that might be too temporary. Adoption is a gift for the couple who welcome the child into their home. Where before there was no child, no imminent plans for the transformation of every aspect of your life, now there is my son, my daughter.

Adoption clarifies something that is true for all Christian parenthood: to have a child is always to participate in a divine gift. While the child may share your genetic material, he or she is never fully yours, never a “being” that you earned. The love that you bestow upon a child is always precarious. A parent, whether biological or adopting, bestows love upon a child not because of the promise that one day he or she will return such love in equal measure nor because the child will one day fulfill the hopes and dreams that we as parents have. Such precarious love opens us up to the extraordinary suffering we will come to know as we watch our son or daughter discover the bitterness of disappointment. Parenthood encourages the parent to love gratuitously, even in the midst of the stinginess of a world that is afraid of love like this.

In the hospital, as I looked into the face of my son, I could not help but be overwhelmed by gratitude—for the birth mother, for the nurses who lovingly made us name our child even when we were afraid to fall too deeply in love before we knew if the adoption would go through. My own capacity for gratitude, for self-gift, increases each day I look into the increasingly widening eyes of my son and remember again the extraordinary gift he is. The manner in which adopting a son has taught me gratitude beyond what I thought imaginable has slowly enabled me to recognize the call to bestow precarious love like this upon all in my life—my wife, my mother and father and brother, my students. Christian love, total self-gift, is always precarious.

The Adopted Child

Less than 20 years ago, it was considered anathema to tell a child of his or her status as “adopted.” Adopted children who come to know of their identity late in life populate film and television with their often unsuccessful quests to meet their biological father and mother. Today, most adoption agencies encourage not simply that one tell the child early in his or her life, but also that one consider an open adoption—including the birth mother or father in some way in the child’s life. My wife and I are planning to tell our son as soon as possible, and we remain open to the involvement of the birth mother, if she would like that.

When I look at my son, I often wonder how he will react when he learns that he is adopted. What sort of relationship might he have with his birth mother and possibly his siblings? What is my hope for this conversation? When I imagine telling our son, I cannot help but hope that he perceives the gift of love that has infused his existence from the very first moment. In contemporary theology, procreation is often imagined as Trinitarian. The self-gift of the father and the mother, expressed sexually, results in the gift of a child. Likewise, my son only exists as he does right now because of a Trinitarian love that marks his adopted life: the self-giving love of his birth mother, who chose us to raise her son, as an act of supreme love; our love for him bestowed precariously, recklessly and generously—without thought to the fact that we do not share biological material (as if this were the primary mark of parenthood to begin with). In fact, he will most likely learn a truth early on, one that all children eventually need to discover. Our parents do not love us because they have to, because they are obliged by biological necessity and legal constraints. They love us because they delight in our existence, because each day they choose self-gift above self-cultivation. And they are only part of a broader ecology of love that made our existence possible in the first place—an ecology that includes grandparents and nurses and cousins and godparents and teachers and on and on.

Every human being, in fact, is adopted (or at least should be) into an ecology of such love. Adoption is a sign for all Christians that a person’s fundamental identity is as one who has received love: the love of God generously and precariously poured out upon creation, the love of God manifested in Christ, who reveals to us that our humanity was made for total self-gift. Those relationships with teachers, friends and parents, which immerse us into the logic of this sort of love, reveal to us that we are indeed beloved.

A Catholic approach to adoption will cease treating adoption as the last resort for infertile couples and the abandonment of children by negligent mothers, and begin to imagine adoption as a sacramental icon manifesting to the entire world the surprising and transforming gift of divine love—a love not connected simply to biology, to the realm of expectations and roles, but a love that interrupts those limitations we put on the possibility of love. Adoption is sacramental, revealing to humanity the possibility of divine love.

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, within the Institute for Church Life, at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Comments

T Golubski | 10/17/2013 - 12:05pm

Congratulations on the addition to your family. I am very happy for all of you.

I feel that we, as adoptive parents, have to do our part in changing the stigma of adoption by using appropriate adoption language.
We never put a label of "adopted" on our children. They were adopted, but that is not something that defines them for life. It's not a chronic condition. It is an action word, not an adjective that describes them as a person. It's a little thing, but it can have a big impact on the child and on how other people view adoption.

Birthmothers place their child for adoption or make an adoption plan. Using the language, "give up her child for adoption," conjures images of "putting up on the auction block" or "giving up their rights (perhaps unwillingly)." The birthmother is performing a selfless act of love that it should be viewed in a positive light.

You wrote, "My wife and I are planning to tell our son as soon as possible" and "I wonder how my son will react when he learns that he is adopted?" (Again, he "was" adopted, not a life-long affliction.) I hope that your son is exposed to his circumstance of adoption in a natural way. Just as he will learn of all his other aspects of his life as he grows, it shouldn't come as a shock or in any one specific revealing moment. You should just speak of it naturally all his life. Right now when he is a baby, is a perfect time to practice, so you have it right by the time he starts understanding.

Lastly, with regard to open adoption, you wrote that you remain open to the involvement of the birthmother, if she would like that. You might want to consider not just whether she wants it, but that it would also be beneficial to you and your son. There are reasons like future medical information, but there are many other less obvious benefits that your family can gain.

Depending on the age and maturity of your son's birthmother, she may never let you know that she wants contact. She may feel that she doesn't deserve it. If you don't already have an open adoption plan, you would be the ones who would need to reach out to her. In the beginning, this can be difficult. You are building a relationship basically with a stranger. It's like marrying someone your just met. The effort you put into this at the beginning will pay off for your son in the future. Just like practicing the adoption language when he's small, building a relationship now with his birthmother can make it a natural thing in his life instead of some dramatic (or traumatic) meeting later in life.

Thank you for a positive article on adoption. I wish you all the best and look forward to reading more of your insightful articles.
Peace

Mia Crosthwaite | 10/5/2013 - 12:08am

We adopted our children from the foster care system, which is a different birth parent context than willingly giving a child over to another couple to raise. However, I think there is still grace and self-giving love in all the things their birth parents did right. We struggle with attachment disorder where our children did not learn basic trust and relationship at the normal time so we pour in all the love and relationship they missed, while they push us away, but ultimately they can't resist the power of being loved (isn't that how we are created for God). In no time in my life have I been more aware that we are created to be in relationship, that we are fundamentally social creatures.

T. Patrick Bradley | 9/26/2013 - 4:14pm

In Thomas O'Malley's article he states that "Less twenty years ago, it was considered anathema to tell a child of his or her status as 'adopted.' " Both of our children who are now 40+ knew from early on that they were adopted. This caused a problem when our 7 year old daughter responded to a bully by telling him tha she was chosen by her parents but his parents had to take what they got. He went home devastated because he wasn't adopted. This lead to my wife and I being called to the principals office to discuss (defend) our daughter and explain that adoption was something that our two children were proud of, as were we.

Paul Leddy | 9/19/2013 - 9:50am

Dear Mr. O’Malley,

Male prison inmates are often referred to as “fatherless fathers.” Men who never knew their fathers and who have fathered children that they’ll never know within a family setting. I believe this has come about, perhaps, because single mothers are supported by both civil and faith-based support services disregarding any involvement of the father of the child(ren), thus removing him completely from the family structure and destroying any sense of true family for him, the mother and the children.

The term “single parent household” useful for census purposes, has now legitimized single mothers as a norm, erasing the father or father image from what should be the image of the household or family. The norm isolates the father and removes him; so that we see, for instance, prisons populated with fatherless fathers.

Your article supports this. Over a dozen times, you have referenced “birth mother.” Only twice do you use the word “father” in reference to the birth father but only against your already made claim as the adopted, or now the “in fact” father of the child. Instead of using the term “birth mother and birth father”, too cumbersome, you use “parent.” You've place the father out of sight, and thus, out of mind for your readers.

You, yourself explain why you and your wife (I assume) chose Lutheran Social Services because: "For this agency, the process of adopting is an act of human love, of self-gift, between strangers who are bonded together in the mystery of divine love for the very same child. And in this mutual self-gift, a child does not simply come into physical existence, but instead dwells in a family of love that stretches biological bounds." But, I say if the father of the child is ignored, then there is no “family” giving a child up for adoption. There is nothing sacramental in this sacrificial act.

Even in the worst cases of neglect, the man who begets children must be allowed a modicum of respect by recognizing him as the (potential) father of his children, which may, perhaps, break the cycle of fatherless fathers. The decision to place a child up for adoption is a parent's decision.

Timothy O'Malley | 10/7/2013 - 11:02am

Mr. Leddy, thank you for the correction. The absence of the father is noticeable in the piece. It certainly wasn't intended. In 2000 words, I couldn't quite do everything--but I could have done more.

ron chandonia | 9/17/2013 - 8:58pm

As an adoptive parent, I was fascinated by this theological reflection on adoption. I certainly do applaud the point that our Catholic parishes should encourage and support adoption more than we do. But I am also bothered that this is such a parent-centered piece on a topic that begs for a child-centered discussion. We are still discovering how emotionally painful it can be for a child to be raised outside her birth family--even when she recognizes intellectually why that could not have happened. Love transcends biology, but without a strong sense of biological love, a child may always feel somewhat displaced.

Timothy O'Malley | 10/7/2013 - 11:01am

Ron, thanks for the correction. Again, it's a valuable one--something I'll need to consider before I write on the topic again.

judi raczko | 9/13/2013 - 8:58pm

Your story is a beautiful reflection and example of God's pure love. Thank you so much for sharing. Your son is so blessed to have you and your wife as his parents. God bless you all, including your son's birth mother.