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.