Children by grace, not nature: Adoption and Christianity

Children by grace, not nature: Adoption and Christianity

Children by grace, not nature: Adoption and Christianity

Children run in a race at a picnic for adoptive families. (Credit: Steven Depolo / Flickr.)

In our culture today we may too easily start to think that it’s imperative to have children who are biologically “our own” – as if children were ever simply ours. We all need to be reminded that our biological children are not simply our own. They are gifts, given into our care. The fact of adoption should teach those of us who are parents of biologically related children what being a parent actually means.

[Editor’s Note: Gilbert Meilaender is the Paul Ramsey Permanent Research Fellow of the ND Center for Ethics and Culture. Bioethics is one of the areas to which Professor Meilaender has given considerable attention in his teaching and writing. He was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2009, and is a Distinguished Fellow with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. His latest book is Not by Nature but by Grace: Forming Families through Adoption, which looks at the Christian significance of adoption. It is the inaugural book in the CEC’s new “Catholic Ideas for a Secular World” book series with UND Press. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy:  I’ve come to know you as one of the most important moral theologians of the past two generations, but it was wonderful to get to know more about you outside your academic context by reading this book. Can you tell us a bit about how adoption has touched you personally?

Meilaender:  Both my immediate family and my more extended family have quite a bit of experience with adoption. My wife and I were foster parents for about a decade when we lived in Ohio. Eventually we adopted one of those foster children, a boy who came into our home when he was three months old. He’s a young man in his 30s now!  

Doing that gave us firsthand experience of children who will have no familial place of belonging unless they are adopted. It’s also the case now that two of our grandchildren have been adopted.  In my extended family two of my sisters have been adoptive parents, and one of them has grandchildren who were adopted.

Those who oppose abortion, as I do, sometimes think of adoption only in the context of alternatives to abortion. Experience has made clear to me, however, that it is just as important to find homes for children already born who are orphaned, neglected, or abused. This seems to me at least as important as some of the “jazzier” moral issues I have written about over the years.

I’m a (recent) father of three adopted siblings from the Philippines, and like you, I’ve become sensitive to language about “real” fathers and “real” mothers. How do you react to such language and the attitudes or values behind it?

Three at once! You’re not going to get as much sleep for quite a few years, but that’s a work of love.  I assume your question refers to some of the examples I use in the book where (no doubt well-meaning) people talk in ways that might seem to depict the adoptive relation as “fictive.” So, for instance, a woman with two adopted sons and one biological son was asked, “How does your own child feel about them?”–as if only her biological son was “really” hers.

I do not react with any anger or hostility toward such questions, because I understand how easy it is to fall into that way of thinking or to speak without really thinking about what we’re saying. And I really do believe such people are generally well meaning.

Nevertheless, especially in our culture today we may too easily start to think that it’s imperative to have children who are biologically “our own” – as if children were ever simply ours. We all need to be reminded, I think, that our biological children are not simply our own. They are gifts, given into our care.

The fact of adoption should teach those of us who are parents of biologically related children what being a parent actually means. It doesn’t mean primarily that we’ve passed on our DNA. It means that we have entered into a long-term commitment, a covenant, with our children–even as God covenants with us and as adoptive parents do with their children.

In gobbling up the theological material in your book I was particularly struck by the fact that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ genealogy is traced through Joseph, his adoptive father. What are some other theological resources for thinking about adoption?

There are, of course, other books that offer a theological perspective on adoption.  Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life is, for example, quite thought provoking. But I would point especially in two directions.

First, we should pay attention to how the language of adoption is used in some of the Pauline letters in the New Testament. The language does not appear often, but it is very important.  For it points to the central truth about how we become children of Jesus’ Father–namely, by adoption.  That is, not by nature but by grace.  

The fourth chapter of Galatians is one such place. Likewise, in Romans 8, St. Paul writes that believers have received not a spirit of slavery but the Spirit of adoption, enabling them, like Jesus, to cry “Abba! Father!” None of us can be born into the Body of Christ; we enter that family only through adoption.

Second, in addition to pointing to passages such as Galatians 4 and Romans 8, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning and significance of baptism. When we bring our children for baptism, we hand them over and then receive them back as members not simply of our family but of the family that is the church. It bothers me greatly that we Christians have often turned baptism into simply a (biological) family affair.  

We act almost as if baptism were a work of nature rather than grace. Michael Banner, a British theologian, noted in a recent book that there have been times and places in Christian history when parents were expected to be absent from baptism and relatives were not permitted to be godparents.

Why? Because, he says, intensifying the bond of “natural” kinship is at odds with the meaning of baptism, which seeks to relativize that bond. We should pay some attention to this.

I don’t imagine that we’ll begin to ask parents to absent themselves from the baptism of their children, nor do I think we should.  But just imagining the possibility could teach us something useful about the meaning of baptism and about how we become people who can call upon Jesus’ Father as our own.

And yet the Christian tradition clearly doesn’t want to abandon the importance of the body or parenthood “by nature.” This creates a bit of a puzzle, doesn’t it?

Yes, it is puzzling. Christians want to affirm the significance of the natural, biological relation of parents and children. For, after all, what we’re calling nature is, in Christian terms, God’s creation.  The story Christians tell about the meaning of human life has a kind of threefold movement.

As people who have been created by God, we try to honor the nature God has given us.  

That means, among other things, that we find meaning in the body and in our biological ties. But there is more to the history of redemption than just that.  

The creation has been disordered and broken by our sin. It is not surprising, therefore, that the naturally given relation of parents and children sometimes manifests that brokenness in ways that make adoption necessary.  

And third, we always need to remind ourselves that God intends more in redemption than simply a restoration of creation. The destiny God promises is one that will transform our created relationships without simply obliterating them.  

That is why the church is not a body into which one can just naturally be born. And that is why all our familial relationships will in the end be determined not by biology but by adoption.

This means we can go wrong in different ways. We would be mistaken to suppose that the destiny God has in mind for us is entirely disconnected from the creation. We would also be mistaken to suppose that the parent-child relation requires a basis in genetic and biological ties.

There are still many social and structural barriers to adoption in the United States which make it difficult to choose. Do you have a prescription or two for this problem?

On the whole, I’m pretty certain there are people better at policy than I am. Moreover, all this is complicated by the fact that in the United States these issues are largely matters controlled by the states, rather than the federal government.

That isn’t bad. Indeed, it’s probably better this way, for it leaves scope for different angles of vision. Some states, for example, do better than others at avoiding logjams in the foster care system. The one thing that is clear to me is that our policies should always be governed by what is in the best interest of children who need families.

Some of our difficulties we have created for ourselves. For instance, there are millions of orphaned children worldwide who need a family. But international adoption has become more difficult in part because of abuses that looked rather like baby snatching by the rich and powerful who wanted children to rear.  

In principle, though, we should approve of those who are willing to cross boundaries of nation and culture to adopt children who need a home. I feel the same way about adoption across racial boundaries, although we all know how complex this is in the United States because of the troubled history of race relations here.

More generally, I wish I knew a way to overcome the thirst for a genetically related child, a thirst that drives so much of the assisted reproduction industry (and it is an industry!) today.  If we could overcome that, enormous energy and resources would be freed to help children in need of adoption.

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