Can Children Expect to Have Certain Rights?

I was reading Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s statement about the US Supreme Court striking down DOMA this morning. CNS cited Francis X. Rocca’s conversation with him:

He said the effect of the court’s decision is to “undermine in the law the principle that children have a right to a mother and father.”

This statement strikes me as awkward. Like all human beings, children have always been at the mercy of parents abandoning them. It can happen through death. It can happen (as it did with my daughter’s birth parents) through a combination of substance abuse, personal injury, and an inability to provide the most basic care.

Does my daughter have a right to biological parents? That question strikes me as wrong. That she has biological parents is a point of fact. Every human being who ever lived, save three, have had a biological mother and father.

My daughter was fortunate among foster children in her age group to be adopted at age five. Have my wife and I taken over as “suppliers” of my daughter’s “right” to parents? If, say, a single grandparent or aunt or uncle had wanted to adopt her to keep her “in the family,” would that have been some violation? Would any man-woman couple be given priority over a single relative? That’s not the way Iowa social workers operated when we were actively seeking children.

We were told that keeping sibling groups together was the first priority, and that a relative would be considered next, and then a married couple, and finally single adults. (In Iowa in 1999-2001 only a married couple could jointly adopt. No same-sex couples. No cohabiting couples. No unmarried relatives, like a grandmother and an uncle, for example.)

Turning this citation back on Archbishop Cordileone, if children have a right to a mother and a father, does a widow or widower have a legal or moral obligation to remarry for the sake of children?

While I see that he’s thinking about infants getting adopted by gays and the thorny issues of IVF and surrogacy, I’m not sure that DOMA is really the arena for such considerations. Couples of some affluence, married, unmarried, gay or straight, can always “buy” into adoption in the sense of hiring a surrogate mother, or paying lawyers and overseas agencies to find a child. There are moral issues involved here.

There are also many children in the foster care system who are, frankly, “unadoptable.” Our daughter was declined by some number of prospective parents because of her medical condition. Did she have a “right” to be adopted by the first couple who qualified who considered her? Did that first couple (and others) violate her rights by keeping her in the foster care system until age five?

Or do children’s rights only kick in when we’re talking about the sex lives of adults? Because if that’s true, that strikes me as a disservice to the nearly half-million Americans in foster care. Plus it seems to single out same-sex people and cohabiting couples, and even single adult relatives of a child.

He also noted that to have a “healthy vibrant society we need to reclaim a marriage culture.”

The archbishop pointed out that he has said all along that no matter how the court ruled “our work remains unchanged. We need to catechize our people about marriage.”

“Even if the court issued a ruling that we liked, we would still have a lot of work to do in helping our people understand what marriage really is, why marriage is important for the public good and why it’s essentially an institution to support social justice, justice for the sake of children,” he added.

I’m not going to disagree in principle on these points. I do think a stronger living out of marriage would lead to a more healthy and vibrant society. Couples separated by immigration issues, military service, economic necessity, prison sentences, and other institutionally-enforced misfortunes are all negatively affecting the quality of life in the US. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the basic communication issues about which many American couples are in near total ignorance.

I hesitate on the point that it’s all about catechesis. That strikes me as the same, tired blame game: couples aren’t smart enough to have good or better marriages. I think the Church could do better to solicit and prepare couples to act as companions to engaged and recently married couples. More veteran couples in successful marriages and less clergy: that would be a good benefit. Priests are well-suited to be spiritual directors for engaged couples. Whether you call it catechesis or role modelling or sponsoring or apprenticeship or good advice, older married couples have it in spades over practically any priest. Unless he’s already married.

Archbishop Cordileone said marriage has the status that it does in law because it has always been a child-centered institution. Redefining marriage, he said, turns it into an “adult-centered institution” where the government “doesn’t have an interest in people’s love lives” or in “how people work out their intimate relationships.”

I don’t think this is true. Marriage has always been about a couple’s relationship, be it emotional, financial, political, sexual, or whatnot. Sometimes children enter into the picture as one primary reason among others. But enough marriages lack children to suggest that the archbishop is overstating his case.

Don’t get me wrong on this point: most marriages produce children and those children need the protection of the institution. But the sacramental commonality I think he’s grasping for and missing is generativity.

Every marriage is aimed at being generative, of producing something more than the personal satisfaction of two people.

When my wife and I were unable to conceive a child, we agreed that our marriage would express its generativity by adoption or foster care. But as the young miss moves into young adult years, we cannot simply rest on our accomplishments. We believe our marriage is continually called to a certain generativity: in our generosity to others, in our witness in the community, in assisting other couples, of renewing our involvement in the Marriage Encounter movement.

Today’s juridical ruling does nothing for or against marriage. The onus is still on us married couples to get things right from inside the institution. And Archbishop Cordileone recognizes this. He needs a little help refocusing–that’s all. There are great signs of hope around us, as well as untackled opportunities.

My hope is that we can now withdraw from the political infighting in the US and refocus our efforts into a true renewal of marriage from the inside out. Getting back to the question in the post title: I think it’s a misfire. Can Married People Step Up and Show the Way? That’s how I would frame it.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in Adoption, Ministry, My Family, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Can Children Expect to Have Certain Rights?

  1. Charles says:

    Todd, what’s your take on the Church ceasing to be part of the civil process of witnessing marital documents, as is practiced in Mexico?

    • Todd says:

      Maybe that’s a good thing. I hear from clergy a lot more excitement for the notion of dropping out of recognizing civil marriages.

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