William Newton’s Zenit piece today takes as a starting point Pope Benedict’s address earlier this month, but doesn’t really go anywhere with it. For starters, the use of “relativism” in the headline is another example of the erosion of meaning in that term. It might as well be defined as “something I don’t like,” for all the times it gets used, abused, and misapplied. Getting back to the content of the essay, I thought there were two glaring omissions.
First an acknowledgement:
While the Convention points out that the welfare of children is best secured by being part of a family …
… but without any reference to the millions of children worldwide who have no parents, and nothing to say on adoption, the harping on same-sex unions seems pretty hollow to me. The Church is likely powerless to do anything about the sexual orientation of people, especially its five billion non-members. But it seems to me that the Pontifical Council for the Family could do much more to promote the right of a child to have parents. A perusal of recent meetings, addresses, and other documents on the Vatican web site shows no mention of adoption anywhere going back five years.
Number two: speaking of rights, this emphasis on “rights” strikes me as evidence of an entrenched narcissism. When Mr Newton writes:
Another contradiction that has emerged in recent years (and this was foreseen by the Holy See in its main reservation to the Convention) is to pit the rights of the child against those of the parents; minimizing the influence of parent while increasing the influence of the state.
… it makes me want to grind my teeth. Children have rights. Parents have responsibilities. Parenting a child isn’t a right. This sense of entitlement, something we see in such statements like, “Every adult has a right to a child,” or “I have a right to control my child,” can be taken–and is indeed held–to unhealthy extremes. I’m amazed that otherwise self-styled orthodox Catholics don’t recognize this line of reasoning is all wrongheaded. The harping on rights cheapens the role of the parent. And at worst, it becomes a sort of competition. We see it when parents are pitted legally against children, or one parent against another.
In continuing to miscast duty, obligation, and responsibility as “rights,” otherwise well-intentioned people are totally missing the boat. How can I drive the point home?
I have a friend. I don’t have a “right” to hang around significantly with a peer. But I do have obligations to anyone I consider a true friend. I have a duty to listen to my friends, to spend time with them, to be gracious, accommodating, generous, and the like. They don’t have a “right” to my attentiveness. But in mutual friendship, we have mutual responsibilities, as long as we agree to maintain our friendship. In this mutuality of giving, of sacrifice, the friendship blossoms and functions as an aid to both our lives. That’s the way it should be.
I also have a spouse. Marriage brings certain privileges, but I don’t think any of the shared legal and moral obligations can be termed “rights,” at least not in a Christian context. I don’t have a “right” to sexual intercourse, for example. Intercourse is part of the privilege of marriage. I would say that a spouse has a responsibility for the overall physical, emotional, and spiritual care of the partner. Sex is part of that, but sex becomes a means to an end, not the ultimate value in the marriage itself. By framing the context in this way, it keeps the notion of sacramental sacrifice in the foreground. And it shades any sense of entitlement to the rear.
When we approach friendship, marriage, or parenting as containing privileges and rights for the self, I think we do ourselves and our partners an injustice. Not to mention Christ’s notion of self-sacrificing love.
Let’s take adoption now. Children live without parents, despite the UN and the Church saying they have rights to a family. By inaction or by distraction, these rights, these needs go unaddressed. This is a grave moral omission on the part of society, and it convicts the Church as well–as long as we are unable or unwilling to promote a far more widespread adoption of needy children. That few of these children are in the direct care of the Church is irrelevant. The Church feeds hungry people, cares for sick people, advocates for disenfranchised people–and we don’t require membership for this work of charity and justice.
Lacking a more convincing pro-life witness on the adoption front, I can’t consider the institution’s stated opposition to same-sex unions as a support for the family as anything more than a smokescreen. Now, don’t get me wrong: I believe the Church has a responsibility to preach moral virtue. But we do not have the right to be wrong or wrongheaded about blaming one problematic aspect of family life (the lack of support for married couples) on the willingness of some same-sex couples to add a legal dimension to their acknowledged personal commitment and responsibilities.
When I see more support for Catholic families* and couples adopting fatherless and motherless children, I think our pro-life witness on the family front will ring less hollow than it does these days. And if the institution is looking for ideas, I’ll clue you in: my phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook about it, not unlike the phones of the overburdened secular social workers.
* Adopted children are not solutions for the fertility problems of couples. I applaud infertile couples who do want to adopt out of a sense of addressing a need in the life of another person. But adoption is not a “cure” for infertility. This is why families with children probably should be considering adoption more seriously, especially families that have discerned that being large is a basic good. For the record, I have no problem with families of six, eight, or more children. As long as they don’t mind my suggestion that maybe a few of their children could be adopted.