As the Church approaches the October Synod, it would do well to return to Jesus’ teachings on the family – from which the notion of ‘nature’ is conspicuously absent.
When Jesus’ mother and brothers come to speak to Him, He asks ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ In answer to His own question, He points at His disciples. ‘These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ For Jesus, family has little to do with nature and everything to do with shared purpose and communion.
At the moment of His death, Christ commands the mutual adoption of John and His mother. The night before, at the Last Supper, He promises that He ‘will not leave us orphans’ when He returns to His Father, but will send the Spirit to be our parent.
This reflects on a small, personal scale the vast redemptive plan God has for His people: a plan of adoption. In Romans 11, St. Paul likens the Jews to the ‘natural branches’ of a cultivated olive tree. The Gentiles, meanwhile, are like the branches of a wild olive tree, which God, ‘contrary to nature, has grafted into the cultivated olive tree.’ Adoption is unnatural, and it is good.
The Church is seemingly aware that parenthood need not be ‘natural’ to be valid. In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II extols the gift of ‘spiritual motherhood’ as an alternative to physical (natural) motherhood, though he limits that gift to virgins.
Was he right to set such a limit? In an address to members of the International Catholic Child Bureau in April this year, Pope Francis reaffirmed the right of children to grow up in a family capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity. Yet adoption does not feature in the Vatican encyclical on marriage and the family, Humanae Vitae. It features in the recent Instrumentum laboris on the family only within the question of same-sex marriage.
The Catechism makes many mentions of God’s adoption of humankind, but only one of humankind’s adoption of its own, in a brief clause in the last paragraph of ‘The gift of a child’ (2379):
“The Gospel shows that physical sterility is not an absolute evil. Spouses who still suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures… can give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children or performing demanding services for others.”
Adoption is almost an afterthought, a ‘second-best’ for infertile couples.
Is the Church failing to join the dots? There are far more abandoned children in the world than there are infertile couples. How are we to respect the right of all those children to grow up in a capable family if we do not encourage fertile couples to consider adoption? Christ promises that He ‘will not leave us orphans;’ nor must we do this to each other.
Rather than lionising families who have a large number of ‘natural’ children, we should encourage prospective parents to invest their love and resources in the orphans whose care is so central to both Old and New Testament commandments. If we are to hold a credible pro-life stance, we must see adoption as more a duty than a backup plan.