Tough times for Catholic adoption agencies

The changing legal definition of marriage has roiled American culture from courthouse to altar, expanding civil rights for some but challenging the religious rights of others, particularly the Catholic Church and its myriad social service ministries.

Adoption services that have, for 100 years or more, provided children with good, safe and traditional homes with a male husband and female wife are facing a take-it-or-leave-it scenario in the new legal landscape: Accept the sweeping social change in the most elemental compact in the history of mankind — the nuclear family formed by the marriage of one man to one woman — and abandon 2,000 years of dogma by continuing to find children homes through adoption services, including same-sex couples; or close up shop.

The necessity of accepting one of two equally objectionable choices confronts dioceses and Catholic Charities in 17 states from Minnesota to New Mexico and Massachusetts to California.

Shutting down

The collision of constitutional rights poses irreconcilable demands. When religious organizations work for the common good — the welfare of children — and accept taxpayer money from state and local governments, the attached obligation is to treat all comers equally. For Catholic organizations to comply is to violate Church doctrine.

“In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., told the New York Times when Illinois dioceses stopped adoption services rather than comply.

Similarly, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., ended an 80-year “legacy of high quality service to the vulnerable in our nation’s capital” when the city informed Catholic Charities in 2009 that “the agency could no longer serve as a provider of foster care and public adoption services as a result of the D.C. same-sex marriage law,” said Sheridan Watson, communications manager for the Office of Media and Public Relations at the archdiocese.

“This is because under the new law, in order to have a contract with D.C. to provide such services, providers were required to certify the marital status of adoptive and foster care families and to place children with same-sex married couples, which would violate the tenets of the Catholic Faith.”

The secular change in the definition of marriage and its civil consequences has not deterred the archdiocese in its mission to help the needy, Watson said.

“Catholic Charities ... (has) been unwavering in its commitment to serve those in need and is the largest private social service provider in the Washington metropolitan area,” Watson said.

The Archdiocese of Boston got out of the adoption business in 2006 after the Vatican affirmed that Catholic adoption agencies could not arrange adoptions to same-sex couples in response to the news that the diocese had brokered adoptions to 13 gay couple in the previous two years. Adoption services by Catholic agencies and dioceses may have ended elsewhere in many of the 17 states that now recognize same-sex marriage, but the work of the Church continues even in some of those states.

Changing landscape

The Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, which is located south of the Boston archdiocese, is home to more than 300,000 Catholics and has a total population of more than 800,000.

The diocese has soldiered on, with its Office of Catholic Social Services handling adoptions for the neighboring Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, where same-sex marriage was adopted in 2013.

“It hasn’t come up for us,” said Phyllis Habib, adoption coordinator for the Fall River agency. “I think just by the name of our agency, same-sex couples do not approach us. We have couples who are not Catholic who apply for adoptions, and, as with any application, we conduct home studies and seek doctors’ certifications as is required by law in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.”

The adoption business has shifted from Catholic agencies, which handled as many as one-third of the placements in some states, to private arrangers and attorneys, regardless of whether same-sex marriage laws have been adopted or not, according to social workers and executive directors at Catholic Charities organizations and dioceses across the country.

“That is our whole issue (as to) why we have seen a decrease in adoptions,” said Steven Bogus, executive director of Catholic Charities in Louisville, Kentucky, where same-sex marriage has not been enacted. “They have an unfair advantage over us in that they are not regulated by the state — as we are and as private adoption agencies are. We keep doing adoptions because we do a lot of other services for women, including pregnancy counseling.”

The mother of a child placed for adoption has the final choice as to who the adopts the baby, so there is the possibility she may select a gay couple to raise her child.

“I’m not sure if a woman who is looking to place the child for adoption would see an advantage to choosing a same-sex couple,” Bogus said. “You find that a single mother who is placing her child for adoption may be more in line with traditional values. She has chosen the life of the child over abortion, so likely she would prefer a traditional family life for her child.”

In the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, another state where same-sex marriage has not been passed into law, Willa Blackwell, director of Catholic Social Services, said her office is processing about six cases a year.

“My fear is that there is not the realization (in the commercial transaction of adoption between two parties and brokered by a lawyer) that they are committing for the life of the adoption, which is what we do.”

Refusing to comply

The Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, is “continuing to do adoptions, and it is in alliance with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which means we are unable to place children with same-sex couples,” said Lois Nesci, executive director of Hartford Catholic Charities.

“We are a private-pay program with no state monies,” she said. “There is a decrease but not attributed to the marriage issue; we haven’t gotten as many mothers seeking adoption services for their children.”

The Archdiocese of Baltimore observes Church law and civil law in its adoption program operated by Catholic Charities because it handles only international adoptions, mainly through China, the Philippines and Colombia. All three countries have “a prohibition” against same-sex couples adopting children, said Ellen Warnock, director of adoptions for Baltimore Catholic Charities.

The agency started international adoptions in 1979 as the number of domestic adoptions continued a decade-long decline that Warnock attributed to a number of factors, including the increased number of abortions (Roe v. Wade was decided in January 1973), the growth of family planning and a lower birth rate in the United States.

“And there is an anti-adoption culture of young people,” said Warnock, who along with other Catholic adoption professionals noted that a stigma is attached to an unwed mother who chooses to deliver her child and place the infant within a traditional family setting.

With Maryland’s same-sex marriage law in place, “there are plenty of agencies out there who will appeal to you as a same-sex couple who wishes to adopt,” Warnock said. “Adoption is a huge undertaking and it is expensive, both financially and emotionally, so who is looking for a fight at that point when there are plenty of non-sectarian agencies who will work with same-sex couples?”

Work continues

Despite the presence or absence of same-sex marriage laws, most Catholic adoption agencies are continuing the other needed parts of their ministries, meaning the Church may retreat in the area of adoption when forced to by law, but it still remains heavily involved in supporting families in need.

“We are seeing more pregnancy support and fewer adoptions,” said Gerard Carter, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, where same-sex marriage is not recognized. “We have teen parenting programs and support programs.”

The work goes on.

Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.