Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mary Hunt on the "Child Neglect" of the Washington, DC Archdiocese

In the following commentary, first published at, theologian Mary Hunt shares her perspective on the recent decision by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to suspend its foster-care program in response to marriage equality legislation in the civil arena.


Catholic Child Neglect

By Mary E. Hunt
February 19, 2010

As DC law changes to require equality for same sex couples seeking to adopt, the Catholic Church (which has been in the adoption business for generations) opts to close up shop rather than to abide by the law and treat gay and lesbian families equally.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington DC recently stopped handling foster care and adoption in the District of Columbia because it refuses to abide by the law which, when same-sex marriage is implemented, will require it to consider same-sex couples as potential parents. The seven staff members, 43 children and their families, and the 35 foster families involved were transferred to the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) for future administration. This is not a routine matter.

Given its theo-politics and the general track record of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide on child abuse, maybe it is better that way. I wouldn’t want any child exposed to such bigotry especially when it’s couched in religious language. Nonetheless, I want to clarify from a theological perspective what is at hand and condemn from a moral standpoint the Archdiocese’s actions.

Same-sex marriage is here to stay, whether the Catholic Church likes it or not. No state will force the Church to perform or recognize such ceremonies. But any agency that receives money from the government must conform to certain rules based on the common good. That is how a democracy works.

Catholic Charities is not above the law. When same-sex couples present themselves for parenthood with all the requirements met, there is no justification for refusing them unless, as some Catholic authorities reason, they are not fit parents because of their sexuality. This is heterosexism raised (better, lowered) to the level of policy. It has no place in public life even if it is introduced under religious cover.

Theologically, the Catholic Church is saying that its own outmoded ideas on sexuality are more sacred than the well-being of children. Its outdated take on sexuality trumps the many studies that confirm that same-sex parents are equally up to the challenges of raising children. In the institutional Catholic Church’s theological view, marriage between a man and a woman is more important than commitment on the part of two loving adults to take on the care of a child, a monumental responsibility as any parent knows. Happily, an increasing number of Catholics completely reject this view and support same-sex couples and families. It is important to underscore that what is touted as “the” Catholic position by the hierarchy is but one among differing Catholic theologies of sexuality. Note to lawmakers: The hierarchy does not speak for the members on this and each member is a voter.

One would think that for all the Catholic Church’s rhetoric on family and human life the Archdiocesan officials would have a little shame about abandoning their work with children. If they could bring themselves to confront the dire needs of DC’s foster children, they would hide their faces rather than be connected with any policy that would prevent children from being placed in loving homes regardless of the gender constellation of the parents. Alas, there is a shortage of shame here. However, it is important to underscore that no Catholic theology of sexuality, however narrow, trumps the demands of justice and the works of mercy as Catholic imperatives.

Several dynamics in this deal make it especially heinous. First, the timing is suspicious since the DC marriage bill is still under review in Congress. DC Councilman Jim Graham suggested that “there may be a relationship between this action and the congressional deliberations on these issues.” Tactics are all. I would not be surprised to find that this is part of the rationale given how desperate conservative Catholics are to keep their ideology afloat. I hope members of Congress will see this move for what it is.

Second, the Archdiocese announced the move in an Alice in Wonderland press release filled with linguistic sleights-of-hand, claiming that they “transitioned” the program to the NCCF when in fact they quit the business. Let’s be clear even if we do not agree. In the next sentence they announced that they “remain committed to continuing to serve the vulnerable of the District of Columbia through the 82 programs the agency operates in the region.” It is a hard claim to substantiate given what they have just done.

Then they turned the tables and proclaimed that it was not their doing but that the DC Government told them that they “would be ineligible to serve as a foster care provider due to the impending D.C. same sex marriage law.” Yes, dears, because you already announced that you would not obey the law. What do you expect? They go on to laud their own work, then bemoan the fact that “our efforts to avoid this outcome were not successful.” Once again they blame others for their refusal to conform to the law. It would be laughable if it were not so pernicious.

I have my own suspicions about the Archdiocese’s sanctimonious “ensuring continuity of care…” achieved by “seamlessly” transitioning the program. Foster care and adoption are extremely difficult, not very lucrative, endlessly bureaucratic endeavors. Social workers find the work taxing because so many of the children are in such difficult circumstances. This is an easy program to jettison when money is tight. I hope I am wrong about their motivation, but given the morals exhibited in this case nothing is surprising.

Third, what makes all of this so predictable is that this is precisely what the Archdioceses of Boston did in 2006 when same-sex marriage came to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After a century of providing support services for children whose birth parents could not care for them, Catholic Charities there faced the same situation as in Washington.

Under the leadership of its then president, J. Bryan Hehir, Catholic Charities in Boston was faced with abiding by the state law or doing the Catholic Church’s bidding. They tried every trick in the book to skirt the law. They asked then Governor Mitt Romney for an exemption, they launched various legislative strategies, all with the help of a powerful local law firm. But that pesky democracy reared its head and they, too, were expected to obey the law. So they went out of the adoption business. They reasoned that it made up 4% of their budget so it could be sacrificed in order to keep the rest of their government funding. Religion is a dirty business.

In Catholicism, a lot of local activities are dictated by the Vatican. Surely the “success” of the Boston move was made clear to the DC people who followed suit. I expect more dioceses to fall in line as same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land. I only hope there are agencies ready and willing to pick up the pieces. Nothing less than children’s lives are at stake.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent meeting with bishops from Ireland where a church official systematically covered up sexual abuse, and called it “not only a heinous crime but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person.” Child neglect is a form of child abuse. It is against the law. Good people condemn it. Let the Archdiocese of Washington DC take a lesson.

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Revisiting a Showdown in Washington, DC
D.C. Council Calls Archdiocese’s Bluff
David R. Weiss: When Charity Becomes the Weapon
“Render Unto Caesar, Bitches!”
America’s New Civil Rights Battle
A Christian Case for Same-Sex Marriage
A Surprising Finding Regarding Catholics and Gay Marriage


Paula said...

I always learn from Mary Hunt. Thanks, Michael.

John said...

Given your rejection of Roman Catholic teaching and (apparently) of the historic Scriptural foundation of Catholic theology, on what basis do you consider yourself Catholic?

Tommy said...

hey Mary,for a person with a PHD you ain't too bright.The Hierarchy DOES speak for it's flock.If someone (yes you Bayly) doesn't like what they say then please leave.The Catholic Church is NOT a democracy,never claims to be.She (the Church) much like God allows us people to have free will to follow the laws but not to make or change them.