Friday, 27 June 2008

Passing thought on Catholic child care agencies

Recent media and blog posts report on differing responses by Catholic child care agencies to the challenge presented by pro-gay/pro-lesbian legislation which will require them to process applications from same sex couples to become foster parents and to be willing to place children with such couples. One approach, perhaps best exemplified by the position advocated by the Bishop of Lancaster diocese, is to ensure that the purposes of the agency are framed to be clearly Catholic and to face out the pro-gay/pro-lesbian legislation on the grounds of religious equality. Another approach, perhaps best exemplified by the agency that covers Southwark diocese, is rather the opposite. It is to cease being a Catholic agency and to comply with the expectation of the legislation that the agency will now place children for adoption with same sex couples.

I am interested in the part played by different stakeholders in this issue. The statement from the agency covering Southwark diocese includes the following paragraph (my emphasis highlights the different stakeholders):

The chosen option is to legally comply with the regulations as it offers the only transparent, straightforward and guaranteed way of preserving our full range of much needed services for some of the most vulnerable children in the country. Our Bishops, Trustees, Management and staff have all agreed that, in the circumstances, this is the most reasonable and responsible course of action for the greater good.

What is the role of the Bishops (and priests) in this situation? They should clearly teach that the placement of children with same sex couples is not a practice compatible with Catholic teaching and that, therefore, a Catholic cannot undertake that process without doing something that is objectively wrong. (Additional, subjective conditions to do with knowledge, freedom etc apply before one can define their action as being sinful.) They are also entitled to say that an agency that does choose to do this should not call themselves a "Catholic agency".

What is the role of Management and Staff? Now, this is interesting. For Catholic staff, there is a call to act in accordance with their conscience informed by Catholic teaching (cf the Bishops above). This is part of the character of lay vocation and arises, not from the direction of the Bishops, but from the lay person's own assimilation of Catholic teaching and their response to the vocation received through the Sacraments of Initiation to put Catholic life into practice in the secular world. This seems to me to be the place where the practical decision making as far as the future of Catholic child care agencies should rest. For non-Catholic staff working for these agencies, the question is not quite so clear cut as they may belong to other churches or religious organisations, or perhaps have no religious belief at all, and so not have the clear teaching on same sex relations that we have in the Catholic Church. One might hope, however, that these staff will share sufficiently the aims/objectives/ethos of a Catholic child care agency to make a similar judgement of conscience as their Catholic colleagues.

What is the role of trustees? A bit awkward as some trustees will be Bishops and others lay people, not necessarily with expertise in the child care field. The two roles I have distinguished sharply above appear to merge together here.

Where, then, does responsibility lie for the betrayal that some are seeing in the reactions of Catholic agencies? Let me express it as questions:

1. Are the Bishops and priests concerned clearly fulfilling their teaching obligations in this regard?
2. Are the Catholic staff of these agencies sufficiently well formed and firm in conscience to act in accord with Catholic teaching?

I think these are the essential questions, as what is happening with regard to these two questions really determines what it is possible for trustees to do. The lay Catholics involved must carry their responsibility in this matter, as well as the Bishops.

I am, of course, commenting on this from "outside", and recognise that it is much easier to do that than it is to make the decision when you are the person on the "inside". I really do not know what I would do if I were a social worker employed by a Catholic child care agency - all I can really say is that I hope I would make a decision that would not conflict with my Catholic faith. Without any condemnation at all, I hope and pray that Catholic social workers will find the courage to do that too.

[PS. I leave it to others to evaluate whether or not the Bishops, trustees, management and staff of Southwark's child care agency have really taken a course of action that is "reasonable", "responsible" and "for the greater good".]


Anonymous said...

Would a same sex couple want to deal with a Catholic agency at all ? Maybe they would fear they wouldn't get a fair chance of fostering/adoption.
Having seen a programme ,in the recent past, about the long process prospective adoptive parents have to go through, and of rejection at the end of it when it was hard to see why, Catholic agencies could give any number of reasons for refusal besides being same sex.

MaggieClitheroe said...

Speaking as an "expert" in this matter - I have commented on our failure to adopt after 6 yrs of waiting, in comments elsewhere, and on my blog, - I do believe that there are very few truly "Catholic" social workers working in the adoption field, which is why any couple who might uphold traditional family beliefs are likely to be looked down upon. The last agency we were with, a specifically Catholic one in the Midlands, our social worker was quite openly a lapsed Catholic, and said he would not necessarily agree with "everything our Church taught". He also thought we might have been quite a "useful commodity" seeing as he had no other actual practising Catholic families on his books!!! (It turned out not to be so, since the decision where a child is to be placed comes from it's own social worker, and if they don't like your traditional viewpoint, they will never allow a child to come to you.) When we first thought about adoption, we were considering adopting from overseas, and I naively went into the Clifton "Catholic" children's Society, to get some information. I foolishly assumed that the people working there would support Catholic teachings, so when I mentioned about wanting to save a child who might otherwise be aborted, I wasn't prepared for the rather aghast look on the social worker's face, and the distinct cooling off towards me!! This, along with the fact that they were happy to give children to unmarried couples, helped my husband and I to see beyond the view that Catholic adoption agencies were likely to uphold Catholic teaching!