Last year, in Seton’s religion book for second graders, I came across a page that bothered me.
Sort of amusing, too, in a grim, “I am so sick of being smacked across the face for no good reason from people who should know better… and I can’t believe they didn’t read what they’d written before they chose that picture!”
While discussing the fourth commandment (“Honor your father and your mother.”), the book explained to children that they owe their parents obedience because the parents gave the child life. They participated with God to create a new and unique human being.
The picture at the bottom? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at home, working at their respective tasks.
Um, guys? Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus’ conception, remember? Although Joseph protected Jesus and provided for him, he did not actually participate in giving him life. So, by what they wrote, Jesus didn’t have to obey Joseph.
But the Bible said Jesus did obey Joseph. Hmm. I’m thinking the Bible is telling us there’s more to this parenting/obedience thing than blood ties. And, although we often use the work-around of calling St. Joseph Jesus’ “foster father”, it’s always been a bit awkward. We’re trying to acknowledge that Jesus’ father is God, but we can’t quite give St. Joseph the honor he deserves at the same time.
I re-explained the point, after reading the page through and asking my second grader to think about, “Ok, what’s wrong with this picture?” Parents have authority because they are parents. They are appointed by God to care for their children. All parents’ authority is on loan from, and to point their child towards, God. When parents seriously abuse that authority, that’s a separate discussion of what happens next (and a poor father figure often hampers his children’s relationship with God the Father), but, generally, parents are obeyed because of their position, and not just their blood relationship to the child, even though the two normally go together.
If you saw World Over tonight, you might have noticed what brought the subject up. Dr. Robert George was discussing Proposition 8 in California (the gay “marriage” ban) and made the unfortunate comment about “all adoptees” needing to connect with their biological parents, thus proving why we need to defend traditional marriage.
I will not concede that an adopted child is the same as a child conceived via IVF with a father named “Donor”. One is a loving response to an unfortunate situation (birthparents can’t raise the child, adoptive parents would love to). The other is a child born from manipulation and commodification, and often raised without a father because his mother chose it that way. Lacking a father figure (and even if his mom insists fathers are an unnecessary social construct), the child naturally seeks to fill that hole, and that doesn’t always go well. (President Obama has famously chosen some rather questionable men to fill the hole left by his absent father. The new study out on children conceived by donor sperm showed rates of drug abuse and crime more than doubled.)
A child who was adopted, living with a set of married parents, doesn’t have that issue. He has a mom and a dad. Wondering about birthparents is common, but there is no reason to interpret that to mean that all adoptees are incomplete until they’ve met their “real”, i.e. birth, parents. Largely, I suspect this is a backlash to the norm of completely closed adoptions that existed several decades ago. A number of the “experts” leading the noisy charge to proclaim that all adoptees must want to reunite with their birthparents (and if they don’t, they’re told they’re in denial) are at least partially projecting their own frustrations with closed adoptions or the shock of finding out as an adult that they were adopted. The high emotions garner a lot of media attention and squash discussion.
Somewhere between universal mandatory reunions and completely hiding the adoption to help the child fit in, there is a healthier middle ground.
(And I have to say I understand, to some extent, the old advice to keep the adoption secret, pretend that the mom was pregnant, etc. so the child could fit in. Society, in case you’ve missed it, associates adoptees with psychological scarring and violent tendencies. Any crime or sad story that fits that story line will be trumpeted: “Adult adoptee murders parents,” “Adoptive parents send back uncontrollable child”, etc. You’re never going to see the headline, “Happy adult adoptee has normal life, family.” One book I read commented on how the Chinese people the author interacted with in China were so amazed that her daughter (adopted from China as an infant) was so polite, sweet, and, well, normal; aren’t adoptees supposed to be walking disasters? Faced with that awful preconception, what parent wouldn’t want to protect their child? Some were willing to lie to do it. Some never told their children the truth, and they only found out as adults.)
There is a materialistic line of thinking that says that biology is everything. Your DNA, they say, sets your personality, temperament, intelligence, health, everything. You can change almost none of it, the theory claims; one psycholgist rolled his eyes at me and informed me that 95% of my ADHD child’s behavior was set by DNA and unchangeable. (And we’ve studied the effects of DNA vs. environment how, exactly, since the people who provided your DNA are almost always the key creators of your environment?)
As Christians, we don’t believe in materialism, remember? We believe that each person is an individual, loved and willed into existence by God, and the spiritual bonds are the strongest. Sometimes those spiritual bonds are reinforcing blood bonds, and sometimes not.
We call priests “father” because they are fulfilling the duty of passing on the spiritual inheritence to the next generation (and reinforcing it in the older ones). Perhaps Jesus told his disciples, “Call no man your father,” because he had dealt with Jews who claimed blood descent from Abraham, but lacked his faith; they’d lost the important part of the inheritance, the spiritual bond.
St. Joseph was Jesus’ father not by blood, but because he loved, protected, and provided for him as a child. Joseph would have been the one to present his son as an adult male member of the synagoge for the first time. Joseph taught Jesus his trade, Bible stories, and morality.
In the perfect family, the Holy Family, the father-son bond was not blood, but a spiritual inheritance.