The Catholic Church, Children and Same-Sex Parenting

COMMENTARY: Deliberately depriving children of a relationship with one of their parents is an injustice to the children.

(photo: Shutterstock/Brian A. Jackson)

Editor’s note: This article is an adaptation of a talk Jennifer Roback Morse presented at the “Living the Truth in Love” conference in Rome on Oct. 8.

My assignment at this conference is to describe the impact of same-sex parenting on children. I can recall back in 2008, when I was a campaign spokeswoman for Proposition 8 in California, one of my first assignments was to present our case to the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, the largest newspaper in California.

I showed the editor a birth certificate from British Columbia. Canada had already redefined marriage to be the union of any two persons of any gender.

“Look: There is a place for the mother’s name and information. But down here, where the father’s information ought to be, there is a check-off box for ‘father’ or ‘co-parent.’ Motherhood is still intact. But fatherhood has been reduced to a check-off box.”

The editor tossed the birth certificate aside. “Lots of kids don’t have fathers. Who cares?”

I was appalled. I am still appalled at the callousness that Western culture has developed toward the suffering of children. I am convinced that this callousness, which started in the United States at least 40 years ago, is a prime contributor toward the situation in which we now find ourselves.

We are faced with two competing worldviews. The Catholic worldview, and up until recently the worldview of all Christian denominations is this: Every child (and hence every adult) has identity rights and relational rights with respect to their parents.

And this is the part we do not like to say too loudly: These rights impose legitimate obligations on adults to provide these things to children. We don’t like to say this too loudly because people resist hearing that they have obligations to others that they did not explicitly choose to bear.

The competing worldview is this: Every adult has a right to the sexual activity he or she wants, with a minimum of inconvenience, and children have to accept whatever the adults choose to give them. We do not just blurt out that last part explicitly because we would be ashamed of ourselves if we said it out loud. But that is approximately the positon of most of the people in power in most of the so-called developed countries.

Let us listen to the words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, as he spoke to the Ecclesial Congress of the Diocese of Rome on June 15, 2015.

“It’s lovely when the child sees father and mother kiss one another — a beautiful testimony. When children see that father and mother love each other, the children grow in that atmosphere of love, of happiness and also of security, because they are not afraid: They know they are secure in the love of the father and of the mother.”

As soon as we begin speaking this way, of the rights and entitlements of children, we can see that we are talking about something much larger than same-sex couples raising children. We are, by implication, talking about any situation in which children are separated from a parent through the decisions of the parents. That forces us to talk about divorce.

Very well then. Let us by all means talk about divorce and its impact on children.

We now have literally hundreds of scholarly articles and books showing the risks that children of divorce face. These negative outcomes derive from the basic injustice done to children by separating them from one of their parents without an unavoidable reason.

Secure attachments between a child and each of his or her parents builds the foundation for the development of the child’s personality. In the child’s little world, mother and father are the most powerful and important people in their lives. Parents act as “stand-ins” for God himself. From this most basic relationship, the child develops his sense of himself as a social and spiritual being. Is the world a safe place for me? Do I really belong here? Am I worthy of love?

Divorcing parents may say to their child: “We still love you. We just don’t love each other anymore.” But the child’s other parent is half of who they are. The child cannot make sense of these contradictory claims because they are not really true. The whole truth is that the parent creating the separation is telling the child, “I want something else more than I want a relationship with your other parent, that is, with half of you.” And if the parent has a new lover, the real message is, “I value my relationship with my new boyfriend or girlfriend more than I value my relationship with you.”

This is the most immediate thing that children of divorce have in common with children of same-sex couples. The adults’ relationship with their sex partners is more important to them than their relationship with the child’s other parent.

Needless to say, this conflict does not even arise in families where the mother and father are continuously and faithfully married to each other.

It is no wonder the child cannot make sense of this impossible situation. We can see why so many difficulties and pathologies result.

The individual parents are not necessarily to blame. People can be good and decent and doing their very best. But sometimes the mere absence of the child’s other parent in the home, or the mere presence of a substitute parent in the home, can create a set of problems that good parenting skills and good intentions cannot entirely overcome.

Perhaps you have children like this in your parishes: a little girl who was the flower girl at her mother’s second wedding. Her heart is secretly breaking because her mother’s second wedding means that her mother and father will never get back together again.

Or perhaps you have little boys who are angry and hurt at the loss of their fathers. Boys who break things; boys who scream for no apparent reason; boys who are sullen and unapproachable; boys who hurt people.

The entire culture of Western countries has been telling people that “kids are resilient,” and “the kids will be fine as long as their parents are happy” for 40 years. Many people broke up perfectly adequate marriages and embarked on new relationships with this idea in their minds. If they had known how their children would suffer, many of them would surely have chosen something else.

The Catholic Church can take pride in the fact that we have consistently taken the divorce issue seriously. But even we have not done enough for these children who feel abandoned and confused. Even we have not done enough for the adults who have been discarded and divorced against their will. Even we have not done enough to combat the systematic lies our culture has been promoting.

Examining what is known about the impact of same-sex parenting on children, we find quite a bit of overlap with the issues faced by children of divorce.

We really should not be surprised that the children have problems. Children suffer in every one of the “alternative family forms” studied so far. It simply strains the imagination to believe that, somehow, same-sex couples will be able to accomplish what no other alternative family form has accomplished.

The impression that the advocates create is that the children who will be created by same-sex parents in the future will be different from those in other alternative family forms that have been studied so far. These children will be so wanted by their parents that the chosen-ness of the children will override the problems that arise from living with an unrelated adult and the heartbreak of being separated from one of their natural parents.

People who speak this way are tacitly referring to third-party reproduction: a sperm donor as a third party for a female couple or an egg donor and surrogate for a male couple.

These arrangements are morally problematic for all the same reasons as divorce, only more intensely so. For most of these children, their gamete donor is anonymous and is not part of their family. One of the parents has made a decision to completely cut the other parent out of their lives. This is a greater injustice than a divorce or separation, because it is deliberate, from the beginning, and permanent.

Finally, we should take a few moments to hear from the adult children themselves. Their testimonies deserve to be heard.

  • “I experienced the loss of my father as an amputation,” from a 66-year-old man, raised by his mother and her partner. 
  • “I felt it was better to be a gay male, or even a transgender male, than it was to be a little girl growing up. I always felt that I wasn’t lovable because I did not see the men in my life loving women,” from a woman raised by her gay father and a series of his partners.
  • “I just didn’t have a dad there. … I filled that gap sexually. From the age of 13 on, I was extremely promiscuous and sleeping with a lot of older men,” from a man raised by his mother and her partner. 
  • “When growing up, I always had the feeling of being something unnatural. … I had the feeling I was a lab experiment,” from a donor-conceived woman raised by two women.

Deliberately depriving children of a relationship with one of their parents is an injustice to the children. The fact that we have been doing so for the past 40 years through divorce is no excuse to create another whole class of injustices to children. The ancient teachings of the Church insist on keeping the unitive and the procreative aspects of sex together, inside matrimony. These teachings are humane and true. They do not deserve to be watered down or abandoned.

The ancient teachings of the Church deserve to be promoted from the housetops and defended to the end.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the founder and

president of the Ruth Institute, a nonprofit organization

devoted to healing the family from the wounds

inflicted by the lies of the sexual revolution.