Pope’s Affirmation of “Right to Family” Can Help LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care

Today’s post is from guest blogger Jacob Kohlhaas, an associate professor of moral theology at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa. Professor Kohlhaas has written on theology of family topics for U.S. Catholic and America magazines, and is the author of the upcoming Beyond Biology: Rethinking Parenthood in the Catholic Tradition(Georgetown University Press) to be published this coming spring.


Jacob Kohlhaas

Young people are not meant to become discouraged; they are meant to dream great things, to seek vast horizons, to aim higher, to take on the world, to accept challenges and to offer the best of themselves to the building of something better.” (Pope Francis, Christus Vivit, #15)

In early November, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services released a study of LGBTQAI+ youth and foster care. This study confirms earlier studies in showing a significant overrepresentation of LGBTQAI+ youth in the child care system.

According to the study, LGBTQAI+ youth are about 50% more likely to enter foster care and enter the system at a higher rate as they hit adolescence. These young people also receive family-based foster care less often and instead are more likely to live in group homes. Interestingly, LGBTQAI+ individuals were somewhat more likely to be in contact with their families of origin, but the quality of that relationship tended to be weaker compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Moreover, a  journalist for The New York Times pointed out, quoting the latest report, “These risk factors were associated with differences in well-being. LGBTQAI+ youth reported to experience more depressive symptoms and fewer feelings of optimism.”

The study also observes an elevated rate of experiences of homelessness, which again confirms earlier studies from 2013 and 2017. These place LGBTQAI+ youth at between a third and a half of the youth homeless population. Most were prone to unstable situations such as shelters and couch surfing. Advocacy groups for these young people often cite family rejection as a key reason behind the elevated numbers. Such painful reminders of family exclusion come at a time when much has been made of possible new directions in Catholic thought.

About a month before the New York report’s release, a new documentary featured Pope Francis recalling his support for civil unions (to assure human well-being and safeguard heterosexual marriage) and asserting that homosexual persons “have a right to a family.” While his words seemed provocative, uncertainty also surrounded the origins of the footage. Relatively quickly, reports confirmed the Pope’s remarks had been spliced together from responses to separate questions in separate interviews. But in that uncertain meantime, several Catholic theologians had ventured to provide their interpretation of what the pope may have intended, particularly his claim about a “right to a family.”

At The Conversation, Julie Hanlon Rubio, suggested the pope may be offering a more expansive and inclusive view of the family. She wrote “When, in discussing same-sex civil unions, Francis said that gay people have ‘a right to a family,’ he seems to have implied that civil unions create a family.” She further added that such a view does not change moral teaching, but does change rhetoric.

Here on Bondings 2.0, Cristina Traina recognized Francis’s concern for the excluded and connected his remarks in the documentary to the concern he expressed for unmarried cohabitating couples in the 2016 encyclical Amoris Laetitia. She argued the pope’s words introduced gradation in the institutional church’s use of the term “family.”

And at US Catholic, I too ventured a guess. Knowing how absolutely central sexual ethics and gender are to contemporary Catholicism’s understanding of the family, I surmised the pope must have been metaphorically referring to the Church as a family. Nevertheless, I concluded, he was laying important groundwork for reframing the Catholic understanding of family.

After more information emerged, America podcast hosts Colleen Dulle and Gerard O’Connell explained the documentary had cut the question that prompted a portion of the pope’s response and the second part of his answer, in which Francis reiterates same-sex sexual acts can never be approved. With the words in question, the pope appears to have been affirming every person’s “right” to a family of origin. Apparently, the pope believes this obligation for inclusion holds true even for persons in same-sex relationships, and presumably extends to gender identity as well.

Given the realities documented in the reports above, it appears Pope Francis’s relatively modest assertion of a “right to a family” is far from reality in the lives of many young people. Rather than being included, welcomed, supported, and encouraged to “seek vast horizons” (see papal quotation above), many LGBTQAI+ youth experience being cast off or held at a distance from their families of origins.

While Pope Francis’ meaning about “right to a family” likely disappoints progressive-minded Catholics, they do confirm the dignity of LGBTQAI+ persons at a basic level. Unfortunately, even this small step is a standard of inclusion and commitment that many families and congregations fail to actualize. As Steven P. Millies observes, the growth of social acceptance of LGBTQAI+ persons and their relationships has come quickly for an institutional church that is not adept at quick development. Yet believing that families and communities of faith should not abandon children does not require public support for same-sex marriage.

Respect for persons must instead pervade our relationships and communities. As Pope Francis has consistently emphasized, mercy encounters persons and their needs, not their moral infractions. When Catholic families and communities learn to see others with these eyes, new horizons in how we imagine the extent and diversity of our families may well unfold.

Jacob Kohlhaas, December 22, 2020

5 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    I think the right of LGBTQ+ youths to a family is a key. So much has been said about how children need a mother and a father, and therefore they should be fostered or adopted by straight married couples, rather than lesbian or gay couples.

    But what about the LGBTQ+ children who need foster and adoptive parents who will love and understand them? What about the children who might be fostered or adopted by traditional Catholic parents who buy the moral strictures of Catholic doctrine, and try to impose those destructive strictures on their LGBTQ+ children?

    The welfare of the children should always be the main concern, not the dogmatic “orthodoxy” of the people who want to foster or adopt. So when children are matched with couples, they should be matched with couples who can love, understand and give them what they need to grow up as healthy members of the community. And if the best adults for a particular child are themselves LGBTQ+, then they should be chosen. If the best adults are straight, then they should be chosen.

    Of course the same goes for straight children as well. And so often, it has been lesbian or gay couples who have been willing and able to foster or adopt children no one else wanted.

    Reply
    • Jake Kohlhaas
      Jake Kohlhaas says:

      John,

      Thanks for the response. You are accurate, and the research is clear that same-sex couples can raise children with strong outcomes across all the usual measures of well being. I think the one piece that doesn’t get picked up on enough, though, is that Catholicism counts moral approval of same-sex relationships itself as a harm. Hence we get some circularity in which it can be argued that children are harmed by same-sex parents because those children become more likely to accept same-sex relationships/parenting. I think this rests behind some of the claims about learning to understand complementarity and is of course rooted in the anxieties about authority that have dogged the institutional church since, well, 1968? 1870? 1517? 1066? Lets just say “a while”…

      Reply
  2. Betsy Linehan
    Betsy Linehan says:

    Dear Jacob,

    I appreciate this column. I am already aware of some of the discriminations you flag; Project HOME in Philadelphia reaches out especially to LGBTQ+ young people whose families have kicked them out. I also want to say, to you in particular, that my father [Edmund J. Linehan] was a proud Loras graduate.

    Reply
  3. Jake Kohlhaas
    Jake Kohlhaas says:

    John,

    Thanks for the response. You are accurate, and the research is clear that same-sex couples can raise children with strong outcomes across all the usual measures of well being. I think the one piece that doesn’t get picked up on enough, though, is that Catholicism counts moral approval of same-sex relationships itself as a harm. Hence we get some circularity in which it can be argued that children are harmed by same-sex parents because those children become more likely to accept same-sex relationships/parenting. I think this rests behind some of the claims about learning to understand complementarity and is of course rooted in the anxieties about authority that have dogged the institutional church since, well, 1968? 1870? 1517? 1066? Lets just say “a while”…

    Reply

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