20 September 2014

Liberalism Means allowing faith groups their foibles

 - Sunday, 19 February 2012, 00:00

by Daphne Caruana Galizia

The fresh fuss about the decision of a Maltese-run Catholic organisation in Ethiopia, not to liaise on any more adoptions by single ‘people’, is pointlessly complicated.

It is being built up as yet another way of being cruel to homosexuals. So before matters get really out of hand as they usually do, let’s spell out the facts.

For a start, those who complain most bitterly about what they see as the lack of separation between church and state should not fall prey to such confusion themselves. Religious organisations are, like everyone and everything else, subject to the law of the land. It is the law of the land which regulates adoptions and who may or may not adopt, and not the Catholic Church or any other faith group.

The decision of the church organisation in Ethiopia not to cooperate with single ‘people’ any longer does not mean that the law has changed in respect of adoptions by single ‘people’. The law on adoptions is still what it was last week.

I put ‘people’ in inverted commas because the news reports I have read so far have presented the matter to their readers as though single people in general have so far been allowed to adopt children, and will not be allowed to do so any longer because of what the Catholic Church here has decided. This is wrong.

Single men are not allowed to adopt children under Maltese law, and this is irrespective of their sexuality. There might be some very rare exceptions made for the adoption of boys by single men – generally if there is already a biological relationship – but single men are definitely and absolutely not allowed to adopt girls. Single women are allowed to adopt both girls and boys under Maltese law, and this, too, is irrespective of their sexuality.

While on the face of it this might seem like outright discrimination between single men and single women (rather than between homosexuals and heterosexuals, so let’s be clear about that), the reality is that it is done for the protection of the child. Where the safety of children is concerned, there is no scope for giving potential adoptive parents the benefit of the doubt. The law does not consider it safe to put girl-children, especially, in the sole care of a man who is not related to them.

The law of the land is supreme whatever a Catholic organisation in Ethiopia might have decided. If single women cannot find children to adopt through that organisation, they will have to redouble their efforts and go elsewhere. That’s about the sum of it. Protesting that this is unfair is neither here nor there.

The Catholic Church in Malta has said that it took this decision because it would like adopted children to grow up in homes with two parents. It is an autonomous organisation and has every right to decide which adoptions it will or won’t cooperate on. The Catholic Church does not make the law but is subject to it, and so people who fret about church decisions are fretting unnecessarily. They are also making the very same mistake of which they accuse others, and attributing to the church authorities power that does not belong to them. A church organisation does not have the power to decide who gets to adopt a child. The state authorities have that power, guided by the law.

There are those who think that church organisations – or any other adoption organisations, for that matter – should not be permitted to have different guidelines or parameters to those of the law. There is a self-sorting mechanism, of course. Private or church-run adoption organisations will not liaise on adoptions which the state will absolutely not permit, because it would be a pointless exercise, given that it is the state which must sanction and process the actual adoption. This is the most obvious acknowledgement that it is the law of the land, and not what any religious organisation thinks or believes, which holds sway, but the ‘nasty, mean church has all the power’ brigade prefer to ignore it.

In other words, no church organisation will help a single Maltese man source a girl-child for adoption because it knows that such adoptions are not allowed by law. Those same church organisations, however, are perfectly at liberty to refuse to help a single woman source a child for adoption, even though such an adoption is perfectly legal.

Coincidentally, there’s a contemporaneous fuss in Britain, where gay people can enter into a form of marriage called a civil union, about much the same thing. Catholic adoption agencies there are closing down after the recent ruling by the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that ‘religious rules should end at the door of the temple’ and that Roman Catholic adoption agencies and other faith groups which provide public services may not operate by “a different set of laws” from the rest of society. This ruling was in view of the fact that those Catholic adoption agencies refused to process adoption applications from people in homosexual unions.

Lest you run away with the idea that Mr Phillips’s ruling is a laudable one, which proves how truly great a democracy Britain, is, I should tell you that it has been unequivocally slammed by religious and political leaders and a wide variety of commentators. And it is precisely the tone of this criticism, rather than the ruling itself, which validates Britain’s reputation as a great liberal democracy. The general gist is that the Phillips ruling betrays a totalitarian mindset which is deeply at odds with liberal thought; that religious groups should be left free to practise what they preach as long as they do not come into conflict with the supreme law of the land. When they do come into conflict, it is the law which wins out.

Put simply, if Catholic adoption agencies do not wish to process applications from homosexual couples – for the simple reason that this is in direct conflict with the principles of Catholicism, and they cannot do it – they should be left free not to do so. Leaving them free not to do so would have certainly been a good deal more desirable than what has happened now: the loss of a valuable adoption service caused by the closure of Catholic adoption agencies which may not, because of their religious beliefs, liaise with homosexual couples.

British law allows the adoption of children by homosexual couples, and so those couples are free to go elsewhere to have their adoption arranged. There are plenty of other adoption agencies, and so it is not a matter of Catholic adoption agencies or nothing. That is the essence of liberal thinking. To force Catholic agencies to do something that is profoundly at odds with their religious beliefs is not liberal. It is an act of aggression against religion and yes, it is totalitarian at root.

As for the situation with Maltese prospective adoptive parents and the church-run organisation in Ethiopia, I can only say this. A private organisation is a private organisation. If you wish to benefit from its services, you have no choice but to abide by its rules. If you do not like those rules, or if those rules exclude you, then the law of the land allows you to go elsewhere.

We cannot dictate to volunteers and charities who they must help and who they must not. It is only state authorities which have a universal service obligation, so this begs the question: if prospective parents are so upset by the decision which the Catholic Church has taken, why are they not petitioning the state to set up an overseas adoption agency which, in line with the law, will not exclude single women? They go on and on about the separation of church and state, but then insist on treating any service provided by the Catholic Church as they would something provided by the state.

As to who should or should not be allowed to adopt children, I have long thought that the only guideline should be an assessment of whether the child is going to be better off with that particular prospective parent or better off where he is now. The guiding principle in the law is the best interests of the child. That should continue to be the case; it is just that we have to revise our interpretation of what those best interests are, according to new research, values and attitudes, and insight into child psychology.

This is where I think the Catholic Church is wrong in its Ethiopia decision. A child adopted by a single woman in Malta is always going to be better off than if he were left to grow up in a precarious situation in an Ethiopian orphanage, facing a desperate future. But if the Catholic Church thinks otherwise, because of its religious principles, then I will have to respect its decision, even though I obviously do not agree with it. I only hope it can be persuaded otherwise, and realise that the spirit of its religious law must not be undermined by too strict an adherence to its letter.

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