Accepting our children with unconditional love
April 18, 2019
On the last day of 2017, the feast of the Holy Family, the Mass readings (and a fine homily by a priest in my parish) got me thinking about parents, children and bioethics.
The readings recount God’s shocking request that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, and they quote an inspiring yet disturbing prophecy greeting the infant Jesus when his parents present him at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Mary and Joseph are “amazed” at this prophecy. The holy man Simeon confirms that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel.” But he adds to Mary that he will be “a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce.”
The angel Gabriel left out this last part when he asked Mary to bear Jesus, and she said, “May it be done to me according to your word.” But she carries on in humble faith, reflecting on these things as she and Joseph raise Jesus as well as they can.
Abraham also receives distressing news. Having miraculously received a son in his old age, by whom God says his descendants will number as the stars in the sky, Abraham is told to offer up that son as a sacrifice. His hopes for the future seemingly destroyed, he still trusts, thinking that “God was able to raise even from the dead.”
And God rewards his faith: Having surrendered Isaac as the guarantee of his personal legacy, he receives him back as a gift.
These parents could have seen their child as a personal possession, an extension of their own plans for their people. (Abraham, perhaps, had to be shocked out of that thinking.) Instead, they “let go and let God,” raising and educating their child but trusting God for the final outcome.
Today our competitive society encourages a different view. We may see our sons and daughters as opportunities to extend our own legacy, even to fulfill aspirations we could not live up to. Severe disappointment sets in when, as they grow, children fall short of our expectations or simply develop their own ideas on how to live.
This self-serving love does not treat our children as unique persons developing their own free will. It does not recognize the gift.
Now technology is enabling us to put such distorted ideas of parenthood into practice in new ways. In vitro fertilization treats nascent offspring as objects in the laboratory, subject to “quality control.” Some parents hope to replicate themselves (or other admired persons) through human cloning.
In surrogate motherhood contracts, couples hire a woman to bear and then surrender a child for them, often claiming the right to order an abortion if she bears more children than expected or a problem is found during pregnancy.
In a recent case in Texas, after the mother refused to abort a child with a prenatal heart defect, the contracting couple initially said they would refuse surgery after birth and let the child die. We know what Solomon the Wise would say: Give that child to the mother who would let him have his own chance at life.
Now gene editing may soon allow parents to tailor the genetic makeup of their offspring, producing the “perfect” child (whatever that means when we adults have imperfect ideas about children).
Technology can be used for good or ill. To know how it applies to our children, we must understand what loving them means. Our faith calls us not to control them as our instruments, but to accept them with unconditional love and raise them to seek their own God-given destiny.
Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.