Sunday, November 15, 2015

It's Not Me Guys, It's Totally You: An Adoptee Breaks Up with the Catholic Church

Today's #flipthescript prompt: Talk about how your adoption experience has affected your spirituality. Has your experience as an adoptee influenced you to either join or leave a church or religion? Has a church’s stance on adoption either pulled you in or turned you off? Has your adoption experience impacted your belief in or relationship to a higher power? How can spiritual leaders better support adoptees?

I was raised in a home with a father who identified as secular humanist and a mother who identified as Catholic. They agreed that I would be raised Catholic. So my mother and I went to church every Sunday while my dad stayed home. He would join us for Christmas and Easter. From an early age, I was quite aware that the Catholic Church and Christianity were not the be-all and end-all when it came to faith, morals, and ethical living. My father demonstrated on a regular basis that the non-religious can exist quite well in the world without belief in the supernatural or adhering to the rules of a human-operated religious institution. 

There were things I liked about the Catholic faith during childhood. The key word there being “faith.” I liked the whole notion of having a supernatural BFF that was always on my side and willing to listen. I liked that Jesus was a good guy and could be a role model. I liked that my girl Mary was revered and the subject of devotion.

As a young girl, however, there were things that I did not like. I considered them to be the literal man-made aspects. I did not like that only the boys in my Sunday school class could be altar servers. I did not like that only men could be priests. I did not like that for all the devotion to Mary going on, women were obviously considered to be second-class Catholic citizens.

It would be a few years until I matured a bit and realized that I also disliked additional man-made aspects such as the Church’s views on contraception, homosexuality and thinking that shuffling known pedophiles around to different parishes was preferable to involving local law enforcement. As I neared adulthood, my father shared with me that my many Catholic Church dislikes were similar to the ones he had regarding the Presbyterian Church of his youth, as well as organized religion in general.

Once I was in college--a Catholic Jesuit college as it turned out--I alternated between my father’s secular humanism and my mother’s Catholicism. I really wanted that whole supernatural BFF thing to be true, even though deep down I didn't believe this to be the case. Lord knows, I tried to keep the belief alive though.

Cognitive dissonance

It wasn’t until age 27 that I discovered much more about the extensive role that the Catholic Church’s man-made aspects played in my adoption. I learned that my 19-year-old natural parents chose marriage and parenting, that my maternal grandparents didn’t approve, and that they got their parish priest involved. My mother was sent away in secrecy to a Catholic maternity home. Catholic Charities made adoption arrangements even though it was not what my mother wanted and despite the fact that my paternal grandparents and father made it very clear that they wanted to raise me. Catholic Charities took money from my maternal natural grandparents and my adoptive parents to cover the maternity home and adoption costs. Catholic Charities placed me for adoption even though my father and paternal grandparents did not consent.

In 1989, the year I turned 18-years-old, Catholic Charities took money from my father so that he could fill out a sheet of paper releasing all of his information to me should I make an inquiry. When I did inquire in 1998, Catholic Charities had me pay a fee for five sheets of “non-identifying” paperwork. For an additional $250, they would contact my mother. If she didn’t want contact with me, they would keep the money and provide nothing to me in return. This offer was made even though Catholic Charities had the release from my father. To this day, Catholic Charities has never provided me with the paperwork that my father paid to have released.

Despite all of this, I clung to the desire of having that supernatural BFF and to the culture of Catholicism. I put my kids in Catholic school. I dutifully went to Mass every week.

The wall finally crumbles

My becoming active in adoption policy reform and joining the board of Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights changed everything. Over the past few years, I have been present for several legislative hearings during which I listened to representatives from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities of Harrisburg speak out against the very adoptees processed through their own adoption agencies.

The wall of cognitive dissonance finally fell away and what remained was a deep, intense hurt--a core-crushing pain. I hated myself for being so stupid in entrusting something as important as my faith to an organization that thinks so little of me--an organization that held a powerless infant me in its care for the first two months of my life. An organization that took thousands of dollars in fees to house my mother in a maternity home, take me from her arms, and place me for adoption even though it knew that my father and paternal grandparents did not consent and wanted to raise me. An organization that now fights against my rights and the rights of my fellow adoptees. I found myself unable to attend Mass. I did not feel safe sitting in church.

I eventually left, spiritually hurt and broken.

After leaving, I sought solace in non-Christian spiritual communities. I joined the local Unitarian Universalist congregation and was involved there for a while. I explored Buddhism and practiced with groups from the Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan traditions. But I soon realized that I had unfinished business with Christianity. I needed to know if my issues resided with the Catholic Church as an institution or with Christianity as a belief system.

A little research brought me to two Christian institutions that do not operate adoption agencies and offer people-made aspects that resonate with me as well as the faith aspects. I met with the pastors of two United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations in my area. Both listened with deep compassion and acknowledged my feelings. I attended services at their churches for a while. Then, I met with the pastor of a local Episcopal Church congregation. The Episcopal Church has an official statement in support of an adoptee’s right to their information and has services similar to Catholic ones. As it turned out, the Episcopal pastor is an adoptive parent who agrees with his organization’s stance. He too listened with deep compassion and acknowledged my feelings. I attended services there for a while.

But I was still hurting.

My husband gently suggested that I speak with the priest at our Catholic parish. In the past, I had been afraid to do this because I knew it would most likely result in my walking out the door never to return. But thanks to the UCC and Episcopal pastors, I felt stronger and scheduled an appointment with the Catholic priest. The meeting went well. He listened. He acknowledged that the Church had hurt me deeply. This was something I appreciated hearing. However, when our talk was over, he gave me a penance for the sin of not attending Mass.

That was it. I was done.

Moving forward

My relationship with the Catholic Church is now over for good. I’ll never go back. As a Catholic Charities adoptee, I will never again entrust my faith to an institution that claims to be pro-life, promotes adoption as an alternative to abortion, runs adoption agencies, and then actively fights against the adoptees it places. This is in addition to all of the other man-made aspects of the Catholic Church with which I completely disagree.

So, where am I with it all now? I am embracing the secular humanism that was just as much a part of my childhood traditions as Catholicism. I have found a spiritual home in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. I am just happily living my adopted life.

Julie Stromberg
When the time came to think about college, I decided that my career path would encompass either child psychology or journalism. Fortunately for all the young people out there, I opted for journalism and earned a bachelor's degree in communications. Since that time, I have worked as a newspaper and magazine staff writer, public relations associate, and marketing copywriter. My professional creative efforts have been acknowledged with several industry awards.

I am also pleased to be involved in several writing and advocacy projects outside of the office. As an adoptee, my advocacy work is focused on changing the common, societal discourse on adoption practices and encouraging reform that would place the emotional needs and legal rights of the children involved first.