Professors O’Malley and Kirk offer personal, theological, and legal perspectives on adoption


Students for Child-Oriented Policy partnered with the Tocqueville Program to sponsor an adoption panel on November 19. Timothy O’Malley, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, and Elizabeth Kirk, Adjunct Professor of Politics at Ave Maria University, spoke about their personal experiences with adoption, as well as their theological and legal observations on the topic.

Aside from his role as a professor and as Director of the Center for Liturgy, O’Malley was adopted, and he and his wife adopted their son Tommy in December 2012. Both of these backgrounds shaped his comments on adoption.

O’Malley first discussed society’s lack of support for adoption, birth parents, and adoptive parents. He described how adoption is often perceived as a “failure of parenthood” and abandonment. Parents provide very little validation to birth mothers due to these deep-seated primordial social views.

He proved this social stigma incorrect by examining how parent-child relationships shift as children mature. “Parenthood, in the ideal world, is coming to realize that your child was never yours to begin with,” O’Malley observed. Children similarly recognize that they are independent creatures apart from their parents, and O’Malley sees this crisis in identity roles as inevitable and only accelerated in adoption.

O’Malley then took a more theological approach, comparing the adoption process to the motif of the Beloved Son throughout the Old Testament. He presented examples such as Isaac and the Israelites, who were not supposed to be chosen but became recipients of covenants. This election of the unexpected is perfected in Christ, the Beloved Son who brings about the redemption of the world.

O’Malley referred to Saint Paul’s usage of the language of adoption to describe how Gentiles, who initially were not chosen, can become beloved and enter into a new relationship that was not part of the original covenant. O’Malley observed the universality of adoption in the Christian life, as “to be Christian is to be adopted.”

Through adoption, adoptive parents can participate in this unexpected love witnessed throughout Scripture. The nuptial love of parents “overflows such that their love actually exceeds the bounds of biology.” O’Malley concluded that through the divine love in the covenant of marriage, adopted children are given the gift of a new lineage and receive the love and life that was nearly taken from them.

Kirk, a fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University and magna cum laude graduate of the Notre Dame Law School, drew from both her legal experience and role as an adoptive parent to address how children’s rights and needs are met via adoption. Like O’Malley, she initially addressed the prevailing social stigma surrounding adoption, namely the erroneous view of it as an undesirable “last resort.”

She then outlined how the well-intentioned stance that children have a right to be raised within a natural family deprives children of the opportunity for adoption and renders adoption unnatural and devalued. This right underlies opposition to in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and adoption by same-sex couples. Such practices intentionally deny a child of two biological parents and objectify children as means to meet parents’ needs.

Kirk holds that adoption, properly understood, does not have these motives and should be more widely promoted because it is modeled on the normative family and “provides a family to a child that needs one.” She continued to emphasize the importance of approaching adoption correctly and understanding that, although the natural family is the preferred structure for a child’s proper growth, it is sometimes impossible due to birth parents’ inability or refusal to provide a safe and healthy home environment.

While referring to adoption’s ability to address a child’s basic need for a stable family, Kirk quoted pro-life legal scholar Erika Bachiochi, who sees adoption as bringing about restoration instead of furthering brokenness. Kirk emphasized the important link between marriage and adoption, saying that the process provides a child “paternal and maternal love, which he needs for his full human development.” Adoption into a family, solidified by the bonds of marriage, restores what has been broken through the many attacks of the culture of death, namely premarital and extramarital sex and abuse of all types.

Kirk concluded her presentation by speaking about the primacy of religious liberty in protecting the role of institutions such as the Church and faith-based adoption agencies in safeguarding marriage and adoption. She identified the causes of such attacks as originating from the “troubling … but not surprising … legal and cultural milieu that sees adoption really as just a means of fulfilling adult desires and posits that all adults have a right to a child.” Kirk juxtaposed this false understanding of adoption with the correct view of adoption, which sees it as an institution that provides children with a family and is inherently good.

Kirk reiterated the need to have a child-oriented approach to adoption and appreciation for the selfless role of both birth and adoptive parents. Birth parents do not abandon their children, but rather fulfill their responsibilities as parents; adoptive parents do not selfishly desire children, but rather welcome them. Kirk concluded that adoption does not further brokenness, but restores what is missing and heals wounds in service to children.

Mackenzie Kraker is a freshman living in McGlinn Hall. She hopes to major in chemical engineering with a theology minor. She dislikes doing laundry but has a particular interest in lint removal from dryers. If you share her enjoyment of this task, contact her at