Adoption by Priests


I’m doing research for a potential period piece that I’m interested in writing. It takes place in the middle of Italy during WW2. I was wondering if it was/is permissible for a priest to have guardianship over a child if all of that child’s close family members ended up dead? I’d like to make this as accurate as possible.

Is there a historical precedent for this?


J.R.R. Tolkien had a priest as a guardian when his mother died.


A very famous case is the Mortara Affair:


Fr. Michael Pfleger, a Chicago priest has adopted a couple of boys over the years.

Priests are certainly allowed to adopt children, although I would think their bishop as well as the secular authorities responsible for adoptions would have to be satisfied it was best for the child


Fr. Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, accepted civil guardianship of a boy in order to prevent him from being taken from his family.


For sure many priests would make great models for moral character but I can see how sometimes priestly obligations would interfere with child-rearing/guardianship so I understand why cases like this are pretty rare. A priest has to be 100% available all the time, and having a kid would make that very difficult. In the story I envisioned writing, the priest ends up taking care of his five year old great-niece because the parents, grandparents, and godparents are all dead or missing as a result of the war. The priest is in his 60s and the kid is a 5 to 6 year old girl. The story is kind of an emotional roller coaster due to large amounts of comedy and tragedy that afflict this pair. Add to the fact that the girl’s father was of Jewish ancestry, and so the priest has the additional burden of protecting her since it’s Italy in 1943 and she’s very likely to end up being gassed in a concentration camp if not for some very creative interventions that he puts into place to protect her and a couple of other kids. The tragedy of the setting and some of the plot events combined with an older man with no child-rearing experience suddenly being stuck with a five year old would make for an interesting emotional experience for the readers.


This has happened in the past but cannot happen anymore. Child safety issue.


And why would that be anikins?


Usually risk of molestation and rape. Here is the website from the US bishops conference on child protection

If you go to your local diocese website you will also find a link to the rules that today’s priests have to abide by when interacting with children. All dioceses are required to provide families with that safety information.


I’m not aware of any safe environment policy that restricts Church employees ability to foster/adopt.


This would not apply to a situation with a priest and his own children or wards, obviously. And Diocesan rules for interacting with children apply specifically to parish and Church-sponsored events. They don’t extend to every aspect of a priest’s personal life. If this were the case, he would not be able to you have any normal relationships with extended family or friends.

I know a priest who adopted two children in the 1980s. I imagine that it would be more difficult now, but I’m not sure how it would be any different from any other single man adopting a child.


It’s also my understanding that the rules mentioned above are for parish/church sponsored events. After all, what the heck is wrong with a priest babysitting a niece/nephew during their time off, taking them to an amusement park, or taking them on a ‘just the two of them’ fishing trip? If they were to follow those rules all the time then normal extended family relationships would be curtailed.


Another thing we have to remember with Priestly adoption is that the priest has to find some way to introduce a model for the female sex into the child’s life.

Children need a model for both sexes in their upbringing, after all.

Christi pax.


There are priests who have children. At one point in time our Church had two priests with children. One had three children (through marraige) and the other had two (through marraige). However, those examples included mother’s. Our God loves families…it seems that if a child cannot be with his/her natural mother/father, then God would prefer an adopted family with a loving mother & father. There are plenty of husbands and wives out there who cannot have children and would love to be parents to an adopted child…it seems they would be a more appropriate adoptive choice than a priest without a wife. If the priest was a close relative, that would be a good consideration though.


Right, God have mercy.


There is a priest I know of who legally adopted his nephew a few years ago. Not sure of the logistics though.


Right… but this is why it was historically rare. Often, when it happened, it was a priest taking care of his own biological children, the children of a dead family member, or the children of close friend.


I agree with you in principle. Every child deserves a mother and a father and two-parent families should always have precedence. Sadly, there are still children in need of love and permanence who are not as easily brought into traditional families. Single parents who are willing to take on these kids, in spite of the challenges, fill this gap in an important way. One parent is better than a childhood spent in foster care.


As a product of foster care I could not agree with you more. Kids in foster care have very low success rates.


It is a sort of cliché.
Then thoses children who cannot find a home are often special needs, ill children, children with trauma, children with a lot of siblings, older children. A single person will not necessary be better armed to deal with that.

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