Responding to the Crisis of Fatherhood

Today, Catholic Americans mark two celebrations: Holy Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day. The feast of the Holy Trinity is an occasion on which not only Catholics seek to deepen their appreciation of the mystery, and enter into the reality, of the communion of persons who is our Triune God. In particular, it’s a day on which normally special attention is given to God the Father, since on Pentecost we focus specifically on the Holy Spirit and throughout the year we normally concentrate on the life, words and works of Jesus. The Gospel reading the Church gives us this Sunday facilitates this focus on God the Father, because it shows how God the Father “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16).

This attention to the fatherhood of the first Person of the Blessed Trinity — especially on Father’s Day — is particularly timely and important. The future Pope Benedict, not one ordinarily prone to hyperbole, once said that this failure to see, appreciate and grasp the link between human paternity and the fatherhood of God is one of the greatest threats to the modern world.

“The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity,” Cardinal Ratzinger said in a remarkable March 15, 2000 speech at the Cathedral of Palermo, Sicily. The crisis of fatherhood facing modern society — a true “dissolution of fatherhood” — comes, he continued, from reducing paternity to a merely biological phenomenon, as an act of generation, sometimes even carried out in a laboratory, without its human and spiritual dimensions. That reduction not only leads to the “dissolution of what it means to be a son or a daughter,” but, on a spiritual plane, impedes our relationship to relate to God as he is and revealed himself. God, Cardinal Ratzinger stressed, “willed to manifest and describe himself as Father.” Human fatherhood provides us an analogy to understand the fatherhood of God, but “when human fatherhood has dissolved, all statements about God the Father are empty.” The crisis of fatherhood, therefore, leaves the human person confused about God and himself. That’s why, he argued, the crisis of paternity is perhaps the most important element threatening the human person and society.

David Blankenhorn in his acclaimed 1995 book “Fatherless in America” provided the sociological premises to the Cardinal Ratzinger’s theological conclusion. Blankenhorn argued that fathers are indispensable for the good of society and that unless we, as a society, recapture the idea and value of fatherhood, our society will continue to disintegrate with devastating consequences. There is a contemporary notion, he noted, that fathers are no longer necessary. Fatherhood has been reduced to a biological act, with the expression “to father a child” today basically referring just to procreation. The basic belief is that a dad is basically superfluous; a good dad in a child’s life may be advantageous but it isn’t necessary. While our culture’s failure to appreciate the role of fathers has often been experienced in law and court decisions with great sadness by many dads who are impelled inwardly to care for their children, it has also led to fathers who might need external help to fulfill their paternal responsibilities to become even more irresponsible. Blankenhorn’s intercultural and historical analysis showed that in most cultures men do not volunteer for the paternal responsibilities of raising children; they need, rather, to be conscripted into it by cultural support and pressure. The supreme test of any civilization, he said, is whether it can socialize men by teaching them to be fathers — creating a culture in which men acknowledge their paternity and willingly nurture their offspring. That cultural support has been fading away.

Our society’s conspicuous failure to sustain or create clear expectations or norms for fatherhood amounts to a disaster at a personal and social level, Blankenhorn underlined. It has undermined families, left children neglected, caused or aggravated some of our worst social problems, and made individual adult happiness harder to achieve for both men and women. He argues that the two major culprits for the decline of fatherhood are divorce and out of wedlock birth, leading to much higher rates of American kids going to bed without a committed father in the home. This has in turn been shown to lead to massive increases in youth violence, suspensions, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, child poverty and economic insecurity, and teenage pregnancy rates.

The Church has a particularly important role in responding to this crisis of fatherhood. The Church’s fidelity to teaching and living what God has revealed about marriage and the family, about true love and sexual morality, is an indispensable starting point. The Church provides remote, proximate, immediate and ongoing formation for marriage and family life that is meant to help Catholic couples live up to the full greatness of marriage and family in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in poverty and plenty, and helps them give a compelling example to others. The Church also has a super-rich understanding of the identity and vocation of fatherhood, which, in the midst of the present crisis, will be a light to the nations to the extent that it is lived.

St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Human fatherhood, in other words, comes from God the Father. To know what it means to be a good father, we need to look at God the Father and see how he relates to his only begotten Son and all his adopted children. We do this primarily by looking to see what Jesus has revealed about the Father, because Jesus is the image of the Father and whoever has seen him as seen the Father (Jn 14:9).

We can summarize the qualities of fatherhood that Jesus reveals to us from God in the father in the following ten points:

First, the Father takes delight in his children. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” God the Father thunders at Jesus’ baptism (Mt 3:17). Fathers must express their love for and joy in their children. This is the basic underpinning for all paternal interactions.

Second, the Father loves unconditionally. Jesus says he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Mt 5:45). So fathers must love children who are easy or difficult to love.

Third, the Father cares about every one of his children, not wanting one to perish (Mt 18:14).

Fourth, the Father is generous. Even more than parents know how to give good gifts to their children, he will give of himself to all his children who ask (Mt 6:26; 7:11).

Fifth, he is observant. He sees what is done in secret and rewards. He pays such good attention that he knows what is needed even before it is asked (Mt 6:4, 8).

Sixth, he teaches those who are docile (Mt 11:25-26; Mt 16-17; Jn 6:44-46).

Seventh, he is merciful. Human fathers are explicitly called to be as merciful as he is (Lk 6:36).

Eighth, he disciplines out of love. We see this throughout the Old Testament. “What son is there whom his father does not discipline?,” the Letter to the Hebrews queries (12:5-11). There can be no disciples without loving discipline.

Ninth, the Father works. “My Father is working still,” Jesus says (Jn 5:17). It’s key for fathers to be hard-workers and to help their kids become hard workers, in the image of Christ who imitated his Father’s and foster father’s hard work.

Lastly, he wants to share life to the full with his children (Jn 6:40). Human fathers should likewise make it their will and desire to share their earthly life with their children and strive with their children to share eternal life together.

The Chinese character for “crisis” is a union of the symbols for danger and opportunity. While there are evident dangers from the crisis of paternity, there is also an opportunity for us, to begin to repair the damage and to restore a notion of what it means to be a good father, by helping not just Catholics but all of society see in human fatherhood and in the spiritual fatherhood of the priesthood a glimpse of the Fatherhood of God.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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