Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers. It seems a good time to republish one of my first blog posts, a piece on the importance of Fatherhood (originally posted January 22nd, 2014)
Decline of Fatherhood
One of the largest elephants in the room today (if I may further abuse an already overworked metaphor) is the decline of fatherhood. It is just one of a number of factors in the implosion of the traditional family, but it’s a - or maybe, the - key one. If you google “the importance of the father” you’ll find 98,600,000 results. That’s 98 plus million. These are not mostly religious or conservative sources: most are related to various universities or government agencies, some are mainstream magazines not known for their cultural conservatism, such as Parenting and Psychology Today. Whatever their perspective they all have the same general message: growing up without a father is bad. Real bad.
In order to get a sense of the immensity of the problem you can to go to site of one of the organizations set up specifically to address this problem, such as The National Fatherhood Initiative at Fatherhood.org. They have lists of problem areas, including: poverty, emotional/behavioral problems, maternal & child health, crime & incarceration, sexual activity & teen pregnancy, child abuse, drug & alcohol abuse, childhood obesity, education. Not only do they cite studies and statistics, they have links to collections of studies and statistics for each category, a veritable mountain of information that is researched, published and . . . ignored. The information is there, its import is crystal clear, but it seems that nobody who is able to have an impact on public opinion is willing to say or do anything. That’s why I was so pleased to hear Maine Governor Paul Lepage address the issue (here) in such a forthright way at a public appearance a couple years ago.
Like Father, Like Son (and Daughter)
Of course, while there are political dimensions to it, this is not primarily a political problem; its sources are social and cultural and therefore, on a deeper level, spiritual and religious. Which means we can’t expect governors, or senators or presidents, to fix it for us: the answers lie in our own attitudes, choices and behaviors.
The Australian Catholic publication AD2000 (which I cited here also, in a recent post about church architecture) produced a fascinating article (here) a few years ago about a very important aspect of the fatherhood crisis, especially for us as Catholics, called “Church Attendance: the family, feminism, and the declining role of fatherhood.” The article focused on a survey done in Switzerland that examined the relationship between the parents’church attendance and that of their children, and examined the different effects of the father’s religious practice (or lack thereof) and that of the mother. There are a variety of angles and permutations, but the big picture is this:
.[I]f a father does not go to church, no matter how regular the mother is in her religious
practice, only one child in 50 becomes a regular church attender. But if a father attends
regularly then regardless of the practice of the mother at least one child in three will become a
regular church attender.
Wow. Notice that this is for all children, by the way, not just boys. AD2000 goes on to quote an
Anglican clergyman named Robbie Low, who says:
. . . when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and
engagement with the world 'out there', he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for
that role model. Where the father is indifferent, inadequate or just plain absent, that task
is much harder and the consequences more profound.
This has been shown to be true over and over again, of course, although one must have courage to
say so in "polite" company these days. Vicar Low points out an important way that the decline of
fatherhood has affected his church, one which we Catholics would be wise to consider:
Emasculated liturgy, gender-free Bibles and a fatherless flock are increasingly on offer.
In response to this, decline has, unsurprisingly, accelerated. To minister to a fatherless
society the Church of England, in its unwisdom, has produced its own single-parent
family parish model in the woman priest.
Lex Orandi, etc.
It's a startling thought, but it rings true; and while we won’t be seeing women priests in the Catholic Church (see John Paul the Great’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis [here], and the CDF document [here] affirming that the teaching on an the all-male priesthood is infallible), we are already seeing the emasculation of the liturgy in many other ways. At all but one of the Masses in my parish the majority of lectors and extraordinary ministers are women, in some cases all of them; in all but one Mass, most or all of the altar servers are girls (and if three of my sons didn’t serve, it might be all the Masses). Among the various other things that a priest does, he is an iconic representation of the fatherhood of God. When he is surrounded by women in the sanctuary, that image is diluted. As a more practical matter, the more something is dominated by girls, the less attractive it is to boys. That may be a regrettable reality, but a reality it remains. Over the last dozen years we have seen the male/female ratio among altar servers tip ever further in the female direction. Altar serving has historically been a first step for many men in discerning a vocation to the priesthood, so as fewer boys become servers we can expect fewer “father figures” to preside at Mass and consecrate the body and blood of Christ; also, more generally, the more the Mass is seen as a “girl thing”, the more religious belief and practice themselves will seem to be “unmanly” (lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing”), and the fewer men will bother to show up at all.
I’m not trying to pick a fight with those whose daughters are altar servers, or who serve as lectors at Mass. I think that it’s a good thing that we’re trying to do more than pay lip service to the truth that women enjoy a dignity equal to that of men. I also appreciate the huge number of single mothers who are struggling, sometimes heroically, to do the best they can for their children. I’m only asking that you please look at the resources I have linked above and consider that, in a society that is destroying itself because it refuses to acknowledge the difference between women and men, we as Catholics can be a prophetic voice proclaiming and celebrating the separate but complementary roles proper to each sex.
On April 4th, the Feast of the Annunciation, we will (quite rightly) celebrate the Blessed Mother and her "yes" to God's plan that she be the Mother of the Savior (Luke 1:38). Today is a reminder that Joseph also gives his assent, in his case to give up his own plans in order to be the Messiah's Father here on Earth (Matthew 1:18-25). God saw to it that the Word Become Flesh would have both a mother and father in this world, each playing a specific role. Wouldn't we be wise to follow his lead?
we pray, Almighty God,
that by Saint Joseph's intercession
your Church may watch over
the unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation,
whose beginnings you entrusted to his watchful care.
Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
(See also "Fatherhood and the Litany of St. Joseph" on Nisi Dominus)
(See also "Fatherhood and the Litany of St. Joseph" on Nisi Dominus)