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Addressing fatherhood

Donald DeMarco

A person best understands fatherhood by knowing someone who is a good father.

Seamus O’Malley was down on his luck. He was out of work and his children were cold, hungry, and inadequately sheltered. A simple man of childlike faith, Seamus decided to write to God for help. So he took out his personal stationery and penned a letter to his Maker asking for $100 to meet his family’s immediate needs. He placed his letter in an envelope addressed simply “To God” and dropped it in the nearest mailbox. The letter went straight to the Dead Letter Office. There, it was read by a bemused and sympathetic employee who was also a high-ranking Mason. Moved by the childlike faith of Seamus O’Malley, he took the letter that evening to the annual Masonic fund-raising banquet and read it to his fellow Masons. A collection was taken up in Seamus’s cause and soon a check for $75, bearing the address of the Mason Lodge, was dispatched to Seamus’s home.

    Upon receiving the check, and with mixed emotions, Seamus wrote a second letter to his Divine Benefactor: “Dear God, thank you for the money. But the next time, could you send it to me through the Knights of Columbus? This time you sent it through the Masons and they charged $25 for delivery.”

    Whether one is dialing a telephone number, sending e-mail, addressing an envelope, or calling on God in prayer, it is crucial to have the correct address. The number 666 symbolizes evil precisely because it is so close and yet so far away from the mystical 777. Good and evil are sometimes separated by a hairbreadth.

    In Joanna Manning’s recent book, Is the Pope Catholic? A Woman Confronts her Church (Malcolm Lester Books, Toronto, 1999), we have an instance of a self-identified Catholic who seems to be wildly mis-addressing her arch-enemies and, instead, directing her venom to the Pope and the Fatherhood of God. According to one reviewer, the central premises of her book are: 1) that the Vatican’s “misogynist” teachings are directly responsible for the current widespread violence against women; 2) that the Pope’s position on a male-only priesthood is a modern day heresy that parallels the ancient Docetist heresy.

    Ms. Manning offers what she believes constitutes “proof” that the Holy Father is directly responsible for violence against women. Accordingly, she states: “As the Pope taught in Mulieris Dignitatem a year before the Montreal Massacre occurred, and as Marc Lépine believed, women belong in the home and not in engineering faculties. Those fourteen students massacred at the Êcole Polytechnique were not engaged in preparing for what the Pope has decreed as their ‘supreme destiny’ of motherhood.”

    Marc Lépine was never a Christian. He had been brutally beaten as a young boy by his father and verbally harassed by his sister, Nadia. Ingrid Peritz, writing for the Quebec Bureau in Montreal, states that Nadia’s “taunting of her withdrawn sibling reportedly fuelled his pathological hatred of women.” On December 6, 1989, Marc Lépine shot to death 14 women who were engineering students at the Êcole Polytechnique in Montreal, and wounded several others.

    What does the Pope write in Mulieris Dignitatem that could in any way link him, as Joanna Manning contends, with violence against women? In his address from St. Peter’s on June 18, 1995, the Pontiff, in summing up the central message of Mulieris Dignitatem, stated: “As I have had more than one occasion to stress and particularly in the Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, the affirmation of women’s dignity must be the basis of this new culture, since she, like man, and with man, is a person, that is, a creature made in the image and likeness of God (n. 6); a creature endowed with a subjectivity from which stems her responsible autonomy in leading her own life. The subjectivity, far from isolating people and setting them in opposition is, on the contrary, a source of constructive relationships and finds its fulfillment in hope.

    In stressing that a woman has dignity, is a person, a creature made in the image of and likeness of God, one who has subjectivity, whose destiny is to love, it is only too clear that the Holy Father is affirming and not opposing women. To think otherwise is simply a failure to recognize what he has actually said. It begs for a basis for explanation that has nothing to do either with John Paul II or Mulieris Dignitatem. Is it ideological blindness? Is it sheer willfulness? Or is it a case of grossly mis-addressing the real enemy and getting the Holy Father instead? Pop singer Sinéad O’Connor sparked a national furor when, on Saturday Night Live, she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II while urging her live and television audience to “fight the real enemy.”

    Let us consult another source that has a more reliable address route to God and his Fatherhood. God, the Father of Mercy is the Catholic Church’s official catechetical text written in preparation for the Holy Year 2000. In his Foreword, Roger Cardinal Etchegary states that “God is infinite Father” and “the only way in which God can love us is by being merciful.” Moreover, he adds, the “door by which the love of God gushes forth upon us is that of the heart of his Son, pierced on the cross.”

    The teaching Church is not misogynist. There is an over-abundance of evidence to support this claim. She would just as soon declare a woman to be a saint as a man. But there is also more than enough evidence in Ms. Manning’s book to support the claim that it exemplifies misandry (hatred of men). More specifically, her vitriol is directed at the concept of fatherhood. The publication of her book in the Year of the Father, is both reckless and irreverent.

    In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II makes the comment that original sin, above all, is an attempt “to abolish fatherhood.” The consequence of this attempt, the Holy Father goes on to explain, is to create the impression that God is not a loving father and to provide the impetus “to do battle against God.” If man does not perceive God as a loving father, he perceives him as a tyrant and hence rebels against him as a slave would against the master who kept him enslaved. The Pope could have added that if people see God the Father as a tyrant, they would likely consider the Holy Father to be a tyrant as well.

    The Jewish biblical scholar, Dennis Prager, is wary of the movement within society, particularly among radical feminists, to abolish the fatherhood of God. “We have too many absent fathers on Earth,” he writes, “to begin to even entertain the thought of having no Father in heaven.” He asks his feminist critics whether any discomfort they may feel as a result of a male depiction of God would be comparable to the pain they will surely suffer if boys are not civilized by their fathers into good men. “If the father-figure/rule-giver that boys need is not on Earth, a living and morally authoritative father in heaven can often serve as an effective substitute.”

    The protest against fatherhood, therefore, is as old as the human race. But it appears that in recent years it has become more intensified and more irrational. Consider the following two examples, one from academe and the other from the world of sports.
    In their recent article, “Deconstructing the Essential Father,” published in the June 1999 issue of American Psychologist, authors Louis B. Silverstein and Carl F. Auerbach argue that fathers are not essential to the well-being of children. In fact, they believe it is positively dangerous to think otherwise: “We see the argument that fathers are essential as an attempt to reinstate male dominance by restoring the dominance of the traditional nuclear family with its contrasting masculine and feminine gender roles.”

    In June of 1997, the Charleston RiverDogs, a minor league baseball team, announced that it would honor Father’s Day by providing a free vasectomy to the “lucky” entrant who won the draw. “Some men find it [a vasectomy] very useful,” stated Carol Killough, the marketing vice-president who dreamed up the idea. This bizarre promotion, however, was never consummated, thanks, in part, to the persuasive intervention of Bishop David Thompson, the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston. On the other hand, radio station WPRO in Providence, Rhode Island, featured an “on the air” vasectomy on Father’s Day.

    Atheist philosophers of the modern age have not been well disposed toward fatherhood. This should not be surprising since atheism is a rejection of the fatherhood of God. “Why atheism nowadays?” asked Friedrich Nietzsche. “The father in God is thoroughly refuted,” he answered. Nietzsche was thirteen when he wrote his first essay on ethics. At an age when a young man’s thoughts are usually directed toward the opposite sex, Nietzsche boasted of resolving the problem of evil. “My solution of the problem,” he wrote, “was to give the honor to God, as is only just, and make him the father of evil.” Nietzsche was tortured by a profound metaphysical ambiguity toward God. If God did not exist, Nietzsche could not malign him; but maligning him presupposed his existence. Exhibiting similar frustration, novelist Edna O’Brien has exclaimed: “Oh God, who does not exist, you hate women, otherwise you’d have made them different.”

    The atheist Jean-Paul Sartre, also needed to acknowledge God in order to repudiate him. In his autobiography, Words (Les mots), he writes: “I collared the Holy Ghost in the cellar and threw him out; atheism is a cruel and long-range affair.” Concerning his biological father, Sartre expressed comparable hostility:

There is no good father, that’s the rule. Don’t lay the blame on men but the bond of paternity, which is rotten . . . Had my father lived, he would have lain on me at full length and would have crushed me.

    The modern case against fatherhood, if not a metaphysical contradiction, is often based on a logical fallacy. The argument usually proceeds as follows: If man is an authoritarian, he is in a position of authority. Therefore, every man who is in a position of authority is an authoritarian. This is the classic fallacy of trying to affirm the antecedent by way of affirming the consequent. If it rains, the ground will be wet. But, by no means does this imply that if the ground is wet it must have rained. Obviously, some other cause than rain could have produced the same effect. Power does not always corrupt, nor does legitimate authority necessarily lead to abuse of authority. To be a father, which is to have a certain legitimate authority, need not in every case lead to dominance. The dignity and purity of fatherhood should not be obscured because some fathers do not live up to its ideals. A father need not be a bully or a boss or a bounder. He can be a father—loving, understanding, and merciful.

    Confucius wrote: “If a man has rendered himself correct, he will have no trouble governing. If he cannot render himself correct, how can he correct others?” The critical need for father, therefore, is not to be father in name only, but to personify its ideals, to fulfill the promise of its prototype.

    The great paternal paradox of our time is that while fatherhood is being more vilified, its indispensability is being better recognized. Sigmund Freud had said: “I could not point to any need in childhood as strong as that for a father’s protection.” Psychiatrist Fred Goodwin, head of the Center on neuroscience at George Washington University, states: “The absence of fathers is the biggest single predictor of antisocial behavior.”

    David Blankenhorn has written a most important study on how present American society disparages the fatherhood that it so desperately needs. It is titled, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (Basic Books, New York, 1995). Blankenhorn shows that fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of the current generation: the leading cause of the declining well-being of children; the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women. Despite the massive social problems created by fatherlessness, he informs us, a concerted effort is being made to “deculture” paternity. Our society is not content with the vilification of fatherhood; it also wants to abolish the very notion of fatherhood.

    How should we understand fatherhood so that we can address it correctly? To mis-address fatherhood can have tragic (or sometimes comic) consequences. While motherhood is immediate, fatherhood is transcendent. While the former is clear and unambiguous, the latter is subtle and paradoxical. To address fatherhood properly, one must be like an artist who knows the subtleties of shading, texture, and coloration. The following distinctions should be a help in understanding how to address (F)fatherhood. To be a father is to be:

•    a leader without being a frontrunner

•    a visionary without being arrogant

•    a servant without being servile

•    an authority without being authoritarian

•    a lover without being sentimental

•    a supporter without being subordinate

•    a disciplinarian without being punitive

•    merciful without being spineless

•    humble without being self-deprecating

•    courageous without being foolhardy

Our prevailing notion of a leader comes from the world of sports. In this sense, in accordance with the “leader board” in golf, the leader is the one who is ahead of the others. A father is not a leader in this sense. He does not try to remove himself from his family. On the contrary, he leads in a way that fulfills each member. His leadership is inseparable from those he leads. What he leads and “fathers” into being is the good of those whom he loves.

    A father sees the future. He has a keen sense of the importance of time. But he does this without presumption or arrogance. He is providential in his fathering. He knows instinctively that his children will grow up and lead independent lives of their own.

    The expression “servus servorum Dei,” adopted by John Paul II, comes from Pope Gregory the Great. Paradoxically, the servant of the servants of God, earned the appellation “Great.” “He who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

    The father, like God, shares in the authorship of life. He is an authority and therefore someone to learn from and be guided by. But his authority does not restrict the liberty of others. In fact, fatherly authority is to cultivate and enhance their liberty.

    The love of a father is strong and unwavering. It is not bound by a feeling, and hence prone to sentimentality. It is strengthened by principles that always focus on the good of others.

    A father is supportive. He holds people up, keeps them going when they are inclined to discouragement. But this encouraging role does not imply subordination, but reliability and trustworthiness from someone who is strong.

    Fathers know the value of rules and the consequences of disregarding them. He wants his children to be strong in virtue. Therefore, he knows the importance of discipline, restraint, and self-possession. He is not punitive; nor is he overbearing.

    Mercy must be grounded in justice. Otherwise it is dissipation and weakness. A father, because he recognizes the uncompromisable importance of justice is anything but spineless. He is merciful, but his mercy perfects his justice.

    Humility is based on the honest recognition of who one is, together with one’s limitations and weaknesses. The humble father, when he encounters difficulties, has enough humility to ask for help. Remaining self-deprecating at a time of crisis is utterly useless.

    Courage is not fearlessness, but the ability to rise above fear so that one can do what needs to be done in a time of danger and difficulty. Foolhardiness is not courage but an unfocussed and unhelpful recklessness. Moreover, courage, as its etymology suggests, requires heart. The father, above all, is a man of heart.

    One of the roles a grandfather must play is to help his son become a better father. But even good friends can provide the same assistance. I recall an incident when a father was struggling to balance discipline with mercy. His daughter had apparently neglected some of her household chores. As a result, her father told her that she could not play soccer that Saturday morning. There was some doubt in this father’s mind as to whether he was imposing too harsh a sentence for too slight an offense. It happened to be my birthday and I was his houseguest at their family home in the United States. I said to him: “There is a little known Catholic rule that if you are entertaining an international guest and it is his birthday, then you are allowed to release one prisoner.” The father was overjoyed, ran downstairs and freed his tearful daughter. We can all help fathers to be good fathers. Disparagement of fatherhood is unproductive.

    St. Thomas Aquinas wisely pointed out that “the respect that one has for the rule flows naturally from the respect one has for the person who gave it” (Ex reverentia praecipientis procedere debet reverentia praecepti). The best way to appreciate fathers is not by approaching them from an abstract and negative stereotype. This is all too common in our society. Rather, a person best understands fatherhood by knowing someone who is a good father. One must begin with the real experience and not the misleading abstraction.

    There once was a Major League aspirant who severely injured his pitching arm. He would never make the big leagues, but did learn to throw a pitch that put very little stress on his arm. This wounded, but unconquered ballplayer taught his two sons how to throw the knuckleball. His sons learned well and both became major league stars. On the last game of the regular season in 1985, Phil, then 46 years old, became the oldest hurler ever to pitch a shutout. After this victory, the three hundredth of his illustrious career, he dodged reporters and flew to a mid-western hospital where his father was recovering in intensive care. He placed the ball he had thrown to strike out the final batter in his father’s hand. “This is for you, dad, because you taught me how to throw the knuckler.”

    Phil Niekro is now in the Hall of Fame. Together, he and his brother, Joe, won more Major League games than any other brother tandem. But there can be no doubt that their love for baseball and the proper rules for throwing a knuckleball proceeded from their love for their father.

    Former Vice-President Dan Quayle once spoke out against a Murphy Brown television episode that trivialized fatherhood. In the television sitcom, Murphy Brown, played by Candace Bergen, decided to get pregnant and raise the child in the absence of the father. Quayle was roasted for having dared to stand up for the importance of fatherhood. But Quayle was hardly alone. Maggie Gallagher, author of Enemies of Eros, defended him. Her article, “An Unwed Mother for Quayle,” was published on the op-ed page of the New York Times. After ten years as an unwed mother, she had some important things she wanted to say to any single women who were considering following the lead of Murphy Brown: “Prepare for the nights when your child cries himself to sleep in your arms, wondering why his father doesn’t love him. . . . As Murphy Brown would find out if she were a real person and not a Hollywood fantasy, children not only need a father, they long for one, irrationally, with all the undiluted strength of a child’s hopeful heart. To raise one’s own child without a father may at times be a painful and tragic necessity, but it should never by just another life-style option. . . . We have to stop pretending that all choices are equally good—that single motherhood is just an alternative family form and that fathers are just another new disposable item in the nursery.”

    When we address the father, we should do so with humility, gratitude, and love. But most of all, we should do it with accuracy.

    “Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1). “We are children of God by adoption. By the gift of the Holy Spirit we are able to cry ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal. 4:6).

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Professor of Philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario. He studied theology at the Gregorian University in Rome and earned his Ph.D. at St. John’s University in New York. His two most recent books are Character in a Time of Crisis and New Perspectives on Contraception. Dr. DeMarco resides in Kitchener, Ontario, with his family and is a frequent contributor to HPR.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved