Saturday, March 31, 2012

On Fatherhood

I gave this talk to a group of young men today. It seemed to be well received. I hope you like it too.

On Fatherhood

            It is who I am. Today we are tempted to define ourselves in some dehumanizing manner – I am a lawyer, a pilot, a chef. These things, although good in themselves are so far from the core of the real person that to define our lives by them is to make us something other than what God intended.

At the heart of man is a law that he cannot wholly ignore. God has made us in a certain way. Today man is obsessed by the idea that with sheer willpower anything is possible. One thing that is not possible is to make man not man. A part of man, indeed, that essential part is the need to love and to be loved. I think we can accept that we need to be loved. The poorest of us might not be conscious of this. It has been famously pointed out that in their delirium wounded soldiers in the battlefield will sometimes cry out for their mothers. Do you ever feel better when you talk about a problem you are having? Does talking fix the problem? Not any problem I have ever had. But sharing with another, feeling cared for by another person makes us feel better. It won’t get your job back, it won’t make you pass the text you just failed, it won’t suddenly make your cold go away. But being loved make you human.

The other side might be a little more obscure. How does loving complete me? How is loving intrinsically human? Sure, we can make an argument that any atheist would accept: being loved is nice and that justifies it to any atheist. But what is it about loving that is intrinsically, inescapably, essentially human? We have to make a case for that, sadly, because today we are not intuitively aware that we need to love to be alive. Abortion is the great monstrosity that argues against this, that we do not need to love to be alive. But it is interesting that right from day one, in one of the oldest Christian documents, even older than some of the New Testament itself, a text called the Didache, we find a condemnation of abortion. Abortion was accepted in the Roman Empire. It was no big deal. In fact, no baby pre- or post-born had a right to life unless the father took him up in his arms and claimed responsibility for him. If he did not, the child could lay there and starve to death. Something radically changed when Christianity came on the scene. But why? It is because Christianity is the truth; it is the truth about man, as much at it is the revelation of God. Christianity, we know, is the Law of Love, therefore we can conclude that man’s nature is defined by love, not only the need to be loved, but the requirement to love. If you have understood the commandment to love your neighbour as an extrinsic command given only to discipline you because it is hard, then you have misunderstood it. If you have understood it as simply a means for you to become more obedient to God – and so no different in quality from a command by God to knit sweaters or dig holes in the ground – then you have misunderstood it. Love of neighbour is not commanded because it is just one difficult means to obtain the virtue of obedience. It is not violence against our nature, so as to make us more open to listening to God. No, it is not violence against our nature, it is fulfillment of our nature. There is only one law at work in you: the Eternal Law of God. The law of sin is not really a law because sin behaves in a random, destructive manner. It disintegrates. The only law at work in man is the law of God, and it is not given for the first time in the New Testament; it is given again, authoritatively, unmistakably, undeniably in the New Testament. It is given first and foremost when God said, let there be... light, heaven and earth, let there be man... To love is who we are. There is no escaping it.

The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant said, ought implies can. If we ought to do something, we must be able to do it. Therefore, if there is a command to love, that means we can love, we have the innate ability to love. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s easy.

For me, I thought I was a pretty holy guy – a sure sign I wasn’t is believing I was. I believed I was a pretty holy and good guy, that is, until I got married and until I had children. What I mistook for holiness, of course, was contentment. I had given myself a bunch of rules to live by and I seemed to live by them. Great. Well, how hard is it to do that. Isn’t that just another way of saying I did whatever I felt like? And yet that is somehow holiness? The majority of the love I was doing was love for myself – fulfilling my own desires. The tricky thing was they weren’t perverse desires. I never slept with anyone, did drugs, never sought to get drunk. I went to mass several times a week. Prayed often times for more than an hour a day.

The first stumbling block in one’s self-worship is marriage, and you heard about that already today. The second is children. I don’t believe it’s as hard to be a parent as it is to be married. Maybe that’s just me. But, observe: you can’t have children without being married. Biologically you can, but Christian-ly you can’t, and that’s all that we are concerned with today. Therefore, in a sense, it’s harder to be a father than it is to be a husband because the former implies the latter. One does not cease the arduous task of loving a wife when one starts the arduous task of loving children.

But remember, I said loving is what we are made for. So how can it be arduous and yet fulfilling? Is it hard for a fish to swim? No. Is it hard for man to love? Yes. But in both cases the fish is suited by nature to swim and man by nature to love.

Just like marriage, fatherhood is a spirituality. It is the father’s spirituality; there is no arguing the fact. You may pretend that you are not married or that you are not a father, but it is a fact, and God’s grace pulls you only in that direction, not ever away from it; and nature pulls you too.

What are these graces – what are the virtues of the father?

A father is last. While we may lament that society does not esteem fatherhood anymore, that laws do not protect its rights anymore, this situation does nothing to undermine the father’s role as last and servant of all. He is doing his job when he works tirelessly and without appreciation. Macho-ness, machismo, manliness, and stoicism – the idea that nothing bothers him, nothing hurts his feelings – is not fatherhood. That’s just more self-worship, the worship of an idol called manliness for all to behold you and your great deeds. A father learns to be alone with God. The buck stops with him in times of trial and he is to be the last man off the boat, as Fr. Hattie has recently said. He is the last man on the boat. And there in that last dramatic, sorrowful time, he is alone with God. For, for as long as his wife and children are able to stay with him there will be a time when they too must draw from the father’s strength, and he gives them that one benefit which they cannot give him, the grace to leave the boat, which is the grace of safety, the grace of comfort, the grace of freedom from suffering. A father draws strength from the comfort he can give his family that they cannot give him. I hope you will meditate on that paradox. His strength is in weakness, which is what St. Paul say in the Letter to the Romans.

But I don’t want to exaggerate his solitude. Most of what he endures, he endures with his wife, he should endure with his wife. Marriage and fatherhood are the two sides of the one coin. But the children are not there for the father, the father is there for the children, that’s for sure, at least in the sense that he serves and comforts them, not the reverse. In fact, it is true to say that he is comforted in comforting, served by serving, which spirit the prayer of St. Francis evokes.

Fatherhood is a spirituality; a father needs no other spirituality. Let him direct his prayers towards becoming a better father. To love more; to be wiser, that he might direct his children in paths of goodness. We all know about Aristotle’s Golden Mean. But what is the Golden Mean of the Father? He meanders between softness and hardness. He must push evil away while drawing the child closer. When does he go too far, when not far enough? There are no easy answers, but he does well when he remains open with God in his prayers, and he perpetually keeps this question at the front of his mind: what is actually good for my child? He is not afraid to reassess; he is not afraid to question the received wisdom of the world and of his parents, nor is he afraid to question himself, and to actually accept the wisdom of others.

A father must be brave, smart and hard-working. He shares all the virtues in common with all Christians, but he must excel, he must focus on these. Brave, smart and hard-working. But these three things come out of a deep love that wells up in the heart of the father. The father loves his children; he wills their good with a deep desire. He becomes strong for them.

All of us were made to be parents because we all share the same human nature and the same masculinity. Those of us who will actually become parents will receive the graces that complete and heal our natures.

It is impossible to discern fatherhood apart from discerning marriage. Nevertheless, we must think about our readiness for fatherhood, and we do so by cultivating the virtues of the father: bravery, intelligence and industriousness. These three things you can cultivate now. Your children will be blessed as a result – children who don’t even exist yet.

About three years ago I buried my father. It was a pivotal moment in my conversion. It was at that moment that I realized what being a father was, even though I had four children at that point, the oldest of whom was then about eight. It’s never too late to learn. And I learned that being a father means leaving children behind who can say that their father loved them, that their father was a good man. It is a wonderful grace to be held to that degree of responsibility. Disappointing your teachers is one thing. In the big pictures, who cares? Disappointing your children to the degree that they cannot say that their father loved them is something so violent that it almost annihilates our human nature. The life of a father is not about achieving success in the eyes of the world; it is about leaving behind a corpse that once housed a soul that never stopped loving those who depending on him. Let him fail in the business world; let his house be mortgaged; let him wind up in jail for defending justice; but never let him stop loving those who depend on him.

He is brave, smart and hard-working because he is full of love and defines himself by the love of his Heavenly Father, not by anything else. Everything else is inauthentic and foreign to the heart of the father.

Save your sexuality so that you might more easily worship with single-hearted devotion the mother of those children-to-be. And start now to think of yourself as a future husband and father, more than a future scientist, lawyer, or computer programmer. I think you will start to see your priorities and cares change, and they will change for the better.


  1. Disappointing your children to the degree that they cannot say that their father loved them is something so violent that it almost annihilates our human nature.

    Wow! What a powerful statement - and so very very true. Thanks for this, and for coming today.

  2. thanks. it was my great pleasure.