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Fatherhood & Truth

11/27/2003 - 7:00 AM PST

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By:Stratford Caldecott

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you by his power according to the riches of his glory to become mighty through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and founded in love, my have the strength to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and the length and the height and the depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:14-15.)

It would be fair to say, I think, that in today’s popular culture many men are experiencing a kind of "identity crisis". The conventional role of the father as primary breadwinner, like the role of the mother as housewife, has been put into question. Technology, which has already in the 1960s severed the connection between sex and reproduction, now promises to separate gender from parenthood entirely. Meanwhile, in the subculture of Catholicism, the fatherhood of the priest in his parish is being obscured by his role as bureaucrat and facilitator of lay ministries, as jolly host at the parish love-feast and stand-up comedian on a Sunday morning. In these circumstances we may well ask ourselves: what is a father supposed to do?

The British writer G.K. Chesterton (d. 1936) lived through the early stages of the feminist movement. He poured scorn on the tendency of suffragettes and aspiring secretaries to glorify the world of work outside the home, in the office and factory. He perceived the world of the home as infinitely more exciting, more adventurous and more challenging: "The place where babies are born, where men die, where the drama of moral life is acted, is not an office or a shop or a bureau. It is something much smaller in size and much larger in scope. And while nobody would be such a fool as to pretend that it is the only place where women should work, it has the character of unity and universality that is not found in any of the fragmentary experiences of the division of labour" (cited in de Silva, Brave New Family, Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 148).

At the same time, he perceived that the feminists were rejecting the home and going out to work and in search of votes for a reason. "The generation in revolt fled from a cold hearth and godless shrine". The Victorians, far from upholding or exemplifying the "family values" that conservatives hold so dear, had already betrayed the Christian tradition. The home that had once, perhaps, been larger inside than out had become a prison, from which it was understandable and inevitable that woman should want to escape.

The betrayal began long before, with the Protestant extirpation of popular devotion to Our Lady, with the separation of work from the home brought about by industrialism, with the dominance of the pragmatic mercantile mentality. When the only values were those that could be counted, and the only truth was a truth that worked, when knowledge (and authority) had become equated with mere power, then the romance and adventure of making a home and a family together had given way to the idea of a marriage of "convenience". This so-called marriage amounted to little more - and it soon amounted to much less - than a business contract between consenting adults, for the exchange of certain services and the amalgamation of property, normally under the husband’s name.

Something very similar can be said of the crisis in the clerical Church. The collapse of cultural Catholicism that we are witnessing today in countries like Austria and Ireland is the direct result of a "cold hearth" within the Church. Aided, no doubt, by forces outside and against the Catholic tradition only too eager to point out abuses and corruption, the weakness that lay within (and which could so easily be magnified by the mass media) - a weakness which for too long had been concealed by the passivity of the Catholic population - concerned the failure of patriarchy to be truly "patriarchal". This was a failure of fatherhood as surely as that which afflicted the Victorian paterfamilias in his residential castle. It had the same distant causes, too.

The legitimate respect of the faithful for the sacred office of priest had been corrupted into a servility demanded by men whose view of that office was too often entirely political. Like the world outside the Church, in the imagination of these men the Church herself had become a business, a career, a room with a view. The Church was an institution, not a "sacrament". In keeping with the whole Enlightenment mentality, human relations had gradually been mechanized, as though living persons could be treated like cogs in a machine. The laity, like the wife of the paterfamilias, had been instrumentalized. It was there to "pray, pay and obey".

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