Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fatherhood, Marriage, Faith, and Family: Father’s Day Thoughts 2013

Paul Adams

All the young families at Mass today, together with our new young parish priest and several other spiritual fathers, made vividly present to me the links among fatherhood, marriage, faith, and family.  

Fatherhood and marriage
Marriage created fatherhood. Not biologically, of course.  When men mate, most will sooner or later become fathers.  All of us alive and dead had a father.  But not all our fathers were married or stayed married.  Marriage creates fatherhood as a social role, in the sense of a male caring for children he knows to be his (see Miller, 2000 on “The Troubled Dawn of Fatherhood”), a sense unknown to our closest kin, the chimpanzees.  This was the explicit aim of marriage law from the very earliest known legal codes in Mesopotamia, which concerned themselves mostly with marriage, its nature, rights, and obligations. Their point was to give to the child the mother and father who made the child. They created fatherhood, so to speak, with the stroke of a pen.

Marriage is the institution through which one generation sacrifices itself for the next.  It is the institution that binds fathers to their own children.  It is the institution that enables and supports a man’s decision, as between the choices all males face, to be a protector rather than a predator.

Faith and family
As Mary Eberstadt compellingly argues, there is an intimate and complex tie between faith and family.  Not only do the religiously observant have more children, but couples with more children are more likely to be or become religious.  Children drive their parents to church.  Christianity, in particular, with its God as Father, its Holy Family, is hard to comprehend in the absence of a natural father who loves and protects, guides and corrects.  Where such fathers are rare in the experience of communities, Christianity atrophies. Christianity and the natural family rise and fall together.

In our community of Ave Maria, we see fatherhood, marriage, faith and family, thriving together and supporting each other.  This has, of course, ceased to be the norm in the larger society in the West.  Even a place like this is not immune to the anti-family, anti-marriage, secularizing influences expressed in explicit promotion of the sexual revolution and all that attends it as official government ideology - the new state religion.  Or in the ubiquity of internet pornography.  Each in its way delinks sex from marriage and both from children.  It is astonishing to me now to see how openly a show like Frasier, not to mention Seinfeld or Sex and the City, promoted casual sex as normal, morally acceptable, and healthy, as well as how minimal (exiguous to the point of nullity) a role children play in their individualistic ideology of sexual expressionism.  

Strong faith and large families are the norm here, but for some of us, myself included, it was only, in Hegel’s metaphor, with the coming of the dusk that the owl of Minerva spread its wings and took flight.  And no-one imagines that even the young who grow up or study in this community are uniformly virtuous.

There is any case, no utopia on earth - the very etymology of the term, coined by St. Thomas More in 1516, tells us that there is no such place.  We fathers are, in the English understatement, no better than we should be.  Our efforts to do the best by our families are shaped, enabled and constrained by the community of faith and family life around us - and the wider pressures of media and government that impinge on it.

Fatherhood, we are reminded today, is a social role shaped by the experience of millennia.  It is created by and tied to marriage and to faith.  The results of breaking those links are disastrous - the social and personal costs of fatherlessness in our society are staggering.  We are reaping what the sexual revolution in its myriad social, legal, and ideological expressions sowed.  The weakening of the links among marriage, sex, and fatherhood has affected even the way we define and conceptualize marriage.  This is apparent in the widespread tendency to reduce our concept of marriage to a kind of Hallmark card sentiment, having to do with the feelings of love and commitment between two adults (so long as the feelings last), but nothing intrinsically to do with sex, sexual complementarity, or children.

Walking the Way
Last month I walked the Camino de Santiago from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain with my adult daughter (see the blog posts here - working from last, April 26, to most recent, June 10).  Others we met on pilgrimage also undertook the journey at least in part as a time for family bonding.  The father-child theme is at the center of the The Way, the film by the father-son team of Sheen-Estevez.  It is also the heart of the best recent writing I have seen on the Camino, about another father-daughter team, ten years younger than us, who made the pilgrimage last year.  The father blogged the experience from start to finish along the whole of the longest, French route - see Webster Bull’s vivid and inspiring narrative - now an e-book and to be developed into a memoir.

The Camino continues to be, as it has been for more than a thousand years, many things - religious, spiritual, cultural, even athletic - to many people.  But for some of us it serves as a time of respite, of healing or convalescence.  Even without the personal drama and intensities of the movie, it is a time of restoring or rebuilding or sustaining those bonds of family and fatherhood that time along with other demands and pressures, competing ideological tendencies, and the mad, dehumanizing pace of our mundane lives, as well as our own fallen natures, vices, and follies, has weakened.

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