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June 20, 2012
Life with and without fathers
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Father’s Day was celebrated last Sunday, but fatherhood remains a timely topic. From the womb and early infancy, every child deserves to be reared by a mother and father (or surrogates) who put them first. The parents’ unconditional and selfless love is committed to making the lives of their children meaningful. The best clinical statistics show that young adults with a mom and dad do much better than in other arrangements. Man, woman, and children form the indispensable nucleus of society, and Catholic families have been accorded the title, “the Domestic Church.” 

Father-Loss

The problem of disintegrating families and that of the disappearing father have been sadly thrust into other crises that further darken the culture. Father-loss is grave, even alarming. While super-dads exceed our expectations, families increasingly suffer from derelict, absentee fathers. In more than seventy percent of its programming, television and movies consistently portrays fathers as stupid, uninvolved, incompetent, and superfluous. Or, fathers have abandoned their families. According to the weight of social sciences, nearly half of all babies born today are born out of wedlock. Nearly half of our children live without their fathers, and half of these do not see their fathers. A disposable father disrupts the family and wreaks havoc on its order.

President Obama, who was raised for the most part without the presence of a father, has urged fathers to take responsibility for their vocation. In increasing numbers, boys are being raised by women. Children live with their mothers in situations with live-in but itinerant male companions. Let it be said that no woman, married or unmarried, should live with an abusive man.

In families without fathers or in lesbian situations, where do the boys learn how to be men? Where do the girls learn how to relate to the opposite gender? How do both learn to bond with the father-figure? In this fatherless generation, young adults ask heart rending questions with deep and profound anger, ‘Who is my father; where is he, and why did he leave me?’

“Where are the good men, where are the fathers,” asks Bill Bennett? How can men prepare themselves to be good husbands and good fathers? A boy learns to be a man by imitating real men. Commitment is learned in early childhood from committed parents or by strong surrogate parental-types that will teach responsibility to the children.  

Surely it is a tragedy when children lose their fathers through death, a fact that educators saw when teaching and counseling students who lost their fathers in the 9/11 attacks. At least in these cases, the father’s loving memory can be kept present and alive by the mother. 

Confusion about What Is Male

In his book, “The Book of Man” by William J. Bennett, the author divides the book into six aspects of a man’s life – man in war, at work, in play, sports, and leisure, man in the polis, man with women and children, and man in prayer and reflection. Like his previous book, “The Book of Virtue,” Bennett personally reflects on the making of a man. He records excerpts of writings of prominent men in history who wrote about fatherhood.

What does manhood mean? Today, this is a conflicted topic. Boys and young men without fathers in their lives tend to identify maleness with aggression, often violently acted out, instead of within an ordered environment. 

Boys come into contact with a wide variety of cultural male models, both good and bad, on which they will model their own lives. There are the machismo models of street gangs, many of whose members have been abandoned by their fathers.“Gay culture,” writes Bennett, “parades itself in a flamboyant display and challenges traditional masculinity. Some coaches and drill sergeants bark,‘What kind of man are you?’ but don’t explain.” 

Then there are the thirty-something adolescents who refuse to grow up and take responsibility in relationships. They fear commitment, a matter of faith regardless of one’s chosen vocation. Men obsessed with sex, treat women like toys, discarding them at will. Where to turn? What to do? What must boys learn to prepare for manhood and fatherhood? Some suggestions:

1.Respect self. Respect mothers, girls and young women. Bennett writes that “if a man knows how to treat his wife properly, he will know how to raise his children.

2.Learn to tell the truth no matter the cost.

3.Do a job that is well done. This means completing a job and not walking away expecting that another person will finish it.
 
4.Learn how to express feelings. It is perfectly alright to shed tears. Jesus told others how he felt.  When he was invited to a dinner party and was not given the expected Jewish courtesies, he told Simon the host right to his face. He was honest with women. He wept over the death of Lazarus in the presence of his sisters, Martha and Mary. On the cross, he showed compassion to a thief.

5.Real men avoid bad language, despite its wide acceptance in the culture. Cursing, swearing, and vulgarities coarsen the culture. And, in the name of First Amendment-rights, the rest of us in the public square must put up with verbal pollution. 
 
Good Fathers

A blueprint for being a good father does not exist, but good fathers are authority-figures with action-oriented hero-status. They lead, defend, and protect. Good fathers come in all different shapes, sizes, and personalities. Tim Russert’s father worked for the sanitation department a fact about which he wrote in Big Russ. In the “Cosby Show,” the family-friendly sitcom of the 1990's, the Huxtable family portrayed Cliff, a respected obstetrician, played by Bill Cosby, who was as near a perfect father as one could imagine. Who can forget the loving threat he gave to his son Theo for a misdemeanor: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of this world!”

My cousin Peter began his architectural career teaching drafting, mechanical drawing, and industrial and architectural design at a boys’ technical high school. He became such a role model for them, especially those with no resident fathers, that he was appointed as the school’s principal. He encouraged the boys, expecting them to rise to their God-given talents. He taught them responsibility and held them accountable. In turn, they respected, and yes, loved him. 

Last year, “60 Minutes” featured a heart-warming story of an up-scale family of five that lost almost everything when their well-educated father lost his position. The three pre-teen children and the parents joined the homeless population. Invitations came offering to take one or other of the children. This would mean splitting up the family while the two parents sought to stabilize their financial situation.  The father refused, and his wife wholeheartedly agreed. He was committed to keep the family in tact. The situation went from bad to worse. The children continued to go to school but had no permanent living address. They ate breakfast and lunch at school. This was their status at the end of the first interview by “60 Minutes.”

Months later, “60 Minutes” returned to the story. The situation had somewhat improved. The father was delivering pizza. The family now had a place to live. Through it all, the father protected his family and kept it in tact. The family that stays together through bad times is more likely to stay together in the good.

Sacred Scriptures

The Book of Proverbs offers much good advice to fathers. In reality, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32.) is about a mothering father. What did the Father mean to Jesus? This is the overriding and prevailing question in the Gospel of St. John.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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