Like mothers, fathers come in all different shapes, sizes, and personalities. The most basic and universal understanding of father is one of begetting children. A father is much more than a begetter. Father is not a name but a relation and a presence. Steve is a person before becoming Paul’s father. Fatherhood is added on to his personhood.
Recall some father-roles in movies and in television. Take for example the role of Stanley Banks (“Pops”) in “Father of the Bride.” Just thought of ‘losing’ his daughter in marriage evokes comically neurotic tendencies on the eve of the wedding. In “Life with Father,” Clarence Day (Clare) is a financier whose thriftiness and dislike of surprises make for fun when, time and again, his wife Vinnie and his four boys outwit him. In “Mr. Skeffington,” Job Skeffington is the tender, loving father to an only daughter, spurned by her vain mother.
In “The Bill Cosby Show,” Cliff Huxtable, the father and obstetrician, is thoroughly engaged in the lives of his five children. He protects, disciplines, and loves them. As a moral guide, he teaches them values by example. A devoted husband, he stands firmly with his wife, especially in front of the children. The Huxtable family loves their Dad – flexible, funny, and fun – as we do.
The mature television series, “Blue Bloods” captures a similar image of father in different circumstances. Henry Reagan, the super-patriarch of an Irish Catholic family and once the police commissioner of the NYPD, is always the pre-eminent father-figure, first to his son Francis (Frank), a widower and the current police commissioner. Henry lives with Frank, the father of a daughter and two sons, also part of the NYPD. Danny, one of Frank’s sons, is the father of two young boys. The three fathers are present to the various family members providing them with stability and guidance – moral and spiritual. With the Reagans, fatherhood and family unite to claim center stage in this weekly drama about the New York police department.
Metaphor of Father
The word father does suggest other nouns like protector, authority, origin of something, initiator. Father can serve as a metaphor. The universal notion of father is an essential part of mythology and religions. Zeus is the “Father of the gods,” and Abraham, “Our Father in Faith.” In America, George Washington is the “Father of Our Country,” and John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy.” In India, Gandhi is the “Father of the Nation;” Nelson Mandela is “Father of South Africa.” We have phrases such as Father Time, Father Thames, Founding Fathers, Fathers of the Church. In classical music, Haydn is not only the “Father of the String Quartet” but also “Father of the Classical Symphony.” As initiators, these ‘fathers’ are the source of the titles accorded to them.
The Disappearing Father and Father-Absence
In this country, life without fathers has now been established as a major social concern. More than 37 percent of all American children now live apart from their fathers. This equals more than 27 million children. The growing number of derelict fathers degrades their vocation. Four out of ten children live without fathers, and half of these do not see them. In most TV sitcoms, if a father is present, he is portrayed as a bumbling, uninvolved, incompetent, and unnecessary member of the family. Women cannot do it all or alone.
The high cost of father-absence is reflected in school dropouts, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, violence against teachers in public schools, and crime and violence in the streets. Father-absence contributes to social problems, un-socialization of children, and emotional dereliction, male aggression, low academic achievement.
President Obama on Fatherhood
Whenever President Obama speaks about fatherhood, his body language changes. He stiffens. His voice intensifies. He knows the meaning of father-absence and growing up without a father’s love: “Any male can make a baby; being a father takes a real man.” He recently recounted that “in Chicago’s Hyde Park, there are entire neighborhoods where young people don’t see an example of somebody succeeding. And a lot of young boys and young men don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers who are in a position to support families and behold up and respected.” In “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone puts it this way: “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
Yes, we have super-Dads like Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) who, in “To Kill a Mockingbird, exceeds our expectations of fatherhood. A widower with two young children, a lawyer who defends a black man in the supposed rape of a white girl, he is totally devoted to his children, teaching them by example. This means living free of hate and prejudice.
A Patriarchical God?
Today, though speaking about God invites criticism, silence is no answer. A word then about God-language. God, who is beyond all human language, reveals the Divine I-AM-Who-Am as masculine in the Hebrew scriptures. God is Adonai (Lord), Melech (King), Avinu (Our Father). These are figurative and not a literal ways of speaking about the ineffable source and creator of the universe. Nevertheless, God as father, is revealed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
To some, the name father ascribes gender to God. Such language, they say, confirms a patriarchal system that keeps women subservient and prevents them from gender equality.
Extreme feminism faults a patriarchal culture for developing the doctrine of the Father’s eternal relationship to the Son. Accordingly, “the Christian tradition has made the image of God’s fatherhood literal. “. . . This tendency favors dominance of male over female onto God’s being, thereby eclipsing women as equal carriers of the divine image” (Catherine Mowry-Lacugna, “Fatherhood of God,” Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 520). Lacugna admits that Jesus did not refer to God as Amma (mother). However, within this view, ample doubt remains – a doubt that Jesus’ words about his Father addressed to his Father, are insufficient to justify, let alone prove, God’s eternal fatherhood. Why? Because they were written, interpreted, and developed in and by a patriarchal culture.
In the Johannine gospel alone, reference to the Father occurs more than 110 times. In chapter seventeen, Jesus’ prayer to his Father reveals what the Father means to Jesus. It gives us an intimate sense of the relationship between Father and Son. As revealed dogma, the procession of Son from the Father, according to their one nature, is literally true. Did Jesus not know better?
The Prodigal Son and the Mothering Father
To this day, the parable of the Prodigal Son remains one of the best-loved gospel narratives. In the parable, the father breathes with his son, they are so interior to each other. The father is continually looking for his return. When the boy is sighted from a distance looking like a wretch, his father immediately calls for a celebration. His love is not only without limit; it is unconditional, spontaneous, emotional, and nurturing – over the top. He is a mothering father.
The Disappearing Father of Jesus
As we believe, so we pray; as we pray, so we believe, goes a revered church dictum. Without the fatherhood of God, the Church’s dogma of the Trinity collapses. Without the fatherhood of God, how then do we begin all our prayers? “In the name of the (?)” “Glory to the (?) and to the Son (?) and to the Holy Spirit. The Father gives us the Spirit through his Son. Because the Eucharistic sacrifice is addressed to the Father, what happens if the Father is purged from our liturgical language? Without the Father, how are new Christians made members of the Body of Christ in baptism? The creator, redeemer, and sanctifier are not relations but functions. The Trinitarian relationship falls to pieces.
For this reason, the Father must be the addressee of prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and petition” (Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 155-6). All blessings of fatherhood find their origin in the Fatherhood of God, the point of departure and goal of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. From the Father come blessing, grace, love, mercy, consolation, and joy to all fathers.
Happy Father’s Day!
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.