How do we reclaim authentic fatherhood without succumbing to counterfeit versions of it?
The only way we can discover true fatherhood is to go back to its true source: God the Father and the eternal communion of love that is the Trinity. The Father is the source, the eternal font, without being “greater than.” The Son is from the Father, yet they are coequal in dignity and majesty. The Son eternally receives from the Father; he has his very identity from the Father. Yet he is just as fully and perfectly God as the Father is God. All that is the Father’s is his. The loving communion between them, the eternal delight they share IS the Holy Spirit.
I have been relishing Jacques Philippe’s new book entitled Priestly Fatherhood. He rejects all abusive forms of fatherhood while gently but firmly inviting his fellow Catholic priests to be icons of God’s Fatherhood. Icons are not God; rather, they draw us into the divine. Priests are invited to be loving shepherds, loving in a fatherly way as we accompany the flock into the heart of God the Father. How beautiful it is when we Catholic priests embrace our ordained identity as “another Christ” – one who manifests the love of the heart of Jesus so that others can come to see the face of the Father in heaven.
Often, we falsely exalt priestly fatherhood – putting priests up on a pedestal, pretending like we are not truly human. Our fatherhood is genuine, but it is only a sharing or a participation in God’s Fatherhood. It remains a heavenly treasure held in vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). When we priests forget our humanity, we begin abusing power and harming people. When people expect us priests to be superhuman, they will wear us out. Both happen far too often! God is the true Father people seek, and that means renouncing any idolatrous versions of priestly fatherhood.
Jacques Philippe names well some of the distortions of fatherhood. I would like to consider three of them: severity, absence, and chumminess. I think they are the most common abuses – not only for shepherds and spiritual fathers, but also for dads in family life!
Severe fathers harm their children, who live in fear of missteps or mistakes. The children feel like their efforts will never be good enough; they will never measure up. Sometimes the abuse is blatant: name calling, belittling, yelling, screaming, interrupting, or assaulting through physical violence. Other times, the abuse is subtler – not loving the children for who they are, expecting them to fit a certain image or mold, only showing them love or affection when they behave a certain way or play their proper role, reacting with anger or fear if they somehow bring shame on the family or expose the family’s problems to others.
Absent fatherhood is every bit as damaging, perhaps even more so. Fathers who abdicate their authority leave their children alone to face the harshness of a fallen world, to figure things out for themselves. When children feel alone, unseen, unheard, and uncared for, it doesn’t take much for them to internalize a lie of worthlessness. Something must be wrong with me.
What Jacques Philippe describes as “chumminess” is a third failure of fatherhood. Yes, it gives lots of attention to the children. Perhaps they even like it – much of the time. But it becomes a using and an exploitation – meeting the emotional needs of the father in a way that ultimately sucks the life out of the children rather than strengthening them, holding them accountable, and helping them discover their true identity.
As I read Jacques Philippe, I found myself immediately thinking of another favorite book of mine, Unwanted by Jay Stringer. It is, to date, the single best book on unwanted sexual behaviors, why they happen, where they come from, and how real transformation happens. Jay conducted research with 3,800 individuals and found some common denominators in their family of origin: rigidity, disengagement, and triangulation.
“Rigidity” is another way of describing severe parenting, just as “disengagement” is another way of describing emotional absence or lack of connection. The term “triangulation” is unfamiliar to most, but we need only turn to Genesis to find examples. Isaac and Rebekah are in a marriage covenant, but Rebekah prefers emotional intimacy with her son Jacob, while Isaac prefers their twin son Esau. Jacob continues the pattern into the next generation, choosing his own favorite son Joseph. Joseph, at first, rather enjoys the power and privilege of this special relationship with daddy – which incites much envy and violence from his brothers. They make him pay by selling him into slavery.
Fatherhood, in its authenticity, is a humble exercise of authority that helps children to know who they are. Consistent and loving fatherhood allows children to be secure in their identity. If you read the writings of John Paul II on Theology of the Body (please do!), you will discover that our identity and our sexuality cannot be separated from one another. God created us male and female in his own image. The devil immediately and furiously assaulted that identity, seducing us into a ruptured relationship with God, others, and ourselves. We have been wounded ever since, both in our sense of identity as children of God and in our sexuality – which, more broadly speaking, includes how we relate to anyone and everyone. Most of us struggle to some degree in having healthy and holy relationships. We wear masks and hide parts of ourselves; we resist vulnerability and true intimacy – because we are wounded.
Only God the Father can restore us in our true identity, through Jesus his Son, in the Holy Spirit. Earthly fathers (both dads and priests) are given authority for the purpose of helping the children to experience God’s Fatherhood. Earthly fathers harm, but we can repair the harm. We can recognize and confess that we have been severe or rigid, that we have abdicated or abandoned, or that we have used others to meet our own needs. We can become authentic fathers who are truly icons of God the Father. We can shine the love of the Father in a world that needs it.
To be concluded…