Priests and the Importance of Fatherhood

Priests are not just “hosts” to the parish community; they are really fathers and consequently the heads of their parish families.

by Dr. Paul Vitz and Fr. Daniel Vitz

Many thoughtful people today recognize that the United States—and indeed much of Western society—is in a cultural crisis. It takes little reflection to note that this crisis is centered in the family. The increase in divorce, the decrease in the number of marriages, increased numbers of cohabiting couples, plummeting birthrates, an increase in single mothers, abortion, the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples, numerous biological manipulations of maternity and paternity—all are clearly the result of a profound disorder in the understanding of the family.

The crisis in the family, however, can be further understood as stemming from a crisis in the concept of fatherhood and the very notion of manhood. For it was men—despite what some would like to think—who pioneered the intellectual and social changes that ushered in the family crisis. It was men who first proposed the ideas and who then expressed the behavior of the so-called “sexual revolution”; it was men who first began to reshape society to view women simply as sex objects, which led to the search for new and improved contraception and to the public acceptance and pervasiveness of pornography; it was male scientists who led the experimentation on human embryos and have aggressively pursued human cloning. It was men who first pushed for homosexual “unions” and then “marriages,” and it is men who are already pushing for polyamorous groupings such as polygamy. It was also men who developed the social and political ideas that created our modern notion of the state as an answer for fatherless families—ideas that, when implemented, simply created more fatherless families. In short, men, by withdrawing their allegiance from the traditional concept of fatherhood and by seeking biological and social means of avoiding that responsibility, have been at the very center of our cultural-family crisis. The absence of fathers results in boys and young men who are formed without any understanding of what it is to be a father, and so the problem continues to grow. Thus it is of importance to understand not only the importance of fathers within the family, but also how young men and boys are formed in their attitudes toward the responsibilities of fatherhood and of manhood generally, so as to better understand how we can help to repair the broken family.

To bring this issue into focus, it will be useful to summarize some of the now well-established findings on the contributions that fathers make to their families and especially to the lives of their children. It is these positive contributions that men have allowed to fall into decline or even disappear as a result of their moves away from fatherhood. The findings make it clear that fathers have distinctive and very crucial contributions to make that are distinct from those contributions made by mothers (the importance of mothers is well documented, and much more widely understood).

The Importance of Natural Fathers

Numerous studies have shown that boys without fathers have a much higher probability than boys who have fathers of engaging in criminal activity—there is a greater correlation between this and any other factor (e.g., education, neighborhood, etc.). Indeed, the majority of our prison population is made up of young men who had absent fathers. Along with criminal behavior, fatherless boys begin sexual activity at an earlier age, and are much more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol—the social cost of these behaviors is enormous and represents one of the primary social ills of our day. A much-reduced tendency toward criminal behavior in boys has been reliably attributed to a father’s presence and discipline in the family. Young boys need the discipline and boundary conditions naturally provided by most fathers, and without such restraints they grow up not only with strong tendencies to criminal behavior, but also to impulsive actions and searches for immediate gratification. In addition, boys with no fathers have more problems with gender identity (this will be explained in greater detail later), and—taken as a group—have lower cognitive capacities, e.g., lower IQs, greater likelihood of dropping out of school, less likelihood of full-time employment in adult life, and in general less socio-economic success.

Of course, it is also of key importance to understand the role of fatherhood with regard to the formation of healthy young women. It is clear that for girls without fathers the situation is similar to that of fatherless boys. These girls engage in sexual activity much earlier and more frequently, with all the negative consequences of such behavior—e.g., single motherhood, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, dependency on welfare, and physical and sexual abuse. In addition, studies show that fatherless girls are more prone to depression and suicide, particularly in adolescence, and are also more prone to drug and alcohol abuse. In very recent years there has been a significant increase in criminal behavior and violence among adolescent women, and there is reason to suspect that this phenomenon is also closely related to absent fathers.

A little-known aspect of fatherless-ness is its contribution to the decline of religion. Specifically, it is known that militant atheists very frequently have had dysfunctional fathers—either abusive, weak or absent. Since Freud it has been known that the first representation of God in a child’s psychology is his or her father, and that an individual’s subsequent relation with God is strongly influenced by how one understands one’s own father. In addition, a number of studies have shown that a child’s religion is more affected by the father than the mother. Of course the religion of the mother does have a positive impact on children, but the results show that the father’s impact is even greater—a fact that may be surprising to some.

Psychologists generally agree that each child has two basic—or core—developmental tasks. The first is called separation/individuation; this refers to the need for the child to separate from its mother and to individuate, that is, to develop its own unique individual characteristics. The other basic task is to form gender identity, either masculine or feminine. On average, separation/individuation is more difficult for girls than for boys; girls are more likely to be closely bonded—even merged—with their mothers than are boys. Contributing to this is the fact that girls are more interpersonal than boys, and the first person they know is their mother or mother figure. Boys separate or individuate more easily in part because they are less interpersonal and also because both they and their mothers recognize that they are different from each other. However, boys have more difficulty with gender identity than do girls. The girl usually has her mother present and often other women as well, and they model the ways in which a girl is to be feminine. The boy may know he is different, but—particularly in early years—his father and other men are often absent, and without a role model, the boy doesn’t know what his sexual identity actually is. These are, of course, generalizations, and there are a fair number of exceptions; there are highly independent girls as well as boys who are “tied to their mother’s apron strings”—of course, this latter case is itself often the result of an absent father.

The father has a very important contribution to make to these basic developmental tasks. First, he models masculinity for the boy. Without the father or other father figure as a genuine example of manhood, boys have a tendency to fall either into a pattern of effeminacy or machismo, a kind of hyper-masculinity often supported by peers, e.g., gangs. Second, fathers help their daughters to separate and individuate from their mothers and to establish an identity of their own. A common function of fathers is to introduce their children into the world outside the family—this may mean they introduce them to sports or camping, the business world or other pursuits—but fathers commonly serve as the mediator between the child and the outside world. This helps both sons and daughters, but is particularly important in helping daughters separate from the mother and the home environment. In addition, fathers are very important in appreciating their daughters’ feminine identities. The early promiscuity of girls without fathers is commonly interpreted as a search for male affirmation of femininity that they did not get at home.

Priests as Substitute Fathers

In our fatherless contemporary culture, both in the United States and many other parts of the world, there is a great need for what can be called “substitute fathers.” Indeed, very often a substitute father can make a remarkable difference in helping the development of children who have been somehow deprived of their biological fathers. Some of these substitute fathers are athletic coaches, teachers, uncles, older brothers and so on. But there is another very important substitute father—the Catholic priest. First, the obvious needs to be pointed out—priests are called to be fathers just as they are called “father.” The Pope is the whole Church’s Holy Father, and indeed “Pope” comes from the same root as “papa.” Christ explicitly said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” and every priest is himself called to be an alter Christus.

Obviously, a priest will not be a substitute father in the same way that an uncle or someone who lives in the family can function in this role. It is important to note, however, how infrequently many fatherless children have interaction with any adult men. There are extremely few male elementary and middle school teachers, and many children can go through a week without a single personal interaction with an adult man. However, the effect of a substitute father is often great, even when there has been relatively little time spent with the child—another testament to the surprising resiliency of children. Boys in particular are capable of creating positive ideal images of men even when they don’t have the chance to meet them—sports figures are a good example of this (although it is worth noting how often celebrities give an unhealthy image of manliness). Therefore, even short periods of exposure to a priest—during the Mass, in the classroom, during confession—can have a profound influence on children who are desperately in need of father figures. Most of us can remember in our high school years that certain older students made a big impression on us even though we had little to do with them. Likewise, many a college professor has a great impact on his students in a relatively small number of class hours, and perhaps without ever having a direct conversation with the student. In this same way, watching a priest say Mass or teach a class can have long-term positive or negative effects on young people, who are often paying very close attention. An example, given by a fine and holy priest, illustrates this well. He recounted that when he was around twelve (this was back in the 1930s) a young, masculine priest came to his parish. One of the things that the altar boys in the parish did with this priest was to go target shooting with .22 rifles. This priest remained at the parish for less than a year, but he had a profound influence on this young boy, who himself later became a priest. All his life he remained a target shooting enthusiast, and attributed his first realization of his own priestly vocation to this young priest who had spent such a short time in his parish. Priests must make an effort to be accessible as father figures within their parishes, because in a world of so many fatherless children, the priest’s role as father becomes especially important.

What are some of the essential roles of a father that a priest should represent and express in his daily life? First, he should have an authority that comes not only from his priestly status, but also from his knowledge of and commitment to the faith. Priests, like fathers in a family, are due a filial respect from their children—whether natural or spiritual. But they must also be able to defend their beliefs and ideas and to transmit that compellingly to their children. In the neo-pagan and atheistic culture of today, which is so hostile to the faith, every priest is especially called to this role of defender of the faith and of the family itself. If a child—especially a boy—cannot hear a cogent case for belief from his parish priest, he will assume that there is no such defense. A second characteristic of fathers is their natural function as disciplinarian and setter of boundaries. In each family there are many times that the father says, “you may not”: “You may not insult your mother”; “You may not take drugs”; “You must help with family chores”; etc. A father who does not say such things is simply an absent father. It is important to note that this guidance falls into two basic categories—moral norms and the establishment of discipline. General religious and moral issues would fall into the former category, and the particulars of running the family (curfews, peers to be avoided, etc.) would fall into the latter. Likewise, a priest needs to articulate what the Church teaches regarding faith and morals, but must also establish his authority with regard to the practical running of his parish—this too is part of his responsibility as a father, and if he cedes this responsibility to his parishioners, then he is neglecting one of his key paternal roles. In fact, by failing to establish the latter he weakens his authority with regard to the former. One of the terms that has recently become very popular in the Catholic Church is the “parish family.” This is certainly an appropriate term, but too often it is imagined as a fatherless family. That is, there is no sense of the pastor as the father who lays down the law, but rather of a family that is deprived of paternal authority—such a parish family is no family at all. St. John Mary Vianney and countless other holy pastors of the Church were comfortable in referring to their flocks as their “children”—today that mode of address would be regarded as condescending, even belittling. This is not to say that referring to one’s congregation as “my brothers and sisters” is at all inappropriate, but it is worth noting how the mentality over time as changed with regard to the parish priest as a real father figure, and how many today would be offended by a priest’s referring to his parishioners as his children.

One of the simple ways in which a Christian father strengthens and supports his children is by blessing them. A priest, of course, has many opportunities to bless people, especially children, and this blessing can often have profound and lasting effects on those without fathers. However commonly priests give blessings to others, they must never forget how important a blessing may be to a person, and to always strive to impart a real sense of fatherly love in this action.

In understanding their paternal role, priests must be very sensitive to the fact that as father figures, they may also occasionally be the target of the anger of parishioners who themselves were deeply wounded by their natural fathers. Further, their actions will be always under careful scrutiny by those who are anxious for a father’s attention and are yet fearful of rejection by a father figure. In addition, the role of the priest as father is one profound psychological reason why any instance of priestly misconduct is so incredibly destructive and so shocking to others as well—it is the same as a similar misconduct of a father within his own family. For example, for a priest to have sex with a parishioner—female or male—is an example of a kind of psychological incest. Therefore, a priest must be aware that he has great potential for helping others, but an equally great potential for hurting.

David Blankenhorn has described our society as a “fatherless America,” and the description is sadly appropriate. Priests need to be on the front lines in the defense of the traditional family, and need to work tirelessly to keep struggling families together. However, it is also vital that priests themselves develop a strong identity as fathers. One of the primary functions of a father is to defend his family, and this is how priests must understand their role as well. This identity has been too often neglected of late in our culture, in our family life, and even within the life of the Church—that is, fathers are not just one of two equivalent or interchangeable parents, they have a unique role as men and as heads of their families. Similarly, priests are not just “hosts” to the parish community, they are really fathers and consequently the heads of their parish families. Priests need to recapture their identity as fathers—for if parishes are families, then pastors are fathers of what are always large and usually unruly families. This means that their identity is not simply that of the “nice guy,” but that of an upright man with a family that depends on him, perhaps more now than ever in the past. The manner in which they carry themselves, maintain discipline and deal with their parish families (especially the children) is more important than it has ever been before, because so many young people—and even many adults—are watching them intently, looking at them not only for spiritual leadership but also as fathers in the most essential and foundational sense of the word.

This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of HPR