Fathers and the Father Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 16 June 2014

Sometime in the past year, I’m not sure how, I became a patriarch. Not one of those ancient-of-days figures with flowing gray hair (I don’t have much gray – good genes more than good behavior). But when your grandchildren, though still young, number more than your children, you’ve passed from mere grandfather to something larger. A rarity these days. I say patriarch.

A patriarch pays attention to many things: because his tribe, barring some catastrophe, far-flung and numerous, will be around for a while. That’s hardly true of most people these days. My own family name – there were dozens of Royals in my generation – was in peril, until my son John Paul had a son in November, Robert III. Maybe little Robert, who will walk this world long after me, helped me recognize my patriarchal state.

This year, the U.S. birth rate hit a record low, even as more people than ever are retiring and dying. In sane times, cultural and political leaders worry about a country in negative population growth – and decline. Instead, women like my elder daughter, Elizabeth, who has three children, get puzzled stares and even comments: “Are all those yours?”

Yes, and they’ll provide your Social Security check and nursing home care, despite all your fretting about the size of their carbon footprint. Or your worries whether your two salaries will cover a nanny and the foreign vacation. Not a word of thanks anywhere for people taking on the responsibility to raise the next generation, which we’re also sticking with a $16 trillion debt, and rising.

A friend of The Catholic Thing sent along this analysis of the travails of working dads. In it, the White House touts the benefits of paid paternity leave or workplace flexibility for fathers. In other words, more state pressure to reconfigure the family. Our friend compares this to the “Julia” cartoon of the 2012 presidential campaign, in which a fictional figure’s whole life is rendered wonderful by various programs created by President Obama – “Julia, meet Julio,” as he puts it.

Schemes like this seem to have emerged from the minds of recent graduates of women’s studies programs at Vassar or Mt. Holyoke who, from their deep well of experience and thought about human nature and the dynamics of families, are hell-bent on making sure Heather has two mommies, even if, in the unfair lottery of life, she’s had the misfortune to be born into a heterosexual household.

Social “science” should not be encouraged, but when the figures about the record birth dearth were released in March, one professor observed that the poor economy was a factor, but bravely added, “it’s related to the role of women in the labor force.”

Our political class and elite culture labor to make girls believe they should have careers exactly like boys. For some, that may be possible. But this presumes that individual careers are more important than families, and that individual achievement will continue, whatever we do to families.

Catholic social teaching and mere sanity have always claimed that the family, not the individual is the basic cell of society. Teaching the opposite has consequences. Birth dearth. Family breakdown. Children born out of wedlock (almost one-third of new births now) and – the statistics, not the moralists, say – greater poverty, crime, drug use, psychological problems, dependency, etc.

       Father and Son by Dave McKean, b. 1963

It goes against the grain of our egalitarian ideology in late-modern democracies, but that way – the way of thinking families malleable and of family members as interchangeable parts – madness lies. If we even continue to exist.

It’s in the nature of things that fathers and mothers are going to play different roles, just as boys and girls play spontaneously with different toys.

“The father of a family,” said the great Charles Péguy, is exposed, by the mere fact of being a father, not only to personal risks in the workplace and society:

He alone has given hostages, wife and child, so that sickness and death can strike him in all his members. The others can take in their sails. He alone is exposed, constrained to expose an enormous spread of canvas, to the storms of the sea. And, whatever the weather, he is bound to sail with all sails set.

The true father – grandfather, patriarch – does not try to avoid this peril, but to embrace it without illusions. He aspires not to “paternity leave” or “flex time,” but to the opportunity to do his duty, though he knows he won’t get much thanks. He may even be criticized for “working too much” – something that would have astonished my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. 

They took their responsibilities – which included properly caring for children – seriously, for a lifetime, and perhaps beyond. During a particularly troubled time in my twenties, I was in the car once, when – I know not how – one of my deceased grandfathers came to me. He was a kindly, but not particularly warm man. And whatever he was trying to communicate, I was not ready to hear. A few years after, my brother, then also agitated, had a similar experience involving him while walking in the woods.

We only talked about these two separate events, by chance, a decade later – and concluded it must have been him, come because he was an unlikely counselor and, therefore, couldn’t be ignored as merely some psychological reaction.

Feminist theologians have been laboring for years to go “beyond God the Father.” But that’s like going beyond the Earth’s atmosphere: beyond lies not greater freedom and richness, but an airless vacuum.

A good father may be rare, rare as a patriarch. But all fathers are good in so far as they are like the true Father, the one who sacrifices himself, who puts himself on the line and doesn’t expect to be anywhere else, who may need to spend long hours away but not only away, who nurtures, not like a mother, but like a man with children, a father.

Robert Royal
 is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is 
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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