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Discovering the Fatherhood of God in a Gender-Neutral Society | Mary Anastasia

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In a popular movie of several years ago, a cherubic six-year-old girl blithely explains her family drawing to her dumb struck kindergarten companions: "This is Mark, he's my daytime Daddy; this is Peter, he's my main Daddy; this is Jack, he's my biological Daddy; this is my Mommy, and this is me." This situation, while admittedly contrived for the sake of the comedic story line, still points up a "wrinkle" in modern thinking which sometimes poses problems for the catechesis of children and adolescents. This "wrinkle," or, more properly, this deviation, is the clouding of the concept of fatherhood. This lack of a human "reference point" can make it very difficult to teach young people about the loving Fatherhood of God. This paper will explore the background of the problem, and then look to the Church's teaching for the response of Faith.

The first point to be examined in this review of the problem is one which impacts all the other points. This is the assault on "manliness" in our society today. A very wise man once said, "There is no one so narrow as an open-minded liberal." This statement is illustrated by the rabid way in which the "doctrine" known as "political correctness" is wielded by that small but violently vocal segment of society, the radical feminists. While claiming to champion "equality" between males and females, they have really brought about the emasculation of language and induced a "hunted quarry syndrome" among men today. Those qualities of maleness which once defined the role of the man in the fabric of society have been vilified into grounds for prosecution: the strength which makes him the protector suddenly becomes "animalistic aggression"; the logic and lucidity which give him the ability to provide for his family suddenly become "paternalistic oppression"; the love which moves him to desire children is criticized as "patriarchal enslavement." A generation of men has learned to suppress its instinctive chivalry for fear of fiery retribution. Masculine forms of language have become the dirtiest of swear words and masculinity in men (but not in women) a punishable offense. In short, the essential dignity of being created "male" through the deliberate act of the Creator has been shredded at the altar of misguided "equality."

This emasculated mind-set leads to tangible situations in which the concept of fatherhood is darkened beyond recognition. Webster defines "father" as both a noun and as a verb. As a noun, "father" is listed as "a male parent," while in its verb form it means "to act or serve as a father." In today's society, we very often see the noun function without the verb function: biological fathering is not followed by the continuing presence and nurturing of the male parent. The root of this phenomenon lies in a defective understanding of sexuality, aptly described by Pope John Paul II in his document, The Gospel of Life:
Sexuality, too, is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other's richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instinct. [1]
The prevalence of pre-marital sex and the accepted, if not predestined, ending of so many marriages by divorce, even among Catholics, deprives children today of the manly tenderness and care which only a father can bestow. These children do not have the sense of security provided in a nuclear family headed by a strong yet loving man. Many single mothers labor with supreme love and determined strength to meet both the physical and emotional needs of their children. But the fact remains:
God created man and woman together and willed each for the other . . . Man and woman were made "for each other"-not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be "helpmate" to the other, for they are equal as persons . . . and complementary as masculine and feminine. In marriage, God unites them in such a way that, by forming "one flesh," they can transmit human life. [2]
The transmission of human life, and its subsequent nurturing, is intended by the Creator as a "joint project." For children who experience only half of this "communion of persons," the transcending leap to the Fatherhood of God is very difficult, if not impossible.

A second reason which makes the concept of a loving "God the Father" difficult for young people to accept is the plague of domestic abuse in families today. Whether this takes the form of physical violence or mental torture, abuse is a daily event in the lives of increasing numbers of children. Catechists today, attempting to find human analogies for the superhuman love of the heavenly Father, are often faced with stony silence in response. The "terrible secret" behind the blackened eyes and tormented souls quenches any desire for a "Father" in heaven. The Church acknowledges this when she seeks language in which to describe the transcendent love of God:
The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood . . . . [3]

A fist constantly raised in anger or a constant "acid rain" of sarcasm can, indeed, "disfigure" the face of fatherhood to the point that the battered child runs from, rather than to, a "Father" in heaven.

A headline screaming from a recent Newsweek magazine summarizes the third issue which impinges on our modern concept of fatherhood. The headline stated, "Twins–With Two Fathers." The story detailed the birth in Holland of twin boys conceived through in vitro fertilization. Only after the twins were several months old did the parents begin to realize that something in the procedure had gone horribly wrong:

It wasn't until two months later that the Stuarts noticed that while one boy was as blond as his parents, the other's skin was darkening and his brown hair was fuzzy. DNA tests confirmed that Wilma had carried another man's baby-probably because a technician reused a pipette that still contained some sperm from a previous insemination. [4]

The dangers of this preponderance of "new techniques" and the twisted thinking of those who utilize them are addressed by Pope John Paul II:

The various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life. Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act, these techniques have a high rate of failure: not just failure in relation to fertilization but with regard to the subsequent development of the embryo, which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very short space of time. [5]
This separation of the conception of children from the conjugal love of parents skews the analogy sought by the "language of faith" quoted earlier in this paper. The question could be raised, "Should we pray to 'Our Father' or 'Our Petri Dish'?"

Finally, a growing trend in today's society obscures even further the picture of human fatherhood. This trend is the legalization in many states of "alternative lifestyles." "Single-sex couples" are being granted many rights and privileges once reserved for what are now labeled "traditional family units." In vitro techniques for conceiving children as well as adoptive placement of children in homosexual households of both genders threatens the integrity of the moral as well as the human development of those children. The push to designate these alternative "units" as "families" completely defies the teaching of Christ, acknowledged in the natural law and codified in the teaching of the Church:
A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children form a family. This institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationships are to be evaluated. [6]
In no way can "alternative families" be considered in conformity with this "normal reference point." Media coverage of such aberrations contributes to the confusion of many children today over the idea of "father," making correct catechesis all the more necessary.

Thus, the "politically correct" environment and these four infections which flow from it-absent fathers, abusive fathers, "artificial" fathers, and "alternative" fathers-are poisoning the vision of our young people today, making it difficult for them to comprehend the transcendent fatherhood of God. As a beam of intense light can burn out a bodily infection and begin the process of healing, so can the strong rays of Faith's light cleanse these infections of the spirit, revealing to this confused generation of children the face of God the Father. We must turn to Holy Mother Church, as the custodian of the Faith, for this shining antidote.

Since the environment in which our students are immersed very often precludes reference to human fathers as dim examples of the Fatherhood of God, we must bring them to this knowledge by other means. One such method is human reason enlightened by Faith. Focused through the twin lenses of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, a steady stream of revelation assists natural reason in coming to an understanding of God's Fatherhood. Students today are very literal-minded. They are able to follow the mechanics of reason and to assent to a conclusion reached by that process: the existence of a Creator. After settling side issues, such as, "Where do the Aliens fit into the Creation story?", they are open to continuing the search for the personal identity and the attributes of this Creator. Guided by Faith, this search will collide head-on with the infections contaminating today's perception of manliness.

Shifting from what God shows about himself in his Creation, the search turns to what he tells about himself through his revelation. In answer to the prevailing scorn directed at masculinity, the Church points to her Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, clearly documented in Christian and non-Christian sources as "a man among men." This constant teaching of the Fathers is reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Haurietis Aquas:
. . . Nothing, then, was wanting to the human nature which the Word of God united to Himself. Consequently He assumed it in no diminished way, in no different sense in what concerns the spiritual and the corporeal: that is, it was endowed with intellect and will and the other internal and external faculties of perception, and likewise with the desires and all the natural impulses of the senses. [7]
The masculine humanity of Jesus shines forth in every page of the Gospel: in childhood as the only son of the family of Nazareth, he followed his "father," Joseph, in the carpenter's trade; in his public ministry as the wise teacher and gentle healer, he made use of homely examples in his preaching and applied "judicious force" when necessary to get his point across (i.e., the cleansing of the temple); in his passion and death, he strengthened his friends with the everlasting memorial of his Body and Blood and then looked to them for support in his last mortal agony. His injunction to his apostles was carried out by them and passed down to all ages, "What I have done is to give you an example. As I have done, so must you do" (John 13:15). [8]

This man Jesus, the Son of God, is also the most authoritative source for describing God as Father: "Because he 'has seen the Father,' Jesus Christ is the only one who knows him and can reveal him." [9] In the Sacred Scriptures, Jesus repeatedly refers to the "Father who sent me," giving clues in numerous passages as to what this "Father" is like and implying that these qualities of fatherhood are also exercised toward men as adopted sons:
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matt. 6:8] . . . how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to anyone who asks him. [Matt. 7:11] Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. [Luke 6:36] Do not live in fear, little flock. It has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom. [Luke 12:32] God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die, but may have eternal life. [John 3:16] . . . it is my Father who gives you the real heavenly bread. [John 6:32] [10]
Thus does the search for "fatherhood" reach its culmination. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums it up in this way:
By calling God "Father," the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children . . . He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father. [11]
Through the path of reason and Revelation described above, it will be possible to help students today understand God as Father. The greatest aid in this process will be lived example: priests, teachers, and parents who are comfortable in their identity, making no apology for their maleness or femaleness, living in charity with each other and with the society at large, understanding the weaknesses of those who defy God's law yet not condoning the defiance, working to heal the disfigurement of man and restore him to the image and likeness of God. Uniting these qualities with a deep and obvious prayer life will provide a firm foundation on which the next generation may continue to heal the infections of our society, giving their children a true experience of human fatherhood from which they may behold the Fatherhood of God.

[This article originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.]


[1] Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, number 23 (St. Paul Books and Media, Boston, 1995), p. 43.

[2] Numbers 371-372, Catechism of the Catholic Church, English Translation, (St. Paul Books and Media, 1994), pp. 94-95.

[3] Ibid., number 239, p. 63.

[4] Elliott, Dorinda and Endt, Frisa, "Twins-With Two Fathers," Newsweek, vol. 126, number 1, July 3, 1995, p. 38.

[5] Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, number 14, (St. Paul Books and Media, Boston, 1995), p. 29.

[6] Number 2202, Catechism of the Catholic Church, English Translation, (St. Paul Books and Media, 1994), p. 532.

[7] Pope Pius XII, Haurietis Aquas, number 40, (Sacred Heart Publication Center, Orlando, 1974), p. 20.

[8] Catholic Biblical Association of America, The New American Bible, (Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1970).

[9] Number 151, Catechism of the Catholic Church, English Translation, (St. Paul Books and Media, 1994), p. 41.

[10] Catholic Biblical Association of America, The New American Bible, (Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York).

[11] Number 239, Catechism of the Catholic Church, English Translation, (St. Paul Books and Media, 1994), p. 63.

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