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On the Theological Impossibility of Dealing with Abusive Fatherhood

Like the Priesthood, and certainly even more fundamental than any clerical calling, biological fatherhood manifests its form in a single biological act which then reaches through a multiplicity of identities to the very existential zenith defined by God’s own self-revelation.

It is a reality which lies at the cornerstone of human experience and being itself, and as such the men who embrace the full ontological gravity of their office become heroes to their children of the kind which reverberate through eternity. Heaven is certainly filled with such men, largely unsung in their lifetimes and yet wearing a luminous crown at the foot of the throne of heaven.

Conversely, it is the Priesthood which finds its fundamental form in the perfection of fatherhood, yet moving beyond biological charges to a self-sacrifice directed to the community at large. This mystical fatherhood of the cleric – which participates more perfectly in the Fatherhood of God – provides the example and inspiration for the biological fatherhood and its self-sacrifical and priestly character.

Where God is concerned, Fatherhood is indeed the most serious business.

If the form of fatherhood can be traced from a simple moment of biological coupling upwards to the ultimate nature of Love Himself, so too it should not surprise us when a crisis in this crucial office – beginning in the family with derelict fathers – manifests itself not only in biological fatherhood in society at large, but spiritual fatherhood as well. If fathers are absent from their families today and abandoning their wives and children, we should not be surprised if even a Holy Father – the man charged to father us all – is absent from his office.

The recent Papal documents squeezing, restricting, and attempting to suffocate the growth and life out of the beautiful rite – our liturgical birthright – have struck many astute commentators as being as close to a dereliction of duty – and an anti-Catholic action – as any pope has taken in recent memory. Not surprisingly, this has led to many learned conversations on the Papacy itself, examining the nature of the office at least as far back as the Baroque era. The implicit questions seem to be: “How can this be? How can the Holy Father err so badly? Where did the Church go wrong? How can we believe that the gates of hell cannot prevail against us, when it seems clear that evil now holds the high ground and has taken the citadel?”

There seems to come a moment in all of these conversations when people throw up their hands in dismay, simply not knowing any sensible answer to this terrible mess. In such moments of crisis, it may be helpful to step back from the dogmatic and theological questions regarding the nature of the Papacy and look back towards the nature of the fundamental office of fatherhood. In short, there are many kinds of fathers. Under a benevolent and loving father, life is simply good, and nobody wants to leave. Under a tyrannical and abusive father, the opposite is true, and everyone wants the man gone.

But what do you say of a father who vacillates between abuse, tyrannical overreach, being absent, and then some moments of tenderness or apparent resolve, followed by gaslighting masquerading as mercy?

To be the child of such a father must seem as disorienting as it is impossible. And Catholics at large find themselves precisely under the authority of such a perversely mercurial and ultimately tyrannical father.

It may not be too much to suggest that the Papacy, as the height of the office of fatherhood, was simply not designed to bear the weight of such a contradictory and tyrannical man. And just like the child in the household of such a man often cannot figure out what to do, faithful Catholics of our age are left confused, bereft of hope, and in a theologically impossible situation. So what to do?

Do we pray and fast for this Pope, and write sweet letters of supplication?

Do we stand up to him when he is being a bully, or beg him to understand us? Or do we just hide under the table and hope that his wrath passes elsewhere?

Do we tolerate or ask for clarification when he is being obtuse?

Do we turn the other cheek at gaslighting, or – like many a son coming of age – stand up to it?

It may be that all we can do is simply endure, at least until the balance of things changes. If the nature of biological fatherhood cannot be effectively exercised by a dysfunctional man, there is little reason to think that the penultimate fatherly office of the Papacy can endure or even be the least coherent when held and abused by the wrong kind of man.

Abuse of fatherhood, it seems, leads – whether in the natural family or the spiritual family – to an incomprehensible and impossible situation.

The Papacy can bear imperfect men and allow them to still shine out where possible. The Papacy can bear obtuse men and give them an opportunity for moments of great clarity. The Papacy can bear great men unto the status of revered sainthood. But under the yoke of an abusive man, the Papacy becomes an oxymoron and an absurdity, just as it would be in a normal everyday family.

However, this does not mean we can remove the Papacy from the Church, any more than we can remove fatherhood from the family. This doesn’t solve the problem.

But as anyone who has dealt with an abusive personality in their life ultimately comes to know, it is not our moral responsibility to explain or make sense of the abuser’s actions, let alone to find sense in the senseless.

As Catholics, in the end we must endure the impossible situation and pray for better days. But in matters of faith and understanding, it may be comforting to realize that theologically squaring the circle of this impossible situation may indeed not be our burden to bear.


Photo via unspash.

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