When it comes to fatherhood, I’m a bit of a mess.
Despite all the opportunities seven children provide, I’ve realized I’m not very good at it. Despite the feelings of paternal affection I have for my amazing children, I struggle immensely in my attempts to understand, on a practical level, what they truly require from me. I look at my four boys, and I know that they need someone to teach them how to be a man, but I often find myself feeling that I can’t give what I don’t have. I’ve spent most of my own adult life trying to figure out how to be a man, and my progress is painfully slow. The problem is no less urgent with my three girls. They need me to be the model, the archetype, the subconscious force who helps them to recognize what they are looking for in their own husbands. To be the kind of man with the kind of attributes I would be happy to see them marry. To help them to form a healthy relationship with their Heavenly Father.
To be honest, I know I’m not that guy. Not yet.
Yes, I love God. I love my wife and my children. I want what’s best for them. I’d give my life for them if a threat arose — I have no question about that — but it’s the day-to-day sacrifices and example that I somehow fail to give.
My temper is quick and harsh. I’m impatient and, frankly, selfish. My natural tendency is to work first (and most often) and fit family in later. I’m good with babies and older children, but I struggle to know what to do with those in-between, at a time when they most need it. I tend to shirk participation in domestic tasks because I make myself too busy with the contemplation of abstract ideas, creative endeavors, or intellectual pursuits. I’m always thinking about the next article, pondering the next project I need to tackle. I spend my days absorbed in an absent-minded state, staring at a screen, at a book, or out the window. As a writer and artist, I tend heavily toward non-pragmatic skills. I don’t have the first clue how to teach my boys how to hunt, or fish, or build things, or fix things – in large part because nobody knew how to teach me.
In other words, like so many men of my generation, I don’t really know how to be a man, much less a good husband and father. I have a God-given authority over my family that I’m pretty terrible at using well. And there’s something about having to look it up on the Internet that seems to defeat the purpose.
But I have to fix things, so I have no choice but to humble myself. I don’t like admitting it, but here I am, because it’s extremely important, and I know I’m far from alone. In the pursuit of wisdom on this, I’ve spoken to other men I know and respect, most of whom seem to be floundering as well. I also look for whatever resources are available in hopes of finding good advice. Recently, I’ve reached for two of them in particular — Fr. Chad Ripperger’s excellent talk on being a husband (you can find it on this page; please read the terms of his “penanceware” agreement then scroll down until you find the talk for “husbands”), and G.C. Dilsaver’s The Three Marks of Manhood: How to be the Priest, Prophet, and King of Your Family.
The two together made me realize something very important.
Fr. Ripperger says that a man has two principal duties: to provide for his wife so that she can care for the children and the home, and to protect both wife and children. The husband has an obligation to do these things, and the wife has a right to them. Fr. Ripperger says that this provision and protection are not simply material in nature, but also — and primarily — spiritual. That it is a husband’s duty to obtain for his wife and children the graces they need to resist temptation and to carry out the obligations of their states in life. That just as it is more efficacious for a priest to come and pray against an evil that is afflicting a family (Fr. Ripperger is an exorcist), it is more efficacious for a husband, as the domestic priest, to pray for the protection of his family than it would be for the wife or the children to do so. He says that the Devil and his minions, seeking the path of least resistance, will often attack the children and the wife as their first line of offense, in order to disrupt the order of the home. At the same time, the husband — the head of the family — will in fact endure the worst spiritual attacks, inasmuch as he is the bulwark and principal defense of his family against evil. Fr. Ripperger says that if the wife or the children are becoming contentious and disrupting the order of the home or usurping his authority, it is the husband and father’s job not just to temporally admonish them, but to offer himself to God in whatever way is necessary to obtain the graces they need to overcome these temptations. And when he fails to do these things, the problems worsen.
With these ideas freshly in my mind, I began reading Dilsaver’s book. I didn’t make it far before I saw this:
The Catholic clergy, representing both theistic and ecclesiastical authority, has also earned the hatred of a world opposed to fatherhood. It was the clergy, by exploits of unparalleled heroism, that spread the seeds of the Faith far and wide and brought Christian civilization to fruition. However, the ranks of the clergy have also entailed Judas priests and bishops who have betrayed Christ and His holy Church with the effeminization of some men in the priesthood, contributing greatly to the scandal that currently surrounds the Church. Today there is an urgent need for prophetic and courageous priests and bishops of pristine fatherly character to witness to the true nature of their office; and again, it is the family that holds the key to their advent, for the home is the first seminary, and the familial father is the primary role model for the future Reverend Father.
And that’s when it struck me: in much the same way that my wife and children know that they need more and better from me than they’re currently getting, the frustration that so many Catholics are feeling these days is the fruit of the same crisis of manhood — and of fatherhood in particular — as it affects the priesthood.
I am at times discouraged by the fact that as a layman, I am forced to confront the errors now threatening our Catholic Faith almost entirely without the support of even the best clergy. There is a resentment I have felt, and still feel, when otherwise good priests (or bishops) make excuses for why they refuse to stand firmly between their spiritual children and the threats that endanger them. These men seem so concerned about ecclesiastical careers or diplomacy with their flocks — of not upsetting the enemy or those who have fallen under the enemy’s spell — that they have forgotten about the duty they owe to their family to protect them. In the case of priests, they sometimes seem more concerned about what their bishops would think than in what their spiritual children truly need from them.
To hear these excuses — to be left alone by those soldiers of Christ who should be on the front lines of this battle in a time of immense spiritual danger — is just like a father who runs out the back door when a burglar breaks through the front, leaving the wife and children to fend for themselves.
To hear priests defer to pressure from their bishops in this moment of crisis is like having a father who lets his boss come into the home and have his way with his wife and abuse the children. “I really need this job so I can pay our bills,” he explains to his incredulous son, his hands held up defensively. “I just can’t afford to have him angry with me.”
We have a right to expect protection and provision from our clergy. They have a duty to provide it to us. And while I understand better than many how hard it can be to find it within yourself to be the man your family needs when you feel lost and unsure, it’s not enough to just throw up our hands. We have to do this. We must. We’ve got to reach down deep and fall on our knees and stumble forward the best we can no matter our fear, uncertainty, or more likely than either of these, our discomfort. We’re going to answer for it when we stand before the judgment seat of Our Lord. We’d better have something worthwhile to say.
As biological fathers, failing to serve our families through a death to self is an abdication of our duty, a sin against our wives and children, and an offense before God. Not teaching our boys to be men because we don’t know how to be men is a recipe for their own misery and failure and our eternal shame. Not teaching our girls to have self-respect and how to identify the way they should be treated by a man is no better. For men with the spiritual fatherhood imparted to them by Holy Orders, not teaching their children the truths of the faith, giving them the life-saving sacraments they need, and defending them from the errors that threaten to attack like a an assailant in the night is just as bad. There is no acceptable reason for not getting out of bed to confront the source of the break-in. Even if it costs us our lives.
The cycle of excuses has to stop. We have to figure out our failures and fix them. However imperfectly we accomplish this, it’s far better than if we do nothing at all.
The men of our age are really all broken and insufficient in various ways, and I place myself foremost among them in that regard. Nevertheless, we must learn to take our duties seriously. We must learn to have the courage of our convictions, and the strength to do the hard work they require. We must learn once again to be men, unashamed to stand our ground — and to fight and die if necessary — sacrificing ourselves for those we love as Christ sacrificed Himself for the Church.
God has done this for us, and demands it from us. Failure is not an option.