As a country we are experiencing a crisis of fatherhood. More than 40 percent of births in the general population are to parents who are not married. Among Hispanics, it is over 50 percent. Some will say that there is nothing particularly wrong with this trend, that what we are seeing now is just the new normal and we need to let go of terms like illegitimacy and get used to the way things are today. We are told that we live in an age where a traditional family with a mother and a father committed to each other for life is no longer the ideal way to raise a child and that the stigma that comes with illegitimacy is nothing more than a relic of a bygone judgmental age that was looking for scapegoats onto which it could load its own repressed guilt.
The problem with such apparently progressive attitudes is that they fly in the face of real life experience. Fathers who are not married to the mothers of their children are much less likely to stick around in their children’s and their children’s mother’s lives. They are also far less likely to contribute to the financial and emotional well-being of their child. When mothers with children from previous relationships couple with new men, child abuse is far more likely in all of its diverse forms. We do not have to be religious zealots to find social science research that reveals that out-of-wedlock births and absent fathers correlate very strongly to juvenile crime, child poverty and a whole host of problems later in life.
I recall the heart-wrenching experience of a priest recently who went in to visit the home of a single mother with several children. As he walked into the house to bless it, one of the children, a boy about seven years old, rushed up to him, embraced him firmly and blurted out, “My daddy told me that he doesn’t love me anymore and doesn’t want to see me again because my mommy decided that she wasn’t going to move back in with him.” We cannot help but ask ourselves, “What could that little boy have ever done to deserve hearing that?” We feel inhuman if our hearts are not rent to pieces at stories like these. Sadly, the situation that I just described is hardly unique.
We can take heart in the fact that we are not facing this problem for the first time in human history. In fact, the state of fatherhood two thousand years ago was much worse than it is today.
In the ancient Roman Empire, which is the political system in which our Lord Jesus was born, fathers had the legal right to choose whether or not they wanted to accept or reject their offspring. This arrangement reflected the predominant Gentile morality of the day. Most Jewish fathers were different and took their cue from the Bible and viewed all human life as sacred and thus did not face the question of whether or not they would accept or reject their offspring.
For Gentiles in Jesus’ day, however, fathers decided whether or not their children lived or died. If the father decided that he rejected the child, this choice meant that the little baby would be taken to an out-of-the-way place to be exposed, that is, thrown away like trash and left to die. We cannot help but be shocked at how common the practice of exposure was then and still is today where the world has not been touched by the Biblical vision of the inherent sacredness of all human life.
This biblical view that all life is sacred flows from a unique belief about who God is. Most Gentiles believed that the gods or even the one supreme being apportioned favor on the basis of who offered the best sacrifices. In their view, the gods were not beyond picking favorites or switching sides as they pleased. Some people even went so far as to offer human sacrifices of their own children in order to ensure that they would receive heavenly favor.
When one nation conquered another, it was a natural thing for the worship of the conquering nation’s divinities to be introduced, even adopted by choice, into the conquered people’s religious life. It was kind of like becoming a Miami Heat fan today. Religion in the ancient world was something like a game wherein one always wanted to be on the winning side. The gods favored the strong and the strong sought to perpetuate divine favor by the correct observance of religious ritual. The weak did the best that they could to get a piece of divine mojo by changing their loyalties to the gods who got results.
When the divine authority is seen as being cruel and arbitrary, human authority usually is as well.
The most notable if not the only exception to this cruel state of affairs were the Jews. The one true God chose them when they were slaves to lead them into freedom. Before the Lord led them into the Promised Land, He swore that He would always be faithful to them. When the Jews lost their land because of their sins and infidelity to the covenant that they had made with the Lord, they continued to worship Him in their exile in Babylon, trusting that God would stay true to His promise.
It is in this context in the Old Testament that we begin seeing language about God that describes Him as a father. The Lord God chooses not the strong but the weak and protects and provides for this vulnerable people as a father would for his own child. In the New Testament we see the climax of the step-by-step revelation of the fatherhood of God in Jesus Christ. Today’s Gospel tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
The revelation of the faithful love of God the Father comes through His Son, Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament God made a spousal covenant with a nation of liberated slaves. He swears by Himself that He will always be true to this covenant.
How does God the Father reveal His fidelity to this covenant, to this oath that he took? “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”
Every time we look at a crucifix we see the revelation of God the Father’s faithfulness to His promise to always be with His people. Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, takes the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the New Israel, to Himself as His bride on the Cross. We can know with the certainty of faith that Christ will never abandon His Church. There will never come a day when He will stop making Himself and His sacrifice present on our altars. Neither will He ever allow that His Church teach as a matter of faith and morals something that is not true. Nor will He stop giving us forgiveness for our sins in the confessional. Jesus is the revelation of the covenant faithfulness of God the Father. And like a faithful husband, Christ keeps His wedding vows.
As Christian disciples on this Father’s Day we recommit ourselves to support fathers in their most important vocation. Fatherhood today is not easy. It probably never has been easy, but it seems to be getting more difficult in recent decades. We resolve to pray for those fathers, be they spiritual or natural fathers, who have made vows of constancy to Almighty God. We also choose to journey with those fathers who are still trying to find their way in their vocation as fathers. They need the support of our parish communities in order for them be the type of men that God is calling them to be.
May God help us in this noble task!