The collapse of marriage in the developed world is happening faster than many believed possible. Civil marriages exceed religious ones, and both are in steep decline. In Italy, the heartland of Catholicism, where the largest religious institution on earth might be expected to have some influence, there are only 3.6 marriages a year for every thousand inhabitants, compared to 4.7 for the European Union as a whole – in the wealthy parts of Italy the numbers are even lower. Clearly most couples now do not get married. Single parents, especially single mothers, are commonplace. Given that it is hard enough for a stable, loving couple to bring up a child, or children, the difficulties faced by single parents are formidable.
The recovery of fatherhood is not merely a political and sociological challenge, to be met by strengthening the legislation that keeps families together, deters separation, and insists that a man takes more responsibility for his children (whether he be married or not). What needs to be recovered is a vision, a sense of responsibility, something the philosopher Gabriel Marcel in his book Homo Viator (1951) called a “creative vow.”
The father is more than a biological instrument above all when he is prepared to consecrate himself for a role that transcends the physical. He gives of himself biologically to the mother when the child is conceived; but he gives of himself spiritually when he accepts a continuing and indeed eternal responsibility for the gift that God gives him in return – the gift of the child whom he did not fashion and whose destiny he cannot determine or control.
No longer the primary breadwinner, today’s father is not even necessarily the one who engendered his own child, thanks to the wonders of IVF. Technology, which already in the 1960s severed the connection between sex and reproduction, now promises to separate gender from parenthood entirely. It is hardly surprising that so many fathers are missing from the landscape of the contemporary family.
In the current issue Nicholas J. Healy concludes: "It is tempting to cover the wounds that result from an absent father or from an abusive father by diminishing the significance of fatherhood. But this forgetfulness of origins leads to a greater loneliness and metaphysical confusion. A more promising path is to reflect more deeply on the hidden Fatherhood of God that undergirds and encompasses every human origin no matter how broken."
Here is a wonderful passage from George MacDonald on the theme of fatherhood and its
meaning for us, from Gary and Catherine Deddo, George MacDonald: A Devotional Guide to His Writings (St Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1996, pp. 65-6):
“None but a child could become a son; the idea is – a spiritual coming of age; only when the child is a man is he really and fully a son. The thing holds in the earthly relation. How many children of good parents – good children in the main too – never know those parents, never feel towards them as children might, until, grown up, they have left the house – until, perhaps, they are parents themselves, or are parted from them by death! To be a child is not necessarily to be a son or daughter. The childship is the lower condition of the upward process towards the sonship, the soil out of which the true sonship shall grow, the former without which the latter were impossible. God can no more than an earthly parent be content to have only children: he must have sons and daughters - children of his soul, of his spirit, of his love - not merely in the sense that he loves them, or even that they love him, but in the sense that they love like he loves. For this he does not adopt them; he dies to give them himself, thereby to his own to his heart; he gives them a birth from above; they are born again out of himself and into himself - for he is the one and the all. His children are not his real, true sons and daughters until they think like him, feel with him, judge as he judges, are at home with him, and without fear before him because he and they mean the same thing, love the same things, seek the same ends. For this we are created; it is the one end of our being, and includes all other ends whatever. [MacDonald is commenting on Galatians 4:1-7. He continues after a while as follows:]
“...There may be among my readers - alas for such! to whom the word Father brings no cheer, no dawn, in whose heart it rouses no tremble of even a vanished emotion. It is hardly likely to be their fault.... Therefore I say to son or daughter who has no pleasure in the name Father, “You must interpret the word by all that you have missed in life. Every time a man might have been to you a refuge from the wind, a covert from the tempest, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, was a time when a father might have been a father indeed. Happy you are yet, if you have found man or woman such a refuge; so far you have known a shadow of the perfect, the only man, the perfect Son of the perfect Father. All that human tenderness can give or desire in the nearness and readiness of love, all and infinitely more must be true of the perfect Father - of the maker of fatherhood, the Father of all the fathers of the earth, specially the Father of those who have specially shown a father-heart.”