Recapturing the vocation of fatherhood (Part 1)

A political firestorm of sorts was set off over this past summer around comments made by the Liberal Senator Corey Bernadi, in relation to “traditional families” and outcomes for children who are raised in single parent families.

The media frenzy around the Senator’s comments was intense, and as often happens in debates driven by social media, became quite personalised, ideological and polarised.

On the one hand there was outrage over what many felt was a serious lack of compassion, judgment, and an overly simplistic assessment of the situation that many singles mothers find themselves in.  And then, on the other hand, there were those who felt just as strongly that such criticisms were political correctness gone mad, and that the Senator was simply raising important questions about what the research tells us is best for children.

Paradoxically however, there was one area of agreement on both sides,which unfortunately was not given the attention it deserved. “Fatherlessness” in our society lies at the heart of so many of the poor outcomes facing our children. President Barrack Obama captured this fact powerfully in his 2008 Father’s Day speech:

“We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioural problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”

What has happened to Fatherhood in our society? The statistics show us that fathers are treating their families with disrespect or even worse, with violence.  They show us that rather than selflessly caring for their families, they are often not present to children, caught up in addictive behaviours, or suffering from untreated mental health problems.

Recently, the utterly heartbreaking and tragic story of a very unwell father murdering his 11-year-old son while he was playing cricket brought to our nation’s attention the extent of the Fatherhood crisis facing our society.  It’s a crisis that Tim Hawkes, the headmaster of The King’s School Parramatta, recently described as central to the solution of preventing the violent “King hit” culture amongst young men.  I think Tim gets to the heart of the matter in relation to the crisis in fatherhood when he says:

“…the sacrifice of putting the family ahead of personal comfort will not be lost on a boy and may stop him having to prove his worth by belting up innocents on a Kings Cross street.”  (“What every Dad must do if we’re to defeat violence” – The Australian, 6 Jan 2014)

What has happenned in our society that has led to a situation where self-giving love has become so arbitrary in our national consciousness about Fatherhood?

Fatherhood as a vocation of love desperately needs a much greater focus in our homes, schools, churches, social services, in government and in the media.

In my next column I will consider how the Catholic faith can inform and form us regarding this “vocation to Fatherhood”. The Bible does not record a single word uttered by St Joseph, yet his life as husband and father has much to say to us.  Joseph is a model of the fullness of faith, hope, and love. Importantly, he is a model of action, in the small and hidden things of family life, which make all the difference.