The Crisis of Fatherhood

by Dr Joseph Shaw

The “man crisis” has slowly become the object of mainstream study. In 2015 the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produced a report called “The ABC of Gender Inequality in Education”, based on figures from the respected PISA international educational survey. These showed that boys are lagging behind girls in a number of measurable ways: for example, girls outperform boys in reading in all countries, and women outnumber men in tertiary education. The report was picked up by The Economist, which devoted a five-part essay to “The Weaker Sex”: men, subject as they are to higher rates of unemployment, imprisonment, and premature death.

The Church has its own “man crisis”. Congregations contained roughly equal numbers of men and women up to the 1970s, but since then the number of men attending has fallen even faster than the number of women, leaving them outnumbering men by about two to one in British and American congregations.

Both the secular and ecclesial man-crisis have generated official statements of concern, but very little policy response.

Intriguingly, the PISA figures show that the gap between boys and girls in their school marks narrows when test scripts are anonymised. Hostility to boys, or to masculinity, among teachers, would certainly explain a reluctance to make changes designed to benefit boys. The things which might make school more appealing to boys, such as contact sports, the study of men in history and literature, a competitive spirit, and school discipline, can easily be taken to symbolise, embody, and encourage masculine traits.

In a similar way, if you pointed out that Latin, ritual, incense, and Gregorian Chant have a track record of making the Mass more palatable to men, the instinct of many bishops and liturgists would be that these things are suggestive of a masculine religion and a masculine conception of God, the extirpation of which is more important than drawing our missing men back to the life of the Sacraments.

These are surface phenomena, however. The crisis of masculinity in the Church and the world is fundamentally a crisis of fatherhood. It is because fatherhood is no longer a functioning ideal, that boys and young men lack motivation in school, and young men brought up as Catholic, as Pope John Paul II expressed it, tend to “abdicate their proper Church responsibilities, allowing them to be fulfilled only by women” (Christifideles Laici (1988) 52).

In the secular world, the connection is very clear. As The Economist expressed it in the essay already mentioned, particularly referring to American working class men, their “ideas of the world and their place in it are shaped by old assumptions about the special role and status due to men in the workplace and in the family, but they live in circumstances where those assumptions no longer apply”.

This is a roundabout way of saying that hard work once made sense for adolescent boys and young men, because it was the route to a secure family life of comfort and honour, but this is no longer the case. Modern homes can be short on male comfort and honour, and any investment in a family is vulnerable to high rates of separation and divorce.

Despite some recognition of the motivational roots of the problem, men’s failure to provide for partners and offspring tends to be addressed only as a moral failing, as if large-scale behavioural change could be brought about just by exhortation and shaming. Similarly, in a Christian context, attempts to get men back to church often begin and end with emotional manipulation. Among Evangelical Protestants, there is a whole genre of sermon which presents the preacher as the only real man in the room. He, after all, is exercising authority, but the guys in the pews are wimps, not real men, because they are not shouldering the heavy burden of the masculine role with sufficient conviction.

The problem with this approach is that a wholly servile conception of this role is not going to motivate anyone to take it up, but an understanding of it which emphasises the dignity of men would be unacceptable to feminists. Nearly all Christian leaders seem to have opted not to offend the feminists. These leaders may not be as masculine as they would like us to think.

A proper understanding of the male role must start with fatherhood, noting that central to the concept of human fatherhood is God’s fatherhood. Fatherhood is not the only image we are given of God in Scripture, but it is a dominating one. God is the Father of His “son”, His people, the Israelites and the Christians. This image is not interchangeable with the idea of God being a mother, because the biological, psychological, and legal relationship of a father to a son is not interchangeable with that of a mother and a child. God’s protection and provision for, and authority over, the Church is a model, specifically, for a human father.

It is often pointed out that God is neither male nor female, and this is true, but as He reveals Himself to us in Scripture, He is indisputably masculine: the traits most applicable to Him are those most applicable to men, which is to say, they are masculine traits.

Those influenced by Feminism can find it profoundly troubling to hear that the apex of the Chain of Being, God, is a father. Their response has been to erase as completely as possible anything redolent of masculinity in the teaching and discipline of the Church, and in the liturgy, and to transform even the role of the priest from that of a pastor willing to lay down his life for his flock, and an agent of sacrifice, to a member of the “caring professions”.

The rejection of the fatherhood of God naturally undermines human fatherhood, of which it is the model and source. Feminists do not simply dislike the traditional conception of fatherhood: some of them would like to eliminate any possible conception of fatherhood as completely as biologically possible, deliberately opting to bring up children in the total absence of any male who might be taken as a father-figure.

Feminists dislike human fatherhood for exactly the reasons they dislike divine fatherhood. They point to the way that the prestige of this position has been abused by fathers and father-figures who are negligent and abusive. It is relevant to note, therefore, that a society in which fatherhood has been comprehensively ridiculed and side-lined, our own, has experienced the greatest explosion of abusive father-figures in history.

The abuser, in fact, is able to flourish precisely where real fatherhood has been destroyed or rendered ineffective. He does not see himself as part of a hierarchy or network of authority, under God and in a context of other fathers of families. He is the tyrant of a clique which he likes to keep as isolated from the outside world as possible. His ideal victims are those who lack fathers, and are therefore willing to tolerate exploitation in return for the semblance of affection. One of the most revealing images of the abuse crisis, to me, has been the police arresting fathers who were picketing houses where they knew their daughters were being abused. When the state refuses to uphold the authority of fathers, they hand power to manipulative rapists. The answer to the abuse of authority, in fact, is not the abdication of authority, but the use of authority.

The Feminist attack on fatherhood as a category of thought has changed the conceptual landscape. Today it is not enough to say to young men that their failure to marry, have children, and get involved in the life of the Church, is a failure of true masculinity and paternity. These young men cannot respond to an ideal which is not coherently presented to them, or is presented only to be held up to contempt.

The Church’s ancient liturgical tradition speaks powerfully of the majesty and authority of God, of love, sin, and sacrifice, through its words, its ceremonies, and its whole ethos. It presents to us the ideal of the Heavenly Father, and by doing so creates an environment in which masculinity and fatherhood can be understood, respected, and modelled.

The ideal of fatherhood must also be reflected in the structures of the Church, and by those who exercise authority in her. The clerical abuse crisis has revealed not only that a small proportion of priests are abusive fathers, but that a much larger proportion of bishops are unwilling to use their authority to protect the most vulnerable members of their flocks.

The good shepherd, our Lord says, lays down his life for this sheep. The possessor of fatherhood has the courage to use his authority in defence of the weak, and is willing to endure the public humiliation which may result. This is a fatherhood modelled by Christ, who accepts even death for the good of His children, is not afraid to use His authority, and whose majesty is undiminished by insult and rejection.

Dr Joseph Shaw teaches Philosophy in Oxford University. He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International.