Thursday, November 21, 2019
During my semester of serving as a certified legal intern for the public defender's office in juvenile court, representing children who have been accused of committing acts that would be crimes if committed by an adult, I have experienced and learned a lot. And as a product of seemingly unrelated reading, including Catholic bioethics and American Constitutional law, I would like to discuss the issue of "fathers," starting with this question:
Can a "morally neutral" culture create anything good?
Sure, but only by chance, or consensus, or when seasonal conditions allow since there is, by design, no authoritative agreement on what's good and what's not. Failures in fatherhood are a social problem in our culture, truly a moral problem and enigma; a problem that is bigger than anything I could hope to solve, or even understand, as a law-student intern working with kids who need adequate care in addition to some moral correction. The problem is this: in the lives of juveniles who are judged by the state to be "delinquent," what is the role of "a father" and who can make a man into a good father?
Most of the clients I've represented do not have a father who is present in their lives. But every single human being does indeed have a male origin, in addition to their mother. No person alive today exists but for the union of one male and one female, cooperating with the gift of life which God has given to humankind. Perhaps more "provable" than the origins of the first man and first woman is the present-day fact that "male and female [God] create[s] them"—that is, all babies, all children, each one of us—that was us, created by a male and a female, not by ourselves. Most of these young people have a mother who is present, or some other family. But it has been rare to see a father in the courtroom, and even rarer to see the birth-father. And when he is there, things seem to turn out "better" for the kid, i.e. they don't sit in state-controlled detention, but they get to go home.
Maybe the only ultimate answer which doesn't "drill down" any further is: each man himself is responsible for becoming and being a good father, because who can be forced to be good? Or who can be good for (in place of) another? Part of my intent is to place blame on men, all men, for we have failed to build a society of men who take honor in being good fathers, and who condemn appropriately all those vices which lead men to abandon their duties instead of shouldering them.
Three social players shape boys into the men they may become: Church, State, and Society. Briefly, 1) how do each of these approach the role of "fathers"? and 2) what tools do they have to stem the problem of fatherless delinquents? This is no expert analysis, but it's a soul-crushing problem seeing it face-to-face, even once a week, for a semester, so this is my best shot.
The Catholic Church tells men they are created in God's image and called to be virtuous, and the Church claims to have the moral authority to tell men who they are, and how they ought to be. It tells men to take up their crosses daily, to lay down their lives for others in acts of love, and to be like Christ. The Church says that marriage or holy orders—both forms of fatherhood—are two primary vocations in life for men. The Church teaches that men and women are both inherently dignified by being each created in God's perfect image. Therefore neither is complete in themselves, and all human persons have an inherent dignity which is irrespective of their sex, but they are not "the same"—rather, they are both good, both needed, both an image. The Church tells men to love their wives, to not be harsh with their children, to provide for their families or risk being kicked out of Christian community (not providing for your relatives, especially your household, is to deny the faith and be damnable). The Church thus speaks harshly, appropriately, to men who would faint at the obligations of family. And it holds up a good wife and children as gifts from God—good things, not pathologies. It tells men: this is who you are, as men you are sons of the Good Father, and as men, being men, you are made to be good fathers; not perfect, but good.
Our State tells men they may be required to pay financial restitution for their absence in the lives of their children and their wives (or children's mothers), it tells men to take responsibility for their actions and they will be rewarded. The State has power to arrest a man and impose jail time as an attempt to compel him to pay this money. Neither of these replaces a father, obviously, but the State can provide very beneficial services like health care, counseling, and some education. The State also has the power to remove an abusive father with jail time or restrictions. The State can give financial benefits to married couples through tax structure, and other recognition which may slightly encourage men to be committed fathers. The State is forced to deal with young people who don't have adequate care at home when these young people "get into trouble"—where else will they go? Who will be a father to them? A pair of parents would be better suited to handle unruly children than one parent alone. Who can work and keep a teenager out of trouble at the same time? It's a miracle when it happens, and it should not be ignored. Juvenile detention is sometimes better for a child than their home life; this is unfortunately true.
Our Society tells men they should be kind, they should take responsibility for their actions, they should provide for the needs of others, and they should at the same time be whatever they want to be. Even if some in our society do encourage fathers, does our current society, with its highest value seeming to be some sort of moral "neutrality," have the tools to do it effectively? Is "men being men" associated with good fatherhood? Can we do this? Should we? I think we need to do something, but maybe it's hopeless or too fraught with the risk of offending others... Let's not give up so easily.
Our society doesn't seem to do much to tell men: You should seek to be a good father. You should be a good husband, and you have inalienable moral duties to any human beings you create, and any woman you procreate with, whether you want it or not, figure it out beforehand—it's on you. You should be a good son and a good brother. You should be a good man, and this entails being a father in one way or another. And you are made for this, so you can do it.
But there is so much brokenness, and there are so many heart-breaking cases. Who can take away the sins of the entire world? It seems impossible that the past suffering of others could be made right by someone else, it seems that harmony could be out of reach. But maybe we can do more than we think. And maybe the Church needs to speak more to men, telling us not to neglect fatherhood, but to aspire to it above all other status. Whether this is seen as "heteronormative" or just what we need right now, I think it would be good.