The Drama and
Dilemma of Fatherhood

by Donald DeMarco

Toward the end of his international best-seller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II made the startling comment that original sin is, above all, an attempt “to abolish fatherhood.”

Tradition teaches that our primal parents’ first sin was one of disobedience and pride. Yet this describes the inner disposition of Adam and Eve. When we consider that the object of their offense was God himself, we see that their sin was against his Fatherhood.

According to the serpent, by abolishing fatherhood and the authority it contains, Adam and Eve would be free of all restrictions and become gods themselves. Tradition also teaches that this Original Sin led directly to a Fall of catastrophic proportions that we live with today.

The attempt to abolish fatherhood continues unabated in our present age. On the cover flap of his highly controversial book, The Golden Compass (which was made into a popular movie) Philip Pullman writes: “My sympathies definitely lie with the tempter. The idea is that sin, the Fall, was a good thing. If it had never happened we would still be puppets in the hands of the Creator.” Pullman’s intentions are clear: “I am all for the death of God.”  “My books are about killing God.”  “I am of the Devil’s party and I know it.” The principal evil in The Golden Compass is called “the Authority.”

Defending Dad

On the other hand, there are many experts who speak in behalf of the critical importance of fathers. Psychiatrist Fred Goodwin, head of the Center on Neuroscience at George Washington University, states: “The absence of fathers is the biggest single predictor of antisocial behavior.” 

Even Sigmund Freud, not exactly a friend to Christianity, affirmed the indispensable importance of fatherhood when he said, “I could not point to any need in childhood as strong as that for a father’s protection.”

David Blankenhorn has written an important study on how present American society disparages the fatherhood that it so vitally needs -- Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Problem (Basic Books, 1995).

Blankenhorn shows that fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of our time -- the leading cause of the declining well-being of children, and the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women. Despite massive social problems that fatherlessness has created, he informs us, a concerted effort is being made to “deculture” paternity. Our society is not content with the vilification of fatherhood; it also want to abolish it.

John Paul II made it clear in his “Theology of the Body” that God’s plan for human fatherhood is far different than the distorted image of fatherhood that is the result of Original Sin. From the beginning, according to Genesis, man and woman were destined to enjoy a two-in-one-flesh union that is an image of the Trinity. As a result of Original Sin, man and woman suffered a wound. In Genesis 3:16, we read: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”

This notion of the husband ruling over his wife describes a form of domination. As John Paul explained, this unacceptable comportment also affects a man’s fatherhood and cries out for redemption. Thus, men are faced with a dramatic choice. They can either conform to the broken image of man and fatherhood or be transformed in accordance with God’s original plan. 

A Father’s Love

The Fatherhood of God is a role model for the fatherhood of man. God the Father is surely in a position of authority. After all, he both authored as well as authorized creation. But his Authority is inseparable from His Love.

So too, a father must rule with love so that his guidance is directed to what is best for his children. Moreover, he uses his authority in the interest of freedom, but freedom properly understood as the freedom to do what is good.

Fatherhood may be wounded and under attack.  But there is hope for its restoration. It has been said that the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. It has also been said that the best thing a mother can do for her children is repeatedly to introduce their father to them as a great man. Mutual spousal respect and love help each become a better mother or father, and benefits the children greatly.

Donald DeMarco, a popular Catholic essayist, is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.