Husband & Wife Articles


Hidden Paternity

Childlessness does not negate fatherhood

By Maria Grizzetti

The contemporary conversation on the crisis of paternity focuses on the pervasive phenomenon of fatherless or single-parent households. But there is another dimension of this crisis that entails not the absence of fathers from their children, but rather men without children who wish to become fathers in the normal context of married life.

To address this situation of childlessness, we need to understand how natural paternity – men becoming physiological fathers to children they help bring into the world – relates to a wider sense of paternity that precedes it. This paternity is based on the fatherhood of God which Baptism allows us to share in. Without understanding this sense of paternity, this fuller sense of fatherhood, childlessness is merely a privation that brings a most difficult suffering.

As a matter of biology, women and men experience procreation in drastically different ways. A woman conceives in her flesh, carries a child in her body, gives birth, and in most cases is directly responsible for the early nourishment of the child. A man knows he is responsible for the begetting of the child, yet the whole process is exterior. Thus he takes on the role of protector, securing an external environment for the child's development and flourishing. Yet that is as close as he gets to the physiological process as the child comes into the world.

This sense of lack is deepened when a couple faces childlessness through chronic infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth or early infant death. In each of these instances the male bond of protection is tragically broken, and paternity becomes an even more intangible reality. No longer is there simply distance: there is no possibility of becoming a protector either.

To our culture, only what we can see and measure is real. We have lost the sense of God as the creator, and men and women as participants in his work as procreators.

Returning to this origin of paternity allows us to see childlessness not simply as a privation, but as the beginning of the possibility for a different cooperation with God's paternity. This different cooperation is what we may call “hidden paternity”: a fatherhood that is not quantifiable in the physical generation and rearing of children, but is nonetheless real. Here childlessness opens the door to a fatherhood played out on the level of the soul: a fatherhood that normally coexists with natural paternity, but can still be exercised apart from it.

The priesthood gives us an insight into this sort of paternity. We call our priests “father” for good reason. They manifest to the world a hidden paternity of a spiritual nature which remains nonetheless as real as biological paternity. The priesthood is a manifestation of the foundational fatherhood of God, and the last thing we can say of God is that he is childless.

Childlessness in marriage does not take away a man’s paternal nature rooted in God. True, nothing can replace a child that is strongly desired. But perhaps it is this gap in desire that can be filled with a different experience of fatherhood, and become a witness to the culture we live in. As Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, explained in 1977:

Human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is; but where fatherhood no longer exists, where genuine fatherhood is no longer experienced as a phenomenon that goes beyond the biological dimension to embrace a human and intellectual sphere as well, it becomes meaningless to speak of God the Father... It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world. The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole.

Through this lens, hidden paternity becomes a bold manifestation of this blessed precondition – a portal through which God lives as Father, forever, in an often fatherless world.

Maria Grizzetti and her husband, Christopher, live in New York City. Maria studied medieval philosophy at Fordham University, and writes in the area of theological reflection at Incarnation and Modernity. She works for the World Youth Alliance, a global organization committed to promoting the dignity of the human person.