It is mid-June, so it is time for the annual national “head nod” to fathers on Father’s Day. For many, Father’s Day will pass unrecognized; for others, Father’s Day will be celebrated with “man-gifts” (e.g. tools, sports gear, etc.) and perhaps with a pleasant BBQ with family. But how many will ponder the dismal state of fatherhood and what each father could do better?
For Catholic men, rather than just a day of only happy moments, Father’s Day should include a sober reflection on each man’s commitment to Catholic fatherhood. The sad fact is large numbers of men are failing at their duties as Catholic fathers. Christ expects Catholic fathers to seek holiness and perfection as each Catholic man will ultimately face the King and give an accounting for how he shepherded his children. This is a call for Catholic men to prayerfully assess their effectiveness as fathers for Christ on Father’s Day and vow to become Committed Catholic Fathers.
The Failing of Catholic Fathers
There is a growing awareness of the devastating Catholic “man-crisis” (see the New Emangelization Project Man-crisis Fact Sheet). One in three baptized Catholic men have left the faith. Of those who remain “Catholic”, over half are Casual Catholic Men, who neither know nor practice the faith. About a third of Catholic men practice regularly, but vary in their commitment to engage in the required call to make disciples. Only about one in ten Catholic men are Committed Catholic Men, men who practice the faith and are committed to pass the faith along to their children and actively evangelize others. The Catholic “man-crisis” is a crisis of catastrophic proportions.
The Catholic “man-crisis” matters, for large numbers of Catholic men are failing in their duties as fathers to pass along the faith to their children. At a child’s baptism, a Catholic father makes the solemn and irrevocable promise to God that he will do his utmost best to faithfully raise the child in the Catholic faith. The Catholic father’s commitment to pass along the faith is essential for research shows, while the faith of a mother is important, the faith of the father has the most influence on if a child will continue in the faith as they reach adulthood.
Sadly, Catholic fathers are failing to pass along the faith: since 2000, 14 million Catholics have left the faith, parish religious education participation of children has dropped by 24%, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19% and baptisms of infants has dropped by 28%. Catholic men are failing as fathers to pass the faith on to their children.
The New Emangelization Project research provides some insights into why Catholic fathers are failing. Only about half of Catholic men strongly agree that it is important for their children to be Catholic. This lack of commitment by fathers to the faith is passed along to their kids: an astounding 8 out of 10 18-29 year olds would consider leaving the Catholic Church. Many have already left and long term research shows most will not return to the Church. Something is desperately wrong with how Catholic men are engaging in their roles as fathers.
Four Types of Catholic Fathers
While there are numerous ways to categorize and analyze Catholic fatherhood, one way is to consider how Catholic men live out truth and mercy as fathers. Truth is the objective truth as taught by Jesus Christ as passed along in its fullness by the Catholic Church. Mercy is the essential call to show love and compassion to others, putting their highest good above all else.
While there are, of course, gradations in how a father engages truth and mercy, four basic combinations emerge, of which only one can be considered the appropriate aspiration for Catholic fathers:
The CINO Catholic Father (Low Truth/Low Mercy) – The CINO (Catholic-in-name-only) Catholic Father is a perhaps a small but growing category of Catholic fathers who lack both truth and mercy. These fathers don’t know the truth of the Catholic faith for they don’t know Jesus Christ. They don’t understand the basic teachings of the Church about the need to battle sin and to strive to live a moral life, to pray, to engage in the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, the critical need to engage in Scripture and the highest obligation of a father’s life is to pass the faith on to their children.
Since they don’t know the truth, they fail to practice Catholicism in any kind of substantial way, perhaps showing up a few times a year for Mass due to spousal pressure or a selfish nostalgia for “smells and bells”. These fathers also don’t practice mercy, by loving his children’s mother(s), perhaps failing to marry the mother of his children, divorcing her or living in a loveless marriage. CINO Catholic Fathers fail to fully love their children, engaging in their children’s life in a deep and enduring way, preferring to pursue their own selfish pursuits, be it career or hobbies.
The CINO Catholic Father can’t pass along the truth of the faith for he doesn’t know it himself and doesn’t practice it, making it impossible for him to teach the Truth or to demonstrate the Truth of the faith by how he lives his life. He doesn’t teach his children mercy, for he wallows in unrepentant sin and lacks the supernatural graces that come from the Sacraments and hasn’t made loving his children his highest priority.
The Authoritarian Catholic Father (High Truth/Low Mercy) – The Authoritarian Catholic Father has a solid, but incomplete knowledge of the faith. He makes the rigid practice of Catholicism a priority in the life of the family: the family regularly attends Mass and Confession, reads Scripture , prays the rosary and other devotions and the children may attend Catholic schools. By all outward signs, these are good Catholic men.
However, truth without mercy is sterile and becomes an infertile Catholicism, a religion of rules without compassion or joy, a compulsory religion of “going through the motions”. There is a hardness and dryness of the Authoritarian Catholic Father’s practice of the faith and how he engages his children in the faith. Christ castigates the Pharisees for their over-emphasis on rules/laws while neglecting mercy (Matt 23:23). Research shows that one essential ingredient to successfully transmitting the faith to children is for a father to have a loving relationship with his children. Children who don’t have a loving relationship with their Catholic father intuit that Catholicism is a love-less and rules-based religion that lacks peace, joy, and most importantly for a child, love. Ironically, despite the Authoritarian Catholic Father’s zealous efforts to pass along the faith (or else!), he fails, for his children rarely experience the beauty of mercy and conclude that Catholicism is a burden without a blessing.
The Permissive Catholic Father (Low Truth/High Mercy) – The Permissive Catholic Father has a special and tender commitment to demonstrating Mercy to his children. He is active in the lives of his children, investing time and care into their lives, catering to their every desire, often shielding them from uncomfortable rules and disciplines, believing that Sin is an outdated concept and being “nice” is good enough. The Permissive Catholic Father is often indulgent and soft, believing in cafeteria Catholicism and that each child should have the freedom to pursue religion, if so inclined. The Permissive Catholic Father would rather spend Sunday with his wife and children enjoying “family time” than attending Mass or keeping the Sabbath. By the standards of the world, most would see the Permissive Catholic Father as a pretty good dad.
However, the Permissive Catholic Father offers his children a false mercy, for mercy without truth lacks the guiding influence and graces of the Catholic sacramental and moral life. He doesn’t confront the Sin in his own life and does not rely on the life-giving sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist, nor does he seek to engage his children in Scripture and in prayer. Since the Permissive Catholic Father lacks the supernatural grace of the sacraments, he is unable to live up to the rigors of being a merciful father. He also lacks the fraternal bonds of brotherhood with other faithful Catholic fathers that can strengthen his faith and Catholic fatherhood skills. Despite warm relations with his children, the Permissive Catholic Father fails them in the most important way, for the children don’t grow up with a firm grasp and commitment to the truth of Christ and drift away from the Church as they mature, putting their temporal happiness and eternal bliss in peril.
The Committed Catholic Father (High Truth/High Mercy) – The Committed Catholic Father is the model of Catholic fatherhood, attempting to fully live out the truth and mercy of Christ in a balanced way. He not only is highly devout in his commitment to know Jesus Christ, but he enthusiastically leads (with his wife) the family in prayer, scripture, the sacraments, catechesis of the faith and in acts of mercy to serve those in need. He has a rich Catholic faith life and has built strong bonds of brotherhood with other Catholic fathers in his parish, men of faith who help build his faith, as “Iron sharpens iron and one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17).
The Committed Catholic Father ensures that his children know the fullness of the truth of the Catholic faith, ensuring that his children come to have a deep knowledge, love and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who is Truth itself. He personally engages in the catechesis of his children at home and may help mentor and teach the Catholic faith to other young people in the parish. The Committed Catholic Father seeks to demonstrate Christ’s mercy in overt ways to his children by actively loving their mother and each of them.
Most importantly, the Committed Catholic Father relies on the supernatural power from the graces of the Sacraments and his own diligent efforts in the never-ending ascent towards living the perfect balance of Christ’s truth and mercy in all his dealings with his family.
What Every Catholic Father Should Do this Father’s Day
Father’s Day is an excellent day for each Catholic father to recommit to his essential obligation to bring his children to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Here are four concrete steps that each Catholic father can begin to take now:
Recommit to be a Committed Catholic Father – Each Catholic father made the irrevocable promise to Jesus Christ to bring their baptized children into the fullness of the Catholic faith. Most men have failed in this promise in some way, some in grave ways: Christ’s warning about horrific consequences that await those who lead a child into sin (Matt 18:6) is especially true for fathers. Each Catholic man needs to repent and seek Christ’s forgiveness for failing to fully keep the promises he made at his child’s baptism in the sacrament of reconciliation. In the act of contrition, each father can make a special commitment to do his best to be the Catholic father Christ expects him to be and his children deserve, a father who will do his best to help his children be drawn to heaven.
A special note to grandfathers: the bad news for many of today’s grandfathers is that they have failed to pass the faith on to their adult children and many grandfathers have deep regrets. Happily, research is showing that grandfathers can play an effective role in helping their grandchildren to be drawn to Jesus Christ, even if the parents are not yet fully engaged in the faith. Of course, it is never too late for any father to seek to draw his wayward children to the faith. We can evangelize to our last breath.
Begin practicing the basics of Catholic fatherhood now – With a renewed commitment to be a Committed Catholic Father, each man should fervently begin to pursue and live the fullness of truth and Mercy as taught by the Church. Here is a short list of Catholic practices that each man should begin to practice (at a minimum): seek to draw closer to Jesus Christ in prayer and in an examination of conscience each day; pray with his wife and children on a regular basis; read Scripture on a regular basis, both by himself and with his family; instill a new sense of reverence by keeping the Sabbath; prepare and lead the family to Mass; engage in acts of mercy on a regular basis, often bringing the children along to help; lead the family to reconciliation at least monthly and teach children about sin and forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession; gather with other Catholic fathers on a regular basis to build bonds of Catholic brotherhood.
By a disciplined and love-focused pursuit of truth and mercy in Christ, each man can be confident that Christ will give them supernatural graces through the sacraments, which will strengthen and guide them to become better and better Catholic fathers.
Grow in the wisdom of Catholic fatherhood – Fatherhood is learned, historically passed to each generation from father to father. Given the catastrophic breakdown of fatherhood due to out of wedlock births and divorces, many men lacked a father to teach them the craft/vocation of fatherhood. To help, begin to gather with other Catholic fathers to pray and talk about fatherhood. Catholic fathers can also learn how to be better Catholic fathers through study. Here are several solid examples of apostolates for Catholic fathers: Dads.org, Fathers for Good, Fathers of St. Joseph, Fraternus and Way of the Father. The Committed Catholic Father seeks to continually to grow in the wisdom of how to be a better Catholic dad.
Build an ethic of Catholic fatherhood in your parish – A recent New Emangelization Project survey shows that only about 1 in 10 parishes regularly gathers fathers and children together to pray, learn and build fellowship. The same survey shows that only about 1 in 6 practicing Catholic men have strong bonds of brotherhood in their parish, and those who do have richer and more active Catholic faith lives. Catholic men, working with their priests and deacons, need to band together to grow in the faith as men and as fathers, as was done in the early Church (Acts 2:42). Every parish should make it a priority to develop an ethic of fatherhood, calling men to be Committed Catholic Fathers and actively reach out to young men, particularly the many who lack fathers in their lives and those who need to be mentored in the faith by good Catholic men.
While the state of Catholic fatherhood should cause each man anguish, we can have great hope for a renewal of Catholic fathers, for all things are possible in Christ. Father’s Day is a blessing, not only because it reinforces the essential need for fathers but because it offers Catholic men the chance to reflect on their own performance as fathers. This Father’s Day, regardless of the falterings of the past, each man can be a new creation in Christ, becoming a Committed Catholic Father who fulfills his solemn promise and leads his children to Christ Jesus and His Holy Catholic Church.