Catholicism, the traditional family, and the crisis of fatherhood

Is the only solution to the crisis of family and fatherhood to go back to the pre-industrial home economy? In some sense, yes.

(Image: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash.com)

I recently received an e-mail with the curious subject line: “Men are like water heaters”. I opened up the e-mail to find a picture of a confused-looking, middle-aged man struggling to fix a water heater in what appears to be his basement. Alongside this image appeared the words, half-warning, half-command: “Stop the leak.” Lest there be any confusion about the man in the picture, subsequent text clarifies he is a dad: “As a father, you are basically a living water heater.”

I was disturbed by the choice of mechanical metaphors for fatherhood (and by extension, family). Clicking through the e-mail, I was further disturbed by the application of an empowerment rhetoric—rooted in that twilight zone where business-driven motivational speaking overlaps with New Age spirituality—to the vocation of fatherhood. Most disturbing of all, I found that this messaging came from a Catholic men’s organization, which shall remain nameless. I have no wish to offer a full critique of that organization.

It is hardly the only Catholic men’s group that has arisen in recent years to address the perceived “crisis of fatherhood.” As we are in the month of Father’s Day, I would like to offer some reflections on the history of fatherhood with particular reference to how the Church has approached fatherhood over the centuries.

At one level, reverence for fatherhood has been a part of Catholic tradition at least since Jesus told us to pray to God as “Our Father”. Still, for centuries thereafter, reverence for God as Father did not translate into a special concern for earthly fatherhood. Part of this simply reflects the early and medieval Church’s general lack of attention to the spiritual possibilities of family life; the Church did not really begin to promote devotion to the Holy Family until the sixteenth century. Particular devotions to St. Joseph reflected confidence in his power as intercessor, not as role model.

The great solemnity of March 19 began as a feast of thanksgiving for St. Joseph’s intervention in relieving a famine in medieval Sicily; the tradition of St. Joseph’s bread has nothing to do with St. Joseph as a 1950s-style “breadwinner.” Pius IX declared St. Joseph Patron of the Universal Church in response to the myriad threats facing the Church in the nineteenth century, but the “crisis of fatherhood” was not one of them.

As role model, St. Joseph has made his most significant appearance in the Church calendar as “St. Joseph the Worker.” Pius XII instituted the feast in 1955, choosing May 1st as the day to proclaim the Church’s respect for the dignity of labor in direct response to the Communist-backed May Day celebrations. Though inspired by the continued threat of communism in the East, the feast also reflected the triumph of the Church’s engagement with modern industrial capitalism in the West.

For many in the Church, the New Deal liberalism of the United States and the traditions of Christian/Social Democracy in Europe stood as close enough approximations of the “third way” between free-market capitalism and state socialism advocated by the tradition of the papal social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891. Compared to the dark industrial age of the nineteenth century, the United States in 1955 seemed like a worker’s paradise. Catholic workers found the patron saint of this paradise in St. Joseph.

We still await a feast celebrating the St. Joseph as foster father of Jesus. Pope Francis’s recently proclaimed “Year of St. Joseph” (2021) helped to promote greater reflection on St. Joseph as a model of fatherhood, but most of this reflection focused on the “crisis of fatherhood” in contemporary Western society. This is a sharp contrast with the near triumphalism of the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This is even more troubling considering how long the Church has been directing attention to developing a spirituality appropriate to family life.

The U.S. bishops established a Family Life Bureau as early as 1931. In the following decade, the Cana Conference movement grew out of a married couples’ retreat first held in New York City in 1943; by 1950, seventy-five percent of the dioceses in the United States sponsored Cana conferences (these survive in the “pre-Cana” programs that provide marriage preparation in most Catholic parishes today). At about the same time, the Christian Family Movement (CFM) arose to provide more sustained guidance and reflection on Catholic family spirituality. CFM grew out of the broader movement of “Catholic Action” promoted by Pope Pius XI to infuse every aspect of life with Catholic spiritual and moral principles; it was, in effect, the domestic equivalent of the Catholic labor movement. Though it focused on family in general rather than fatherhood in particular, CFM rejected the sex segregation of most of the Catholic Action groups, drawing men into a domestic sphere conventionally understood as a woman’s world.

This unprecedented Catholic focus on the family resonated with the broader American celebration of family life that continues to define the 1950s in the popular imagination. Those who bemoan the “crisis of fatherhood” often look to the 1950s as the ideal of family life in general and fatherhood in particular, a time when all of America agreed that in TV as in life, “Father Knows Best.” Yet if families and fathers were so strong in the 1950s, why did everything seem to fall apart in the 1960s? This is one of the questions that continues to shape the ”culture wars” that have plagued life both in and outside the Church since that watershed era.

I will not even try to provide any definitive answer here to that question. Still, I would like to consider the history of one aspect of contemporary fatherhood that most observers can agree on, regardless of where they stand on the nature of fatherhood itself. Pope Francis has suggested: “The first thing needed is this, that the father be present in the family.” The implied absence reflects, at one level, basic sociological data such as one out of every four children in America today lives in a home without a father.

Yet Francis speaks to a broader absence obscured by raw sociological data. A father who shares the same street address with his children (or as is so often these days, his step children) may be nearly as absent as if he lived at a different address. The 1950s dad spent most of his waking day away from the home at work; a long commute or an especially demanding career (pursued for the sake of his family, of course) would only further minimize his contact with his children.

Those most concerned with preserving something like the “natural” or “traditional” family too often take this absence for granted, as if it were always the case. It is, in the grand sweep of history, a relatively recent development, dating back no further than the nineteenth century. Before the industrial revolution, fathers and mothers were in the “home,” or more properly, the home economy, some form of farm life in which father, mother, and children all contributed to the material survival of the family. This common material struggle for survival, along with the strong link between marriage and property, provided the basis for traditional family unity. Paternal influence exerted itself less through modeling abstract virtues—much less through spending “quality time” with the kids—than by a father passing on essential skills to his son, skills that would make that son not so much a “man” as a farmer.

With the decline of the agricultural way of life, fathers were driven from the home to the office and the factory. Fathers lost their traditional connection to their families, perhaps most especially to their sons. Among the middle class, a new family model arose that promised unity through emotional bonds—first “togetherness,” later “family values”—that were to provide psychological substitutes for these earlier social, legal, and economic bonds. This model gradually filtered down from the middle class to the working class. By the 1950s, most Americans accepted this family model as the norm and could only see other models of family life as deviations from this norm.

Mothers bore the burden of the emotional work required to keep this new model family together. Fathers struggled to find a place in an increasingly feminized home life. With a few notable exceptions, popular culture tended to present fathers as somewhat clueless. The title of the popular comic strip “Bringing Up Father” best captured this situation; though set in an uncomfortably upwardly mobile Irish American milieux, it had its equivalents in middle-class WASP comic strips such as “Blondie” and any number of other stories that circulated, and still circulate, in American popular culture. Comic exaggerations aside, fathers are in a sense objectively clueless, at least by traditional standards of fatherhood. With rare exceptions, they can no longer pass on occupational skills to their sons; with even fewer exceptions, they do not pass on land to future generations. Many look to sports to provide a father-son bond no longer possible in work and property.

Even defenders of the “traditional” family seem to sense the limits of the aspects of the 1950s model of fatherhood. Despite a persistent, even exaggerated, emphasis on manliness, those who seek to renew fatherhood often emphasize the need for men to develop their emotional side. I have seared into my memory television footage from the 1990s of a football stadium filled with big, manly men, all hugging each other and crying: it was a meeting of “The Promise Keepers,” an Evangelical men’s group founded by Bill McCartney, then head football coach at the University of Colorado, for the expressed purpose of inspiring Christian men to reclaim their manhood by embracing their responsibilities as husbands and fathers.

I have to say that much of the Catholic fatherhood material I have come across strikes me as very Evangelical in its tone. Despite, again, a superficial manliness, much of the emotional modeling in these movements seems simply to transfer the ideals of nineteenth century “nurture” from the mother to the father. I have no problem with men developing a richer emotional life, but the idea that more sensitive interpersonal relations will keep families together does not have a good historical track record. Given the broader social changes that continue to assault family stability, it is the equivalent of responding to a flood by teaching people to swim.

So, is the only solution to the crisis of family and fatherhood to go back to the pre-industrial home economy? In some sense, yes. The social encyclical tradition of the popes has rightly been understood as the Church’s effort to make some kind of peace with the modern, industrial economy. Though the encyclicals say much to address issues of justice within the industrial system, they also address the possibility of some alternative to it. In Rerum Novarum, for example, Leo writes of (male) workers earning enough to support their families in modest comfort and set aside some savings to eventually buy land and become economically self-sufficient; St. John XXIII expresses similar hopes for Third World peoples in his writings over a half century later. Popes have consistently affirmed small (productive) property ownership as a legitimate aspiration.

What this could mean in the post-industrial era is anybody’s guess. We must certainly avoid the trap of nostalgia, thinking we can turn back the clock and return to some earlier golden age; we must also avoid the trap of progressivism, which sees the past as simply a stepping stone to some brave new world of the future.

Perhaps most of all, we must avoid proposing purely spiritual solutions to social problems. We can all embrace the new concern for fatherhood and the effort to imagine a spirituality appropriate to fatherhood. In his classic Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis De Sales insisted that true devotion was not only for the vowed religious, but for all Christians, including the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. Still, if St. Francis considered the possibility that there might be a spirituality distinct to the vocation of baker, he did not propose this spirituality as a response to some crisis in the art of baking, as if to say: “Nobody knows how to make good bread anymore! We need bakers to develop a true spirituality of baking!” Though the analogy has its limits, the current debate over the “crisis of fatherhood” shows too much concern for spirituality and not enough for baking good bread.


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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 20 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World will be published in 2022 by Ignatius Press.

11 Comments

  1. Wages have not kept up to where one spouse, probably/historically the man, can make enough to support a growing family at home. The cost of land is very high as well.

    For decades, society has indirectly or directly pressured young people to become (successfully) “higher educated.” Having worked in office settings for over 40 years, women generally do better in that environment; quieter men who think more independently don’t fit in quite as well. Billions are wasted on higher education that neither open the mind nor provide for meaningful/gainful employment options. “Fruit of the vine, work of human hands,” definitely takes on a different meaning nowadays.

    Happy Father’s day though!

  2. An additional wrinkle in our notion of fatherhood is the effects of computers/internet and other communication “tools” such television, videos and cinema on families and fatherhood. What we have in effect is an atomization of the family such that the reality of “a family” no longer exists.

    Who hadn’t seen families having a meal “together” in public where one or more members are absorbed with their cell phone doing who knows what. Even viewing TV or a movie together “as a family” is hardly interactive since the viewing is necessarily individualized. In deference to the Holy Father, just being in someone’s presence doesn’t imply that there much interaction going on.

    So, if I were looking for an additional factor contributing to the death knell of fatherhood it would be laid at the doorstep of some of our modern progressive inventions that not only isolate man from others but ultimately isolate him from himself so that man is no longer a person but an extension of his devices.

    I wonder what would happen to family life and fatherhood in particular if there were a moratorium on cell phone usage and access to television and computers. Unfortunately, it’s not so much that Father is no longer present in the home (which he’s not) but that he has become an extension of his technology. I wonder how many have their fathers among their list of Facebook “friends.” Should it be a surprise that we need to instruct fathers in how to be emotionally connected when, after all, father is dominated by his machines?

  3. Dr. Shannon’s article is impressive and informative. As a priest in parish work for over 50 years, it is the best insight into our present day fatherhood I have come across. I would very much appreciate his insights into “Blue Bloods”. There we see three generations of Catholic fathers passing on their moral skills. In the absence of shared work to connect fathers and sons, could they both be involved in any of the corporal works of mercy?

  4. I agree with the main thrust of this article, but it is doubtful that the agricultural/”stay-at-home father” ideal is necessary.

    Actually “testing” this hypothesis according to exacting standards would be very difficult. There is no doubt that data shows that having the father in the household of his children makes a difference. If there is a “dose-dependent” relationship between the welfare of the family and the amount of time that the father is at home, then it would be difficult to test well.

    Even if the country/world attempted to de-industrialize farming to the extent that large farm families would be much more widespread in developed countries, it is doubtful (according to my suspicion) that this would require a massive population shift from cities to farms.

    “Though it focused on family in general rather than fatherhood in particular, CFM rejected the sex segregation of most of the Catholic Action groups, drawing men into a domestic sphere conventionally understood as a woman’s world.”

    I don’t agree with CFM. Keeping males and females apart (except with regards to spouses) is much more important than people realize. Any “co-ed” situations (including the dissemination of visual and auditory perceptions of females) are remote occasions of sin. TPTB know this and that is why females must be excluded from TV and radio as much as possible. While not it is not precisely wrong for MODESTLY DRESSED females to be in movies, TV, radio, etc. it is much better for them to be relegated to home and outside of the public eye.

    “Yet if families and fathers were so strong in the 1950s, why did everything seem to fall apart in the 1960s?”

    Two words which should be closely examined for their full significance come to mind here: Angelo Roncalli

    More specifically feminism was the result of an as of yet not fully understood plot. The farthest back – as a distinctly plotted movement – that I have been able to – circumstantially – trace it is the 1930s. However, the ideology itself has its roots at least in the 17th century, and possibly with the Protestant Revolution.

    The “evolution” of feminism is probably best traced by considering the crucial question of the attitude of a population (e.g. “laws”) towards wife-beating. My understanding is that the first state after the founding of the country to “criminalize” wife-beating was Tennessee – in 1850.

    “Chivalry” and romance is actually proto-feminist. Women ought not to be artificially elevated above men, because it is likely that men are inherently superior (i.e. authority) to women.

    “Given the broader social changes that continue to assault family stability, it is the equivalent of responding to a flood by teaching people to swim.”

    These “social changes” weren’t “natural.” As noted, feminism was the result of a plot. I have discovered evidence that directly points towards the perpetrators.

  5. My take: Social Security has taken away the need for children to support elderly parents (well, not entirely true, since current workers pay the Soc Sec payments of the current retired…but many don’t understand this).
    .
    Schools take the place of the mother to a large extent–they don’t need to be intensely involved with teaching the little ones, or feeding them, or in some cases even taken them to the doctor for check-ups. Just drop the children off at the early care program at the local school–breakfast provided! Pick them up at 5p when the after care program ends (lunch and maybe after school snacks provided). Enroll the kids in summer “lunch n play” program for good measure. Mother is now a taxi driver as well as office worker/laborer.
    .
    Welfare takes the place of the father–it has been noted that welfare programs tend to discourage marriage since the unmarried get more benefits.
    .
    Want fathers around? Get rid of gov’t welfare. Mothers must reclaim the task of educating the children–I would say until at least 8th grade. Children must reclaim the task of caring for their aging parents.

  6. Catholic leadership bears much responsibility for the decline of fatherhood by pandering to feminism. They diminished the importance of men and fathers by allowing and even encouraging the use of altar girls at mass. They reorganized schools to teach both boys and girls in the same school and the same classroom. Schools have become hot-houses of feminism, creating feminized males and blurring the distinction between the sexes.

  7. I’d be curious to learn whether Amish communities/families are experiencing the same crisis in fatherhood as the secular culture is.

  8. The idolisation of carnality – the plague that manifests in many ways , brought on esp. through the media since the 60s as mentioned in the article too .

    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2022/06/19/let-jesus-christ-feed-the-hungers-of-your-life-pope-francis-says-on-corpus-christi/

    Holy Father mentions above of need to satisfy hungers – a truth well known , yet to know that the Lord’s Way of feeding those hungers is by putting out disordered appetities, its envies ,fears, hatreds -seen anymore even in places where it ought to be the least .. the need to replace all such with the holiness , purity , innocense as Love in the Holy Spirit ..a Church wide need ..

    Ignorance of the rich interior Life in the Sacred Humanity of The Lord, manifesting as attitudes bordering on blasphemy , its hardness of carnal hearts , related efforts to promote same even blatantly, giving room for the bestial spirits that come to steal , kill and destroy . in turn having massive hidden effects , in fathers in all realms ..and in families .

    Thank God for the revelations of the Divine Will – as the much needed help for our times ; sharing same as family themes – ? one means to heal relationships..in seeking The Kingdome first ,to have all else added ..

    https://www.queenofthedivinewill.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Little-Catechism-of-the-Divine-Will-1.pdf
    One can hear the echoes of the truths of above in the Holy Mass too .. ? reason for the changes in the Liturgy around the Council, which may have been hasty but thankfully with revisions now .
    A bit more light on same -in the article below even though it does not refer to the Divine Will writings as one legitimate motive ; such an outlook to help remove Father relationship problems all through , since its repercussions too likley playing out ..

    https://wherepeteris.com/annibale-bugnini-liturgys-greatest-villain/

    Hopefully , The Church too is watching and discerning , with new efforts ;
    may our hearts too be open to same with gratitude and trust .

  9. Had missed out on the news about the World Meeting of Families – good to read the witnessing, offamilies who ‘bring Heaven to earth’. ‘Every time a father and mother welcome a life ,cherish it, every time they forgive each other and resume their joureny , they bring Heaven to earth . For at that moment it is the Holy Spirit who acts in them ‘
    https://www.romefamily2022.com/en/news/17062022/

    Same to see the extent of the reverse too , as narrated in the article below – how hearts can become evil, in its ways of seduction and stubbornness . Interesting obeservation too – that a thousand courses in catechesis , spirituality ,a thousand courses in yoga and zen ..will not give the freedom of the son..only the Holy Spirit ..

    https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/cotidie/2015/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20150109_hardened-hearts.html

    ? Warning words in the above on the wide spread practice of yoga and related themes promoted in Catholic places too, as a hidden root of issues we see around, esp. as the hardness of hearts , refusal to see the wrong in own hearts , detesting those who do not agree with own wrong ,carnal ways –

    https://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/christian-yoga-is-syncretism-2#more-76640

    ? Reason that the Holy Father is exercising much patience, in issues such as in The Church in Germany and points to same path for families too – to call on the Holy Spirit .

  10. I prefer to call it the “natural” family.
    I remember reading someone (Maggie Gallagher?) saying as soon as we/they called it the “traditional” family, the battle was lost.

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