The Vatican’s February summit addressing the sexual abuse of children was a mind blower for many seasoned Vatican observers. It was a rare, if not unprecedented, gathering of the heads of all the world’s bishops’ conferences.
It was a bold effort to address the horror of child abuse across cultures and to get on the same page in terms of what needs to be done. Particularly striking for me was that three of the frankest and most challenging talks were delivered by two lay women and one woman religious.
The full fury of a mother’s scorn for both abusers and the protectors of abusers was captured by Valentina Alazraki, a Mexican journalist who had covered the pontificates of five popes. She laid down a challenge unlike any I have heard in such a Vatican-sponsored forum.
“If you are against those who commit or cover up abuse, then we are on the same side,” she told the bishops. “But if you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.”
I only wish there had been a similar speech from a father who could articulate his sense of protectiveness for his children and righteous anger at anyone who would harm them, be they priest or bishop, teacher or relative. Where was the voice that represented me?
Of course, there were a few fathers present, Vatican lay officials who did not formally address the assembly. Cardinals and bishops spoke, moms and nuns, but no one specifically spoke to the gathering from the point of view of a father.
I believe it is critical that we hear the voices of fathers and husbands more clearly in the Church. Men are disengaging from religion, just as they seem to be increasingly AWOL from families.
Boys are growing up too often without male role models. In a recent book “The Boy Crisis,” authors Warren Farrell and John Gray chronicle the decline in educational proficiency and the increase in suicide risks among boys. Fatherless boys are more likely to drop out, to go to prison, to develop addictions.
The old feminist bumper sticker, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” may be funny, but not so much when it comes to families.
John Miller, author of “Biblical Faith and Fathering,” has an observation that would probably be judged politically incorrect in some circles. He addresses the historical reality that while motherhood is biological, fatherhood is more a product of socialization:
“Where a culture ceases to support, through its mores, symbols, models, laws and rituals, the sanctity of the sexual bond between a man and his wife and a father’s involvement with his own children, powerful natural forces will inevitably take over in favor of the mother-alone family; the fragility of the sexual bond (and the investment of fathers with children) will give way to the strength of the primary bond between a mother and child.”
Miller calls the father-involved family “a cultural artifact.” It is an artifact that is eroding in many sectors of society. Because of cohabitation and divorce, fathers are increasingly absent or transitory. This affects daughters as well as sons, and the long-term impact of an absent father cascades through society’s dysfunctions.
Of course, the trouble with this argument is that there are many women who are heroically raising families on their own, and such messages about the importance of dads is something they may have no control over.
The biological fathers are gone. Whatever shame there once was in abandoning one’s parental commitments seems to have vanished. Birth control and abortion make child rearing the choice of only the woman, in the minds of some men.
No-fault divorce makes it easy to walk away. We appear to be in a world that is filled with boy-men, able to procreate but unable or unwilling to assume the responsibilities that follow.
Combine this with the #MeToo movement’s shocking stories of predatory males — whether a Michael Jackson, a Theodore McCarrick, or a Harvey Weinstein — and men seem guilty until proven innocent. The result is that while women are smashing glass ceilings, too many men appear to be retreating to their bunkers.
The Church can’t fix every social problem on its own, but men have to be seen as more than potential ushers or deacons. In the past, fraternal societies like the Knights of Columbus and the St. Vincent de Paul Society have filled important roles in engaging men in the life and works of the Church.
Young fathers today have less to uplift and encourage them, but if ever the Church was to invest in its future, this is where to start.
Greg Erlandson is the president and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.
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