Transforming the Culture of Fatherlessness

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico
President, Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty

Presented at:
Congress on the Paternity of God and Paternity in Family
Pontificium Consilium Pro Familia
Vatican, June 3-5, 1999

According to an international colloquium co-sponsored last month by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the family today is the “center of a colossal attack,” and a realm where action is most urgently needed. This attack proceeds on many fronts, from local restrictions on parental choice in education to international, government-sponsored anti-naturalist movements. Increasingly apparent of late is how absence of fathers from families, combined with changed attitudes about fatherhood, have contributed to the cultural atmosphere in which the attack is advanced. What Pope John Paul II wrote nearly twenty years ago in Familiaris Consortio has become ever more timely: “efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance” (25).

The contrary notion, that the father is replaceable, gained currency among the elite of the West in recent decades. David Blankenhorn showed in his influential book Fatherless America how we no longer have a “cultural script” for fatherhood. Imperiled is the idea of the father as a necessary male parent who gives of self for others in distinctive ways. We have moved toward a new view of men and women as interchangeable wage-earners and caregivers, chiefly interested not in children’s welfare but in their own “self-fulfillment.” The practical result of this new view has not been that men and women have been rendered co-equal parents, but rather that men as fathers have been rendered superfluous.

When a society loses its cultural script for fathers it marginalizes them and, in doing so, undermines its ability to socialize men. Nature teaches and history confirms that unsocialized men easily turn unsocial, even antisocial. Responsible fatherhood is, to paraphrase Lord Acton, a delicate fruit of civilization. A delicate fruit must be handled with care lest it spoil. We must realize that responsible fatherhood is in danger of being displaced, to the detriment of family and society now and into the future. The iniquities of our current “crisis of fatherhood” truly threaten to be visited upon the third and fourth generation (cf. Deut. 5:9).

When the new view of parenthood that renders fathers superfluous takes root alongside the modern welfare state, present and future perils are exacerbated. Effects of this amalgam on the family and especially on children have been nothing short of disastrous. This brief presentation identifies some of these effects, and suggests how the Church may itself lead in cultural movements currently underway to restore, in the words of the Holy Father, “the place and task of the father in and for the family.”

I. Fatherlessness and the Well-Being of Children

In a culture which conveys messages to men that they are not needed in distinctive roles of father and husband, many men leave their families or refuse to form families when they beget children. Gone are most vestiges of traditional stigmas once associated with divorce and out-of-wedlock births. We have forfeited much of the traditional wisdom relating child welfare to intact two-parent families.

Fortunately, that traditional wisdom is now being supported by impressive social-scientific research. In the U.S., statistics that reveal the declining well-being of children chiefly point to two related causal factors: (1) the dramatic increase in the proportion of children growing up in fatherless households, and (2) the rise of the modern welfare state.

The number of children in the U.S. living without fathers rose from nine million in 1960 to 24 million today. Some estimate that as many as 60 percent of U.S. children currently live without their biological father. This fatherlessness has devastating consequences for children. Nearly 75 percent of children in single-parent households will suffer poverty before age 11, compared with 20 percent of children from intact families. The percentage of U.S. children growing up in poor families is higher today than when President Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in 1966. Data show compellingly how children who grow up without fathers are more likely to fail in school or drop out, develop behavioral or emotional problems requiring treatment, abuse drugs and alcohol, and become sexually active. Further, the absence of fathers has been shown greatly to increase violence perpetrated by the young, including rape, murder, and suicide. As U.S. criminologist John J. DiIulio observed recently in response to shocking high-school murders in the state of Colorado, “Character abhors a vacuum. Children of all demographic descriptions are raising themselves in America today, and these children will be a bit less darling and a bit more dangerous so long as they [do not] have...decent on-the-job parents....” Fatherless children are also more frequently the victims of child abuse and neglect.

There are many reasons for an increase in fatherlessness in the U.S. and the West. The revolutions in sexual mores in the 1960s, coupled with extreme forms of feminism, tended toward the separation of childbearing from marriage. A salutary concern about violence in the home or “domestic violence” has had a tendency to popularize a notion of husbands and fathers as potentially dangerous and therefore suspect. The entertainment industry has gone from portraying fathers overwhelmingly as wise heads of households to showing them as buffoons or non-entities. Yet the influence of these factors on fatherlessness pales compared with the influence of the welfare state.

II. Welfare and Disincentives to Fatherhood

John Paul II warned in Centesimus Annus about problems associated with the welfare state, also termed the social assistance state: “the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending” (48). In the U.S. alone, spending on means-tested welfare programs in the past thirty years has exceeded 5.4 trillion dollars. In a large and vibrant economy, such expenditures might be warranted if they succeeded in eliminating poverty. The problem is, as the pope so keenly appreciates, public welfare programs are typified by ways of thinking that instead deepen and entrench material poverty. Moreover, these “bureaucratic ways of thinking” cannot address profounder needs of human persons, often adding moral and spiritual deprivations to the poverty suffered. In the U.S., welfare programs have fostered the development of an “underclass” characterized by multi-generational poverty and social dysfunction. This phenomenon in the U.S. is multiracial and both urban and rural.

Among communities dominated by the welfare system, fatherlessness is rampant. Today, fully 90 percent of U.S. families receiving cash welfare from government are without a father in the home.

The very sociology of public welfare entails disincentives to intact families. Welfare programs address primarily or exclusively the material needs of people, most often of women and their children. When women and children are provided for by the state, a traditional and natural role for a father is usurped, undermining a man’s sense of place in the family. Women, too, may judge the state to be a more reliable supporter than a husband, and opt out of marriage altogether. Both of these possibilities are indeed actualized under a regime of public welfare. In addition, welfare policies undermine two-parent families and encourage out-of-wedlock births in a host of other ways. To take but two examples: per-child benefit adjustments alter the mix of variables affecting an unmarried woman’s decision to conceive additional children, and low-income men are given incentives to leave their families when benefits packages favor single-parent households.

III. Marriage: An Age-Old Answer to New Questions

Everyone expects a Catholic priest to conclude that married, two-parent families are better for children and usually better for parents. It is most heartening that cutting-edge research now concludes the same. Indeed there are even signs that cultural elites in the U.S. are recognizing it too. A few years ago former U.S. vice president Dan Quayle shocked elite cultural sensitivities by suggesting that it was wrong for a popular television character to become a single mother on her TV show. The following year, a prominent journal of elite culture featured a cover story entitled, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”

Fatherlessness, whether brought on by failure to marry or by divorce, is socially, spiritually, and economically damaging among all socioeconomic groups. We now know from studies that unmarried men earn less money than do their married counterparts. This makes sense intuitively as well: marriage both reflects and fosters responsibility, devotion, hard work, and other attributes attractive to employers. Such attributes, passed on from fathers to children, also nurture success in school and in social relationships, and strengthen children’s future career prospects. Research confirms that what is needed to achieve these desired social effects is married men who live with their children permanently.

The above observations warrant additional consideration. The institutions of marriage and family promote responsibility among men, who in turn instill values of responsibility in their children. The institutions of marriage and family are then schools of virtue, the most basic of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of civil society. Fathers are essential to these platoons, and not simply to provide bread for the table. Fathers are key to transmitting values and skills to the next generation, especially to the next generation of men who will themselves be fathers. These skills and values, necessary for perpetuating civilization, are connected also with economic productivity and abundance. The role of the father reveals in a special way how, as John Paul II has written, “besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself” (Centesimus Annus, 32). Resources must be stewarded, and in the case of human resources, they must be developed as well. First and foremost, this development takes place in the family.

To emphasize: if we want to see more children growing up free from poverty, free from social pathology, free from violence, and free to participate in and contribute to the common good, we must see an increase in the number of children growing up with married fathers.

Conclusion

The problems are now more broadly recognized, and this recognition has created an atmosphere in which positive changes can be made. It is incumbent upon countries of the West experiencing crises of fatherhood to rethink their attachment to the welfare state. Concretely, countries must reform existing programs not only to eliminate disincentives to intact families, but also positively to promote intact families. Although imperative, this will not be easy; as the pope himself has observed, public welfare by its nature inhibits genuine concern for its clients.

Yet more important than the political realm in promoting intact families is the cultural realm. In the U.S. today an ecumenical Christian movement involving many Catholics fills sports stadiums with men who pledge to devote their lives more fully to God and family. In cities, community-based organizations under the auspices of churches teach fathering skills to yet-unmarried fathers. Conferences on fatherhood that a few years ago attracted handfuls of participants now draw hundreds, including lawmakers and religious leaders. There are many other encouraging signs.

The Catholic Church is in a unique position to proclaim the fullness of fatherhood by proclaiming the fullness of the Gospel. In outlining “The Year of the Father” for 1999, the Holy Father inTertio Millenio Adveniente reminds us that “the whole of the Christian life is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father” (49). Through the Church, we encounter God the Father through His Son our Lord. We encounter the Father because we encounter the Son Who does the will of the Father and leads us to Him. Human fatherhood is exalted and sanctified by reflecting, as if in a glass darkly, that fundamental relation of divine Father and divine Son.

The people of God in every generation also look to the Church for reflections of divine Fatherhood. The throngs of young people who converge on World Youth Day festivities testify to a hunger among this current generation for a better way of life and love than they have seen in the secular culture and, too often, in their own families. Their love of the Holy Father is surely love of one who is holy, but also unabashed affection for one who is “father.”

The Catholic Church is in a unique position as well to illustrate the connections between responsible fatherhood and the development of “man’s principle resource” which is “man himself.” Contrary to the beliefs of anti-natalists promoted at the 1994 United Nations conference in Cairo, human beings raised with proper skills and values add to the world’s wealth rather than take from it. Abiding, fruitful marriages enrich the world in many ways, not least, as becomes ever clearer, in adding to the blessings of abundance for all.

Pope Pius XII wrote, “if the mother is the heart, the father is the head of the family, and consequently its health and efficiency depend on the vigor, the virtues and activity of the father.” The Church is the great keeper of this profound truth. Even though, and perhaps because, a nadir of carelessness about fatherhood has been reached in the West today, this profound truth is becoming all the more apparent.

Let us pray and work diligently that fatherhood may be advanced again in our societies. Let us pray and work diligently that the hearts of the fathers may be turned again to their children, lest the land be smitten with a curse (cf. Mal. 4:5).