A recent caller to my radio program said that she and her husband weren’t on the same spiritual level. He didn’t go to mass or pray with her. He zoned out when she talked about the faith. As a result, her children were starting to buck her efforts to form them in the faith. The problem, as she saw it, was that “he’s a convert so it just isn’t reasonable for me to expect him to be in the same place that I am.” Thinking that he might be a recent convert, I was hopeful that there might be some positive momentum to build on. I asked her when her husband came into the church.
“Twenty-five years ago” was her surprising answer.
My initial reaction was to think this was an extreme case, but I wonder if it isn’t indicative of the reality in the church. Catholics simply don’t expect husbands and fathers to do more than warm pews, and we think we’re lucky if we can get that. In almost two decades of marriage ministry, I have spoken to Catholics around the world and I cannot count the number of times I have heard wives complain, on the one hand, that they do not have a husband who can share their spiritual life or help raise their kids in the faith but, on the other hand, simultaneously dismiss their own concern by saying in the next breath, “but I can’t expect him to be in the same place I am.”
Why in heaven’s name not? We expect men to do all kinds of hard things; be faithful, provide for their families, be there for their kids, not abuse their wife or children, not drink to excess, be, generally speaking, decent people. Do all men do these things? Of course not, but when they don’t, we insist that there is a serious problems to be dealt with and we offer help and guidance to those who struggle with those problems. Sadly, for the most part, when Catholics hear that that a father doesn’t know how to take point, spiritually, at home, we collectively shrug. “That’s just the way men are.”
True, Catholic men’s ministries are trying to address this problem, but in all but a few instances these ministries are struggling for survival. Why? In my experience it is largely because Catholics don’t really expect men to be intentional disciples. Furthermore, with so many crises in the world, it’s hard to find the energy to prioritize what seems like a middle-class problem. We just don’t appreciate the true social cost of spiritually absent fathers.
But it is a huge problem for both our Church and society as a whole. One major study found that children raised in households where fathers are not active in the faith have about a 3% chance of being faithful as adults. Concerned with social justice? Another major study found that the biggest difference between those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust versus those who collaborated in the persecution or simply stood silently by was not their levels of church involvement or educational attainment, political affiliation, or socioeconomic status. The biggest difference was that rescuers were raised in homes where fathers took the lead in forming their children’s character.
Why are fathers so important? For the first several months of life, babies do not know that they and their mothers are different people. They grew inside their mothers and, once they are born, they continue to believe that they and their mother are one being. Father, in a very real way, is experienced by baby as “the first other.” Biologically and developmentally speaking, father is “the world” to the child. If the role of mother is teaching baby how to think about the more private realms of life and home, it is the role of father to represent how “the world” works . If mom is prayerful, the child might see prayer as important, but, primarily, a private matter. If dad is prayerful, the child is socialized to believe that prayer and faith are public, pro-social activities that are meant to positively impact the world.
The ability of fathers to be spiritually engaged in their families is not merely a quality of life issue. It is a foundational crisis that is at the root of a host of serious social problems. Church leaders must insist that Catholic men step into the spiritual vacuum in the home. Catholic women must demand that their husbands open their hearts to becoming spiritual leaders. Catholic men must challenge themselves to cultivate spiritual leadership skills like they learn anything else. The future of our Church and our society depend on it.