Some months ago, Pope Francis gave his Wednesday catechesis on fatherhood (Jan. 28, 2015). He spoke about the nature of fatherhood: “Father is a universal word, known to all. It indicates a fundamental relationship that is real and ancient as the history of mankind. Today, however, we have reached the point of affirming that ours is a ‘society without fathers.’ In other words, in particular in western culture, the figure of the father is symbolically absent, [it seems] to have vanished.”

Perhaps this would be a good time to revisit the defining fatherly relationships in the Church community because much of what clergy do is in fact only accurately described in such terms.

This is not an idle search given that the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar noted that “because of her unique structure, the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity’s last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes” (New Elucidations, 1986, p. 195). With that in mind, one can turn to the theology of Vatican II.

‘Father’ Has a Wide Application

In the teaching of Vatican II, “father” has a wide application. Besides the teaching on God as Father (Lumen Gentium, Nos. 2, 3, 4), for example, the council said, “In exercising their office of father and pastor, bishops should stand in the midst of their people as those who serve”(Christus Dominus, No. 16). The Council Fathers — there it is again — went on to say, “Let them be good shepherds who know their sheep and whose sheep know them. Let them be true fathers who excel in the spirit of love and solicitude for all and to whose divinely conferred authority all gratefully submit themselves. Let them so gather and mold the whole family of their flock that everyone, conscious of his own duties, may live and work in the communion of love”(CD, No. 16).

Keep the features of “solicitude” and “molding” and “communion of love” in mind while returning to Pope Francis’s address, specifically to where he said, “The problem of our times no longer seems to be the invasive presence of fathers, but rather their absence.… Fathers are so focused on themselves, on their work and at times their personal fulfillment, that they even forget their families, leaving children and the young to their own devices.”

According to Francis, world culture, particularly in the West, has moved from the extreme of interventionist fatherhood to the other extreme of absent fatherhood. One might ask — have clergy generally been following the culture and avoiding the active intervention expected of them?

Blood Fatherhood — Clergy and Laity

Blood fatherhood grounds the metaphor for the relationship between clergy and laity. Referring then to Francis’s words on children — simply seeing them as the other end of the fatherly relationship and not as somehow inferior:

They are orphans in their families because their fathers are often absent, also physically, from the home, but above all because when they are present, they do not act like fathers; they do not speak with their children, they do not give their children, by their example accompanied by words, those principles, those values, those rules for life that the young need in the same way as they need bread.…At times it seems as if fathers are not sure what position they should occupy in the family, or how to educate their children. And so, in doubt, they abstain, they withdraw and neglect their responsibilities, possibly seeking refuge in an improbable relationship of parity with their children.” Transpose these into the sociology of clergy-lay relations and one might be struck by the parallels to the fatherly obligations of the clergyman.

The phrase “they do not speak with their children,” is particularly strong. Do clergy speak with their people about something more relevant than the football scores? Vatican II, once again, was clear: Clergy “are defenders of the common good, with which they are charged in the name of the bishop. At the same time, they are strenuous asserters of the truth, lest the faithful be carried about by every wind of doctrine. They are united by a special solicitude with those who have fallen away from the use of the sacraments, or perhaps even from the faith. Indeed, as good shepherds, they should not cease from going out to them” (my emphasis) (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 9). In the U.S., over 26 million Catholics have left the Church. Have they been pursued? How has the pastoral solicitude for them been shown?

Fathers as Good Examples

There was a lot in Pope Francis’s address on fathers being examples of good life for their children and, of course, Vatican II did teach about clergy as examples. Most notably, examples have to be seen to be believed. So clergy “. . . should act toward men, not as seeking to please them, but in accord with the demands of Christian doctrine and life” (PO, No. 6). Western cultures, particularly Enlightenment cultures, structure themselves in ways that make religion less obvious because of the Enlightenment’s low opinion of religious values and concepts, things that they considered to be superstitious and wrong. But do clerics, even unwittingly, comply with that expectation of unobtrusiveness?

Then, finally, Francis said, “The young are therefore orphaned of sure paths to follow, orphaned of teachers in whom they can trust, orphaned of ideals to warm their hearts, orphaned of values and hopes that support them day by day.” Have the clergy left the people of God bereft by not taking the paternal role of the priest or bishop for the profound responsibility that it is?

FATHER BRAMWELL, O.M.I., is a former Dean at Catholic Distance University and still teaches graduate theology online. His latest book is Catholics Read Scripture: A Commentary on Pope Benedict XVI’s Exhortation on the Word of God.