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By Kevin Aldrich
"We are now entering a brave new world, where marriage is easily dissolved before it becomes tyrannical, where parenthood is the product of choice not mere biology, where reproductive technologies allow us to have the children of our own making, and where fathers have finally earned the hard-won freedom to follow their dreams and leave their children behind."
So concludes Andrew J. Peach, associate professor of philosophy at Providence College in Rhode Island, in On the Demise of Fatherhood in the June issue of First Things.
Peach delves into why men are abdicating fatherhood.
Peach sees the root cause in what economist Thomas Sowell dubs "the unconstrained vision" of man. "Liberated from the constraints of custom and, increasingly, nature herself," Peach explains, it is naively believed that "the true powers of reason can be harnessed and applied to the unique circumstances of [each] unique individual's unique situation" for optimum happiness.
This utopian vision is manifested in two ways today. Voluntarism claims that "no person has any special duties to any other person unless he has explicitly or implicitly consented to them." Functionalism asserts that if we fulfill a particular role, we are that thing. Fatherhood is no longer tied to biology; therefore, anyone who fulfills the traditional functions of fatherhood can be a father.
These two ideas are important because they form part of our culture's dismantling of traditional fatherhood. If I tell my girlfriend I don't want a kid but she gets pregnant, then voluntarism lets me claim I can't be made to be the father. If Sally and Sarah adopt this kid and change his diapers and take him to soccer, functionalism lets them claim they are fathering the child because they are playing that role.
Those who have benefitted from the marriage advocate training that Catholics for the Common Good Institute provides will recognize in voluntarism and functionalism two manifestations of secular individualism, an ideology diametrically opposed to Christian personalism.
Christian personalism sees each of us as persons created in the image of God and possessing intrinsic dignity and inherent rights, which the state does not create but must recognize. Secular individualism, on the other hand, sees our value as dependant on factors such as quality of life, usefulness to society, and economic or other status, with "rights" which can be created or taken away by the state.
Christian personalism sees each of us in relationship with others and interdependent, with self-giving love as the "glue" which holds society together. Meaning in life derives from love and self-sacrifice. Secular individualism, on the contrary, sees us as autonomous pursuers of our own good who owe tolerance to others so they can also seek their particular happiness.
Christian personalism sees marriage as the foundation of the family, an institution which unites a man and a woman and the children that spring from their sexual relationship. These children are gifts from God and are equal to their parents in dignity and value. Secular individualism, however, sees the self-determinate individual as the basic unit of society, with the child as an object of a parent's own fulfillment.
Rejection of Tradition Based on Reality
Marriage, the union of one man and one woman, forms one human unit for the continuation of the human race. Marriage is a fact of nature that predates religion and originated society, not the other way around. Marriage, motherhood, fatherhood, and the family have been supported over time through tradition and laws based on this reality.
Peach shows that for most fathers, though, the demise of fatherhood has its origin in the imprudent rejection of tradition. Peach explains that
the wisdom embodied in fatherhood is "systemic knowledge," knowledge acquired from the accumulated experience of previous generations. The rituals, customs, and rules of conduct that have been bequeathed to us by our predecessors are not principally products of reason; rather, they are embodiments of the successful adaptations that humans have made to their surroundings in the past. Not being the express product of a given individual, these adaptations are rarely understood in full by any given individual.
In other words, Peach seems to be saying, collective human experience has figured out the way to successful fatherhood. What he describes as successful adaptations are really people's conformance to the reality of marriage and human nature. They are further confirmed by revealed truth about God's plan for creation and the continuation of the human race.
Fatherhood is Difficult
Fatherhood is difficult - the most difficult thing a man can do. As Peach says, it requires faith, but faith in it is lost unless it is supported by tradition. For example, the prohibition against divorce not only impedes a man from the evil of walking away from his wife and children, it makes it possible for him to experience the good that fatherhood brings to him, his family and society.
As Peach explains, no man knows what he is getting into when he says, "I do." He doesn't know that being a father will require him to sacrifice practically all the pleasures and freedoms he has enjoyed. But he also doesn't know that if he sticks with fatherhood, he will be transformed into a better man and do more important work than was possible before. Fatherhood is a good, but it is difficult good, a good which is only achieved by effort and sacrifice.
The shadow side is that if fatherhood is rejected-something easy as pie today-the result for the liberated male is not happiness, but as Wendell Berry observes, an "escape only into loneliness and meaninglessness." And for the children, the outcome is misery.
The use of "autonomous reason" by many men in pursuit of their own happiness often leads to disaster. In a society dominated by the influences of secular individualism, many men who do not understand that their happiness is tied to love, relationships and interdependence, end up pursuing illusions-as one of my friends puts it-counterfeit heavens. As Peach points out, in the case of fatherhood, men, their children, and society are paying the price.
Fatherhood is just one of the victims of efforts to redefine marriage, family and human sexuality through laws, school curricula, and pop culture.
It is critical to the happiness of our children, the continuation of our families, and the future of society to work to rebuild a culture that encourages men and women to marry and that supports them in their marriage and in the challenges of motherhood and fatherhood.
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Our readers might find the following talking points useful in communicating ideas from this article to others:
- We are made for love relationship and interdependence-only through gift of self do we find meaning in life.
- The moment you get pregnant you are a mother. The moment you get someone pregnant you are a father. You exercised your volition when you chose to have sex.
- Because of abortion, women look at motherhood as a "choice". Now men have come to look at fatherhood as a "choice". Over 34% of children are currently living away from their biological fathers.
- Simply carrying out the functions of a father does not make one a father.
- More support and encouragement are needed for men to accept fatherhood. Being a father is hard, maybe the hardest thing a man will ever do, but it is also the most rewarding thing for him and something immensely good for his wife, his children, and the present and future well being of civilization.
Kevin Aldrich is a Fellow with Catholics for the Common Good Institute and a free-lance writer living in Southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.