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Men, Women, and the Prodigal Father

by Donna Steichen


Donna Steichen's address to the 1999 Women for Faith & Family Conference held at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln Nebraska, October 29-31, 1999.

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Publisher & Date

Women for Faith & Family, Winter 2000 Vol. XV: No 1

I'll begin with a little contemporary tale about fatherhood. Hank was a lumberjack, and a widower. He raised his only child, Kevin, alone, and even managed to finance his college education the only way he knew how, cutting down trees with an axe.

Kevin helped his father cut down some of those trees, so he knew how hard his father had to work to put him through college. When he left for college, Kevin promised himself that the first thing he would do once he graduated would be to buy his father a gift that would make the old man's life easier.

True to his word, when Kevin started his first job, he scrimped and saved until he had enough money to buy the finest chain saw in the world. He took it home in August, and as he presented it to his father, he said proudly, "From now on you'll be able to fell three times as many trees and only work half as hard!"

Choking with pride, Hank said, "I've got the best son in the world!" Early next morning Kevin left for the city, and he wasn't able to return until Thanksgiving, three months later. He was shocked to see that his dad looked terrible: run down, thin and pale, short of breath, too exhausted even to jump up and hug his son.

"Dad! What's the matter?" Kevin asked. "Are you feeling all right?"

"Getting old, I guess," Hank sighed. "Cutting trees is getting harder and harder. Even with this here new chain saw, I'm working longer hours than ever, but I'm still not cutting as many trees as I used to."

"Gosh, Dad, that's awful!" Kevin knew that something must be seriously wrong. Either his father was desperately ill, or the saw he had given him wasn't as good as advertised. Maybe it was actually defective. To check it out, Kevin examined the oiler first, and found that it was full. Then he checked the gas, and that was full, too. So he yanked on the starter cord, and immediately the motor roared to life. His father leaped to his feet, grabbed him by the shirt and hollered, "What's that noise ??!!!"

This is an amusing story in the irreverent style of our times. We might call it the Dagwood style: the father is lovable but inept, well-meaning but not very bright. Wife, kids, everyone is smarter than he is, certainly his worldly-wise son. The perspective is typically adolescent, in just the way Mark Twain so famously illustrated: When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in just seven years.

Demeaning as it is, the Dagwood image actually represents the sunnier, more affectionate side of the coin of paternal reputation these days. The disrepute in which fatherhood in general is held is probably unequaled since, oh, the Amazons. Did any previous society ever hear so many charges of unrelieved paternal dereliction, ranging from hideous brutality through callous neglect to mere human imperfection?

In one study recently published by the American Psychological Association, called "Deconstructing the Essential Father," Louise Silverstein and Carl Auerbach propose that fathers are unnecessary for healthy child development and could even be detrimental. Their study purports to show that fathers make no "unique" or "essential" contribution to child development. Indeed, fathers living in the home might actually strain the family budget by spending money on themselves. Children do need some "responsible, caretaking" adult in their lives, the authors concede, but there is no reason why it need be their father.

Silverstein and Auerbach are scholars of highly impeachable objectivity; they frankly admit that their purpose in writing is to deny the validity of what they call the "neo-conservative defense of fatherhood," in hope of influencing public policy to "support the legitimacy of diverse family structures" (such as single mothers, unmarried parents, or homosexual parents).

In reality, evidence supporting the importance of fathers is overwhelming, according to Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative, and former United States Commissioner for Children, Youth and Families. "If the authors can't find any empirical support for the value of fathers, it's because they aren't looking," he said.

Chuck Colson, of Prison Fellowship Ministries says, "Through my prison ministry, I see firsthand the terrible price we pay for America's fatherless homes."

Colson reports, for example, that boys who grow up without their fathers are at least twice as likely to end up in prison as boys with fathers in their homes. Sixty percent of rapists and 72% of adolescent murderers never knew or lived with their fathers. Adolescents raised without fathers are more apt to commit crimes, to abuse drugs, to conceive illegitimate children, live in poverty, drop out of school, and commit suicide.

The most eminent psychological and spiritual authorities on male homosexuality - such men as Fr. John Harvey, director of Courage, Dr. Charles Socarides and Dr. Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH, (the National Associa-tion for Research and Therapy of Homosexual-ity), and author Dr. Jeffrey Satinover all identify dysfunctional family dynamics, especially in the father-son relationship, as the commonest root cause of homosexuality.

These dreadful statistics conceal no explanatory differences in class, race, or sex, either: white girls raised in affluence but without a father in the home are five times more likely than their peers to become sexually active, and pregnant out of wedlock, in their teens.

Growing up fatherless is a tragedy for children, and the tragedy is especially damaging if it occurs because the family was broken, or never formed. Children who lose their fathers through death know that he did not choose to leave them. Deserted children fear that their fathers do not value them at all.

"Good old God"

Yet it is not only delinquent fathers who are regarded with general scorn in our society. Even when no paternal pathology can be cited, even where fathers behave admirably, fatherhood has lost its gravitas. Even the Fatherhood of God.

His sacred name is casually, thoughtlessly taken in vain everywhere from the television screen to the school playground. Most media references imply not a figure commanding reverential awe but a large, distant Dagwood image. A Father? Well, yes, why not? But an unjudging, indulgent, doting Father, eager to please, grateful for any crumb of attention.

That is what many people seem to mean when they say, blithely, that His love for us is "unconditional" as though we need not worry about maintaining our relationship with Him, because He won't hold our sins against us, He'll understand and overlook them. All the responsibility is His. You can see this presumption reflected at funerals (including Catholic funerals) where all the mourning is for the bereaved; no one anymore mourns for the deceased or seems to consider it possible that he may not yet be in Heaven. The Dies Irae, expressing dread of judgment and pity for the soul in Purgatory, has been replaced with the cheery confidence of instant canonization. No matter how he lived his life, good ole Bill, we gather, has nothing to fear from Good Old God.

The justly admired Dr. Herbert Ratner (who died in 1997) liked to say that life is hard because we have to live it forward but we can only understand it backward. Looking back, it is easy to see that the fatherhood crisis is part of a broader collapse of the family, in a society cut loose from its moral moorings. The elements of crisis also include decades of soaring divorce and illegitimacy rates, a pattern of mothers in the workforce, and no one at home to raise the children.

Many of today's young adults elect to express their inner child and follow their bliss, instead of growing up and assuming the traditional sexual roles on which a healthy society depends. (Given man's fallen nature, many of yesterday's young adults might have wanted the same things, had the possibility existed, but economic need, social expectations and religious morality usually precluded it. Prosperity in combination with the sexual revolution has made prolonged and promiscuous adolescence possible.)

The sexual revolution

Oddly enough, the bliss being pursued in some circles is more apt to be a career than tennis, tea dancing, or running away to Tahiti. In mid-October, the New York Times Sunday magazine reported on life among the city's young adults in their twenties and early thirties. The article described men and women uninterested in marriage or parenthood, for the present and possibly forever. After having lived together for five or more years, some couples have given up on sex altogether and now live like brother and sister. Incomprehensibly, these young people seem to have repudiated traditional moral rules only to choose cold, utilitarian sterility over the warm and messy freedom of family life. In the lowest pit of Dante's Hell, one recalls, Satan is locked in ice.

In other social strata including, in California, among many of the legal and illegal immigrants often falsely accused of coming to the US just to enjoy welfare benefits interest in sex remains high, but it is often expressed in workplace romances, involving changes of partner, either informally or by serial divorce and remarriage, seldom with an intention to have children. Throughout the reshuffling of sexual pairs in these household clusters, careers remain the stabilizing center of life; continuing education to qualify the adults for better jobs absorbs far more "quality time" than the supervision and education of any children already present.

Cultural conditioning

These scenes are eerily reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in that the slavery of the populace is not enforced by police in jackboots, but is the voluntarily accepted result of cultural conditioning. Some of today's conditioning is done by the example of preoccupied and negligent parents, much by toxic movie images, television, and print media, more by schools that inculcate politically correct expectations: that sexual gratification is a minimum requirement for a life worth living, that all women are to be in the labor force, that working and spending and sex are what life is for.

With parents too distracted by employment pressures even to keep track of where they are, some troubled teenagers float away into the drug subculture, even onto the streets, eventually into prisons. Sadly gone from these cultural regions is the family integrity humorist Sam Levenson used to talk about, when "Papa made the living and Mama made it worth living." Francis Cardinal Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, has been saying lately that the most acutely difficult cultural task for the new millennium will be to restore the family by socializing boys to be good husbands and fathers. That's most easily and effectively done in a healthy family supported by a strong, orderly, self-confident, doctrinally assertive Church.

We Women for Faith and Family know that fathers who abuse or abandon children are the minority among religiously active, married men. I know young men who want to marry and become fathers, but find that the young women they pursue and sometimes catch are only interested in transient liaisons, not in marriage and motherhood. And while there is much to deplore in society today, the young fathers I know best and see most are wonderfully involved in caring for their children and rebuilding a Catholic culture, at least within their own homes.

Most fathers are good men, who love their wives and children, and devote their lives to self-sacrificial service to provide for them, often by tedious work that is significant chiefly in that it supports their families. Their achievement is reflected in the infinitive, "to husband," meaning "to care for, to preserve, to maintain." Yet even the stable, two-parent family, centered on the nurture and education of children especially the faith-rooted homeschooling family that I believe to be the best hope for the restoration of the Church and the nation is viewed with bureaucratic suspicion for its "closed," "outdated," "repressive," "possibly abusive" " rigidity." Sometimes even by agents of the Catholic bureaucracy.

Feminism and fatherhood

The restoration of respect for fatherhood can only be achieved by the family and the Church working in cooperation and not all the obstacles to that condition arise in the family. Part of the difficulty lies in the failure of many Church authorities to provide the strong, orderly, self-confident, doctrinally assertive support they need.

So, again: how did we come to this point? Obsession is the conviction that everything points to one thing as the cause of all the world's problems, or the solution to all its problems. A perfect example is the obsessed feminist (that is, any feminist) who blames everything bad on patriarchy. I don't want to be obsessive about this myself, but I have to say that feminism is a major part of the reason we are where we are.

In its drive to elevate the status of women in the secular culture, feminism has stripped all virtue from any exclusively male activity. And while women may become firemen or fighter pilots or prison guards, there is really no way that they can become fathers. Hence fatherhood has been consigned to the museum the ash heap? of oppressive patriarchy.

Normal, trusting Catholics often find it hard to believe, but there are in the feminist camp employees of the Church teachers, theologians, liturgists, editors, administrators, DREs who see even the Fatherhood of God as an affront, because they blame all the world's evils on "a repressive patriarchy." They do not brood in silence. For more than 30 years they have been active insurrectionists within Catholic institutions and dioceses, where many hold prominent positions.

The most stunningly arrogant feminist campaign is an increasingly overt effort to replace God the Father with God the Mother. Because this enterprise is still under construction, Goddess "theology" is still fluid. Sometimes She is identified as a feminine Holy Spirit, sometime as the fullness of Divinity, spelled GODDE. Feminist leaders including Rosemary Radford Reuther and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza tried for years to invent a God/ess they could sell to the faithful.

In her 1992 book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, makes the fullest argument for a female image of God. Recapitulating what she calls the theological "trajectory" of her feminist predecessors, but using a less abrasive voice, she begins from the premise that God, as pure spirit, has no gender. Reduced to its simplest terms, her claim is that to know one's deepest self is to know God; therefore revelation is the interpretation of one's own experience. Thus, calling God by masculine titles is an arbitrary choice, which has led people to think of Him as literally male, a situation Johnson denounces as inherently unfair.

The patriarchs had their turn at the wheel, she says, and they used it to justify oppression of women. So now, in reparation, "classical Christian theology" must be passed "through the fire of critical feminist principles." Feminists (the only women deserving a voice) must mandate, at least for now, exclusively female names for God, like "Sophia/Wisdom" and "She Who Is." To avoid a risk that Sophia might be seen as an inferior feminine aspect of God, Johnson re-interprets the Blessed Trinity to make Sophia into all three Persons, whom she calls "Abyss, Word and Spirit."

Johnson's suggestion swept through feminist ranks like a prairie fire through dry straw, and now updated religious materials are sprouting references to Sophia/Wisdom, Sophia Christ, Sophia-God, Spirit-Sophia, and Holy Wisdom as a "Biblical" female divinity.

Where did this Sophia figure come from? Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom. In both Greek and Hebrew, words are assigned gender, and in both, abstract nouns are feminine. Foolishness, for example.

Thus Wisdom (Sophia) is a grammatically feminine noun, personified as "she" in the Old Testament book of Wisdom, between the Song of Songs and Ecclesiasticus.

Those passages were traditionally interpreted as references to Christ, the Word born of the Father before all ages. But now, feminist theologians exploit this linguistic circumstance to depict Sophia as a female figure of Divinity whose cult was suppressed in favor of Jesus by sexist patriarchs in the early Church. They mean to suppress Him in turn.

In the November 1999 issue of US Catholic, Johnson subtly weaves this "Sophia" theology into her article, "A closer look at the communion of saints." Aimed at the simple folk in the pews, it is an exercise in anti-speciesism, asserting that not only all the human race but all creation are already saints, and "they stand or fall together."

It is not clear whether she is canonizing rocks, trees and water or only lower animals, nor whether saying that they "stand or fall together" implies animism, but she concludes: "when [humans] are seen together with the whole natural world as a dynamic, sacred community of the most amazing richness and complexity, then the symbol of the communion of saints reaches its fullness as a symbol of effective presence and action of Holy Wisdom herself."

Johnson has suffered not at all for her theological fantasy. On the contrary, honors have been heaped upon her: a term as president of the CTSA, a post in the American Academy of Religion, another on the Advisory Board of the Bishops' Committee on Women in Church and Society. In 1997, she was named Distinguished Professor, and in 1998, Teacher of the Year, at New York's Fordham University.

Among Johnson's allies in this mutiny is Sister Mary Collins, OSB, another feminist theologian prominent in Church institutions: past chairman of the department of Religion and Religious Education at the Catholic University of America, a longtime advisor on feminist theology to the journal Concilium, and past president of the North American Academy of Liturgy.

Though a champion of women's ordination, Sister Collins takes a congregationalist view of priesthood. In her keynote address to the 1997 meeting of CTSA, she criticized Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII's 1947 encyclical on the sacred liturgy, as theologically defective, for speaking of the Mass as a "sacrifice." Using the word "sacrifice" reinforces a "cultlike" notion of the priest's action and "marginalizes the role of the people in the Mass," Sister Collins complained.

Collins' theology, like Johnson's, seems to be carrying her and her admirers far beyond Christian landmarks, into Goddess country. In a recent article titled, "Shouldn't We Sing to Her?" Sister Mary Irving, SSND, quoted Collins to support her plea that God be addressed as female in order to honor "woman's dignity as the full image of God." ... "We must ask, with Mary Collins: `What if the assemblies where neither presider nor preacher nor congregation are troubled by androcentric address to God are unwitting or unwilling participants in idolatry?'"

In other words, the way Catholics have worshipped for two millennia is idolatry to be corrected by transforming God into a goddess?

Another prominent feminist academic is Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, Professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. Typically, her 1997 address to the LCWR exemplified post-Christian thought. Speaking on the disarray prevailing in women's religious communities, Schneiders turned to chaos theory instead of Christian premises to explain that women religious are seeking a new basis for their lives:

For many the God of Christianity seems too small, too violent, and too male; the focus on Jesus Christ seems narrow and exclusive; the resurrection seems mythological if not incredible and, in any case, irrelevant to a world in anguish; the institutional church seems hopelessly medieval, sexist, and clerical; liturgy is alienating; morality is out of touch with reality; and church ministry is a continual battle with male hostility and power dynamics.

Their God may no longer be the God of Jesus Christ, but a non-personal, benevolent cosmic energy holding reality together in some mysterious way. Schneiders is not dismayed by this disintegration of Christian belief in vowed Catholic religious. After all, she continues:

What many religious are attempting is not to dispense with faith, but to find God in a kind of personal mystical quest that bypasses the superficialities and hypocrisies, and even the violence, of the official structures of institutional Catholic Christianity. ... In short, it is an attempt to develop a spirituality without religion.

So that's all right, then?

Sister Kathleen Hughes has for many years been a member of ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) and a consultant to the NCCB Committee on the Liturgy. Five years ago, she says, she addressed the Congregation for Divine Worship, in Rome, on the subject of inclusive language. In a lecture last September at Maryville University in St Louis, she said she expects to see women ordained in her lifetime. She also announced that the Latin word deus is too often improperly translated as "Father," adding, "We need more metaphors for God."

A former professor of liturgy at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union, Sister Hughes is the newly-elected Provincial of the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the author of several books, including Silent Voices, Sacred Lives of which I feel impelled to remark that if these ladies only could be silenced, the whole Church would be better off.

At least in the United States, where feminism is strongest, this bizarre state of affairs has caused problems in the observance of the three years of reflection on the Trinity that Pope John Paul II called for as preparation for the "Great Jubilee Year 2000." To mention just one example, the editor of a magazine for catechists told me in 1997 that their editorial strategy would be to tiptoe as delicately as possible through these pre-jubilee years, trying to avoid the masculine language of Father and Son so as not to arouse feminist wrath.

It is absurd to kowtow to the feminist aversion to God's Fatherhood. It is lunacy for the Church in this country to dedicate three years of intense spiritual preparation to meditating on a God one dare not name. It is positive infidelity to permit apostate fanatics to attempt to seduce ignorant and trusting Catholics into idolatry. The appeasement of feminists has been a grave disservice, to them as well as to the rest of us. It has permitted them to marinate in their errors until they lost touch with Christianity altogether. And, it would appear, with reality.

But it will take more than a frown or a cold look to stop them. The feminist activists who have achieved much of their agenda by bewailing purported mistreatment will not go silent voluntarily. They must be confronted. Church institutions must remove them from the posts where their outrageous notions do so much harm, as Boston College has finally done 30 years late to the outrageous Mary Daly. A doctorate in theology does not compensate for disbelief in Catholic doctrine and even in the rudiments of Christian faith.

Straight teaching needed

In addition, the Church at the parish level must enunciate unmistakably the theological reasons for calling God "Father." She must make it clear that our Heavenly Father is not a giant Dagwood. She must teach the doctrine of the Trinity again and again, until all the bewildered faithful understand that the dogma of God's Fatherhood is not negotiable.

Most of what we say about God is metaphorical; certainly the terms that feminists like best are all metaphors, as when we say that God is like a rock, or a mother, or even a mother hen.

God is not a rock, though we use the word to mean that He is unchanging. He is not a mother, though we use the word in reference to His tender and faithful love, even more faithful than a mother's. He is certainly not a Mother Hen, but we use that term as a metaphor for His protective compassion: He would have gathered the children of Jerusalem under His (metaphorical) wings as a mother hen gathers her chicks to guard them from harm, but they would not. We use these figures of speech because God somehow resembles something that is characteristic of them, though He is of course much more than that resemblance.

All "feminine" references to God are figures of speech ("like a mother hen"). But when we speak of God as Father, the term is not a metaphor. Here the order of resemblance is reversed: His Fatherhood does not somehow resemble human fatherhood, rather human fatherhood bears some dim resemblance to God's full, perfect, Fatherhood. He is a Father. His is the original Fatherhood, and human fatherhood its partial, imperfect shadow, taking its name from that perfect, ultimate Divine Fatherhood. For the Son, the Eternal Word of God, is the perfect image of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. In this eternal process of the Son from God the Father, the Father is only active, the One from whom the Son proceeds, and is in no way passive. He is in no way the one who "bears" the Son, and thus in no way the "mother" of the Son.

We also call God Father because of the life He originates outside Himself, when that life is an image, though imperfect, of His own substance. We are most certain of this because Jesus who knows the truth in the most direct way possible always calls Him "Father." And when the Apostles asked Him how to pray, He taught them to say "Our Father."

We know something about Him through the astonishing richness, complexity and variety of His Creation, but we know best what kind of Father He is because His Son told us what He is like: like the solicitous shepherd who leaves the main body of His flock to seek out a single lost sheep. Like the thrifty, persistent housewife who drops everything to search for one lost coin.

Incredibly, the Creator of the Universe is like the desolate Father who watches with longing for the return of a dissolute son, and when the son turns homeward at last, hungry and humiliated, the Father sees him while he is still a long way off, and comes out to embrace him. We call it the story of the prodigal son, but it is the Father who is truly prodigal in His welcome, celebrating the return of the lost sinner with joy, with lavish bounty, and without recriminations. With unconditional love, in fact.

Knowing that He really does love us unconditionally, we dare to ask His pardon and His healing grace. Knowing that He is also Perfect Justice, we understand that we cannot presume upon His mercy. Like Thomas Jefferson, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. If we are not in awe before His perfect Justice, His power and majesty, we are presumptuous fools. Yet we hope in the love of that Prodigal Father, the Father who withheld promised destruction from Nineveh when the people repented, and would have withheld His just punishment from Sodom at Abraham's plea if only ten just men could have been found there. If we do not love Him, spontaneously, in gratitude for His tenderness, and patience, and mercy, we must be spiritually blind and stony-hearted.

Christ told us how we are to live in a world where the brambles will always grow up together with the wheat: we are to be salt and light. We are to be like the mustard seed that grows to great size. We are to be like the yeast buried in three measures of flour, that leavens the whole society. And if we cannot, by teaching and loving example, convert all the sinners in our society, perhaps as He promised Abraham, He will still spare our nation for the sake of a remnant: we must be that remnant.

In this society oversupplied with lost sons and daughters, we pray He will also embrace us, restore Fatherhood and thus restore our families, and so restore our corrupt culture.

We pray that the new millennium will bring that new springtime for the Church for which we have waited so long. Have mercy on us, O Lord. Save us, lest we perish.

© VOICES, Women for Faith & Family, P.O. Box 8326, St. Louis, MO 63132, 314-863-8385,

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