Rick Becker is a convert to Catholicism by way of G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic Worker movement. He has a particular interest in ecumenism, and he has studied theology at Evangelical Protestant institutions as well as Franciscan University of Steubenville. The father of seven, Rick resides with his family in South Bend, Indiana, where he and his wife, Nancy, serve as Co-Directors of Religious Education at St. Matthew Cathedral. Rick is also a registered nurse, and he currently teaches in the nursing program at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing at God-Haunted Lunatic.
“Most dads accept that part of the job is a willingness to be the unfashionable one.”
— William McGurn
Young man, I’m not your dad. Still, what I’m about to relate is what I tell my own sons, and it’s probably what your own dad told you in one form or another. Think of this as a reminder of his sage advice – or, if he hasn’t gotten to it yet, a stopgap until he does.
It’s Father’s Day weekend, which is a good time to consider your own potential for fatherhood, physiologically and otherwise. The physiological part you know very well – how could you not? Your sexual appetite started surfacing years ago, and now it’s in full voracious swing. And you’re well aware of what that sexual appetite is oriented to: babies! Hopefully, dad was in on your making the connection between sex and babies. Hopefully he also helped you see that the baby part of sex is one of the most important reasons sex is meant for marriage. Maybe the most important reason (CCC 2366).
OK, let’s assume you got all that at some point. Since then, you’ve gotten plenty other messages (from friends, public health officials, the internet) that point in another direction. Those messages tell you, among other things, that (1) sex needn’t be reserved to marriage, (2) you can’t be expected to control your sexual urges, and, consequently, (3) indulging your premarital sexual appetite requires some kind of “protection” – protection from communicable diseases, yes, but most especially protection from…fatherhood. They call it birth control, but it’s really kid avoidance and, for guys, a gutless dad dodge – and that’s only when it works the way it’s supposed to (which it doesn’t always).
I’m guessing the rationale you heard for the dad dodge went along these lines: you’re young; you have your whole life ahead of you; you can’t be burdened with the responsibilities of caring for a child.
The funny thing, though, is that those arguments against youthful fatherhood really strengthen the case for it: It’s good to become a father when you’re young – when your brain is still pliable enough to assimilate all the required knowledge and skills you’ll need, and your robust constitution allows you to keep up with your brood; it’s good that your whole life is ahead of you, because (trust me) you’ll need the extra time to unravel the fatherhood mystique with its seemingly endless cycle of trial and error; it’s good to be burdened with responsibility for others, particularly babies who are helpless, vulnerable, and totally dependent.
And how is it good to be burdened? Because we tend to be lazy without burdens, that’s why. As males grow into adulthood, we trend selfish and self-serving, and the sooner we’re required to care for others, the sooner we grow up – the sooner we become real men, that is. As boys, we dreamt of heroics, sacrifice, and adventure, and we spent a lot of time acting those things out. In my day, it was playing army and astronauts; for you it was probably via video games and apps – or maybe more directly through athletics. Regardless, as boys we can’t help gravitating to archetypes of burdened men, and the pivotal developmental key is the transition from admiration to action – to becoming that which we always dreamt of being.
Let’s take a look, then, at the paternal burden – and, mind you, most dads don’t really think of it as a burden, but rather a privilege, a grace and gift, an organic outgrowth of our self-abandonment in marriage, and a pathway to holiness. But let’s leave aside the churchy language for now and get to the nitty-gritty of fatherhood so you can decide whether it’s for you or not. What’s a father, pure and simple? At least three things in my view:
1. Fathers are deferential: Traditionally we speak of a fathers as the heads of a households while mothers are the hearts – true enough (FC 25). In practical terms, this means that a dad often needs to subordinate his own actualization and personal priorities in favor of serving the needs, immediate and long-range, of his wife and children.
2. Fathers are defensive: No matter what fluctuations our culture experiences with regards to gender roles and parental divisions of labor, dads are called on to take the lead in standing between a hostile world and the family under his care. A man of honor will not shrink from challenges and dangers when the safety and security of his home is at stake.
3. Fathers are dull: This might be the hardest one to stomach. That popular image of fathers being boring and fusty throwbacks? It’s right on the money, the natural corollary to a dad’s defensive posture. While we ourselves might be able to successfully navigate the perils and pitfalls of modernity – a realm saturated with license and libido – our children can’t. Through staid and sober reserve, we become both anchors and rudders for our families: As anchors, we’re a constant drag on a household’s clamoring for whatever’s new and exciting; as rudders, we exert a subtle yet powerful directional momentum, away from eddies of destruction and toward more sanctifying currents.
I’m guessing none of that is particularly enticing, but all of it will hit you like a blast when you have your first child – or at least it should. It’s virtually immediate if it’s to happen at all. The advent of your first baby will change you but quick.
I call it the Becket moment.
Do you know about St. Thomas à Becket? He was a 12th-century courtier and cleric whose talents brought him to the attention of King Henry II. Thomas and Henry became fast friends, and the King eventually had his pal elevated to the position of chancellor – both for Becket’s temporal advantage, but also for the advantage of having someone loyal to the throne in that powerful role.
When the King desired to consolidate those advantages by arranging for his friend to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1163, Thomas demurred. He knew that accepting the fatherly burden of bishop and shepherd would alter the status quo – that he’d become defensive, deferential to his flock, and dull; that he’d no longer be the steadfast and convivial ally the king wanted him to be. The resulting tension between these friends is accurately reflected in the classic film, Becket (1964): “I beg of you, do not do this,” says the future Archbishop (Richard Burton). “The die is cast, Thomas,” replies the King (Peter O’Toole). “Make the most of it. And if I know you, I'm sure you will.”
In fact, Becket did make the most of his elevation, but clearly not in the manner the King anticipated. Once established in his episcopal office, Becket “changed utterly his style of life into one of regularity, piety, and austerity,” writes M.D. Knowles. He shifted his loyalty and devotion from crown to church, and Thomas “resisted with audacity” all subsequent royal assaults on ecclesial privileges. It was an audacity that cost him his life, for Henry would brook no opposition and Becket suffered martyrdom at the hands of the King’s men.
Now, you might be thinking, “Becket could’ve continued in the same vein as before – he could’ve maintained his primary loyalty to Henry, despite his miter and pectoral cross.” Ah, but there’s the rub: Once the identity changes, once the honorable boy-becoming-a-man takes up the burden of paternal responsibility – at that precise moment! – there’s no going back.
For St. Thomas, an honorable man, it was the moment he was made a bishop – which is why he was frightened by the prospect. Similarly, those of us aspiring to honorable manhood and slated for human fatherhood ought to be cowed by our calling. Is it really something we want to take on? Is it something we can take on?
You’ve got to begin figuring it out now. If you think God is calling you to fatherhood, then start choosing virtue (including chastity), even when it’s tortuous; start choosing courage, even when it’s terribly inconvenient; start choosing continual conversion, even when it’s gets tedious. Do those things – or at least intend to do those things, and seek forgiveness when you fail – and you can celebrate Father’s Day even now in your potential paternal state.
On the other hand, does all that fatherhood stuff make you cringe? Do you find it revolting and offensive? Then, I don’t care how much you love that girl; I don’t care how powerful your sexual urges are. If you’re not ready to be a father (let alone a husband), you’re not ready to have sex.
So knock it off. Be a man. Pure and simple.