We have gone through the “new man” movement of the 1970s, in which guys were to get in touch with their feminine side and talk about “needs” with their “significant others.”
The late ’80s brought the primal male approach, with iconic mentor figures reconnecting with essential manhood through hunting, fishing, survival hikes and male bonding around a campfire.
Then there was the more organized Promise Keepers and Million Man March of the ’90s, underscoring the growing crisis of male absence — especially in minority families — and the need for male accountability, spirituality and a renewed sense of “servant leadership.”
Yet for all the good the many male and fatherhood programs have accomplished over the years, we find ourselves today with a growing weight of sad statistics that indicates ruin for men’s traditional family role. In 2008, more than 40% of U.S. births were to single mothers, and the divorce rate, while declining slightly in recent years, stands at about 40% for first marriages. Taken together, these percentages point to an astounding number of children growing up without their fathers or without their fathers having a significant role in their lives.
There are many culprits in this breakdown of the family and the marginalization of dads. Blame it on the sexual revolution starting in the ’60s, which placed adult pleasure and personal fulfillment above the nurture and welfare of children. Or on the contraceptive-abortion culture that treats children as a burden and an obstacle to success. There are also the excesses of feminism that have cast suspicion on men in general and made the word “father” taboo, as well as the incentives of our welfare system that often bypass the father of a child.
Whatever the causes, the results are devastating to society, with rates for drug use, teen pregnancy, school dropouts, crime, incarceration, and almost every negative measure for children skyrocketing when a father is absent.
Yet how much do we hear of this dire situation in the 24/7 news cycle that recently obsessed over the hard-driving values of Asian “tiger moms” and the latest exploits of celebrities?
The fact is: Dads don’t get respect. The most common response in our media to a pro-dad initiative is suspicion and controversy, with charges by radical feminists that fatherhood movements seek to re-establish oppressive patriarchy by stealth tactics.
While the Catholic Church has been a consistently strong voice for the family, led by the clear teaching of the popes, it is fair to say that there have been limited attention and few resources at the parish level for supporting the role of men and fathers. The problem of lay male participation has grown almost without comment, as studies indicate that markedly more women than men attend Sunday Mass. A quick glance at the average parish Mass tells the story, with the pews dotted with mothers struggling with young children, their husbands presumably at home watching sports, or out of the family picture altogether.
The U.S. bishops have launched a commendable multiyear initiative on marriage that has produced an outstanding pastoral letter (“Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”), a thought-provoking DVD, attention-grabbing public service ads, and an attractive and informative website (ForYourMarriage.org). These are excellent resources that uphold the role of husbands and fathers, the need to recognize sexual differences and male-female complementarity, and the fact that the family is the fundamental unit of society.
Yet, in today’s circumstances, it seems to me, to address the health of marriage and the family, we need to pay special attention to men. We need to understand their general strengths and weaknesses when it comes to marriage and family, as well as the specific challenges they face today within society — and even within the Church — in bringing masculine attributes to the service of their families, communities and parishes.
In short, we need a Catholic men’s movement to focus on a few key issues that affect men especially, and recognize that renewal will not come within the Church without the full participation of laymen.
Together we need to address such topics as how to get men back to Mass and more involved in parish life, how to develop more groups for men and fathers, and what the scourge of Internet pornography is doing to their souls and marriages. The Catholic Church has a wealth of resources in these areas, from John Paul II’s writings on the family and theology of the body, to the pastoral letters on pornography by a number of U.S. bishops.
The Catholic men’s conferences that have sprung up in many dioceses in recent years are excellent venues for bringing men back into the fold of the Church and into stronger relationships with their wives and children. The best ones have dynamic speakers well-versed in Church teaching who don’t sugar-coat the message. They talk about sin, punishment, forgiveness and redemption in stark terms, and stress the need for masculine virtue, suffering, sacrifice and strength. The confession lines are long at these conferences, and lives of men are changed, as men minister to men.
The challenge is to bring this model to the parish level, and take the first step of getting men back to Mass. Nothing less than the health of the Church, families and children depends on how seriously we pursue this mission for men.
Brian Caulfield is editor of FathersForGood.org, an initiative of the Knights of Columbus.