By today's definition, the term “foster father” does not fit St. Joseph, whose feast we celebrate March 19.
By law, a foster parent is an adult who cares for a child that is neither biologically nor legally his own. The commitment undertaken is temporary, with guardianship offered for a short time until the biological parent can resume caring for the child. The foster parent usually is paid by an agency of the state in return for care.
St. Joseph's relationship with Jesus hardly followed that arc.
First, Joseph of Nazareth was by no means a temporary caregiver. Instead, here was a man who committed his entire life to the care of his wife and her son. After taking Mary into his home despite her enigmatic pregnancy, he cared for Jesus all the days of his young life. Joseph fled with him when his life was threatened and searched for him when he was lost. And, according to tradition, Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and Mary. All these facts suggest that “temporary” is the last word we should use to describe St. Joseph's commitment to Mary and Jesus. “Steadfast” is more like it. Unwavering. Resolute.
Second, Joseph received no financial compensation for his care of Jesus; indeed, the added responsibility of a child in his household only increased his financial burden. Joseph had to accept financial insecurity when he took his young family to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. The returns he received — the love and affection of Jesus and Mary, the gratitude and grace of God the Father — were certainly reward enough, but they do not offer much in the way of immediate gratification, let alone monetary compensation.
For these reasons, the term “foster father” seems singularly inappropriate when describing St. Joseph.
Under Jewish law, by naming Jesus and presenting him in the temple, St. Joseph gave Our Lord standing in the Jewish community and an identity within the human family. St. Joseph gave Jesus “roots.” Also, under Jewish law, St. Joseph bore the responsibility to teach his child about the Jewish faith and Scriptures, and to give his child a trade. The indirect evidence in the Gospels is that he did so.
Meanwhile Christ's preaching and parables show a knowledge of items in the common experience of the people of Palestine of his age, evidenced by references to gardening, farming, civil law and Jewish law. A firm grasp of these things must have come to Jesus first in the way that most of us learn about the practical details of day-to-day life — from the adults closest to us.
Because St. Joseph taught the human Jesus many “earthly” things, shaping in many and various ways Jesus' earthly identity and personality, might it be appropriate to refer to Joseph as the “earthly father of Jesus Christ”?
We live in a world that desperately needs model dads.
Both in the context of popular culture and in the context of the Gospels, “earthly father” has clear advantages. For one thing, the term is sufficiently unusual to prevent confusion — unlike, for example, “human father,” which invites confusion because it is not biologically accurate.
For another, in the context of the Gospels, “earthly father” as a title for St. Joseph provides a clear contrast with Christ's many references to his heavenly Father. Our Lord spends much of the Gospels teaching us about how to relate to God our Father in heaven. Distinguishing between our Lord's earthly father and his heavenly Father also has the effect of strengthening our faith in Christ as our brother, because we all have an earthly father and a Father in heaven.
Is it possible that the term “earthly father” would invite confusion with God the Father in the minds of the faithful? Could it inappropriately elevate St. Joseph to an apparently coequal position with God the Father?
Surely writers and speakers, and most especially priests speaking from the pulpit, would be wise to use the term carefully and contrast it our Lord's many references to his Father in heaven. One obvious caution is to emphasize the fact that St. Joseph did not participate in the physical generation of Christ, and so is not an earthly father in that sense.
But any such fear must also acknowledge existing reality. At the present time, it seems unlikely that St. Joseph will be divinized at the popular level, given his relatively low standing in the mind of the Church. The contrast with Our Lady is instructive. Mary has three holy days of obligation on the U.S. liturgical calendar, and the Hail Mary is taught to all as arguably the second most important prayer in the Catholic arsenal. By contrast, St. Joseph has neither a holy day of obligation (although two feasts) nor a prayer. (Note that Catholics on the whole surely understand that Mary is not divine.)
If anything, St. Joseph should be raised in the Church to a post of greater visibility. We live in a world that denigrates fatherhood at a time it so desperately needs model dads.
A more accurate and more affectionate term for Joseph's fatherhood may increase devotion to the saint. Recognizing a role model in the earthly fatherhood of St. Joseph gives all men a chance to develop and grow their fatherhood with the patronage of a powerful inter-cessor in heaven — the man closest to Christ on earth who is surely the man closest to Christ in heaven.
St. Joseph, earthly father of Jesus Christ, pray for us!
Steve Michael is a father of four and a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.