St. Joseph is a True and Real Father
The fatherhood of St. Joseph is not an honorary title but indicates a unique and authentic fatherhood.
The question concerning Joseph’s paternity is whether he was a true father or if his was an honorary title.
Some consider Joseph’s paternity of Jesus to be based on his father — like love for Jesus or his marriage to Mary, where everything is possessed in common. But that is not a sufficient cause for his paternity because Jesus’ father should be related to him like a real father. He was not a substitute; the fatherhood by marriage limps.
Basic to this subject is the fact that Mary declares Joseph to be the father of Jesus. At finding him in the temple at the age of 12, St. Luke records Mary saying to Jesus, “Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (Luke 2:48).
Joseph has been considered as a putative father, a foster father, and an adoptive father. Putative means considered as his father, but not necessarily so. A foster child is commonly the ward of the state. The necessities of life are provided by the foster parents, including affection; these can be temporary. But the child is never an actual member of the family as such. There was a person who was a foster child for 16 years and at the death of his foster mother, the obituary listed him simply as “friend.” An adopted child becomes a permanent member of a family by law with familial rights, including the family name.
There is an aspect of Joseph's paternity that needs to be approached in a special way. Whenever Joseph’s paternity is discussed, it is always presented in terms of an ordinary natural fatherhood. But as we know, that is not the case. Joseph comes out looking like a quasi-father. It seems that we approach Joseph’s fatherhood as though his son was a natural human person, which he is not.
The difficulties in understanding the parenthood of Joseph and Mary are caused by comparing their experience to ordinary motherhood and fatherhood. Actually, it is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Theirs is not just a natural parenthood, but a supernatural/divine one as well because it involves a Divine Person, the Incarnation of God. Therefore, Mary's motherhood and Joseph's fatherhood have their own laws.
There are three orders to be considered: (1) the divine order, (2) the hypostatic order and (3) the natural order. Each order has a “fatherhood.” Therefore, we have to examine what it means to be a father in each of these orders. The same title is used but the reality in each differs. By examining in what way they are similar and in what way they differ, we shall come to see how the paternity of Joseph is not an honorary title but indicates a unique true fatherhood.
In the divine order, there is God the Father; in the hypostatic order there is the fatherhood of Joseph; in the natural order there are biological fathers, which include human, animal, fowl, fish etc. In the divine order we use a human expression we are familiar with, but which is only descriptive of the Fatherhood of God. We have nothing like it in the natural order. It is same with the only fatherhood in the hypostatic order.
What is singular about Joseph’s fatherhood is that it is virginal, necessarily so because that is a main characteristic of parenthood in the hypostatic order – as shown by the fact that the only mother in the hypostatic order remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of the Christ Child. Their spousal union made them parents, mother and father, of the Divine Child. When compared to the standards of the natural order, both became parents by a miracle, because of the extraordinary conception of the Child. In the hypostatic order, with its own laws, such a conception is essential and therefore not extraordinary.
Thus, the parenthood of Mary and Joseph belongs in an order other than the natural. Theologians say that the hypostatic order is centered on the hypostatic union in Jesus Christ and includes all that is relevant for the actualization of the Incarnation. It is accepted that Mary belongs to the hypostatic order as the Theotokos. According to some theologians, such as Garrigou-Lagrange in Mary, Mother of the Savior and De Domenico in his True Devotion to St. Joseph and the Church, Joseph belongs to the hypostatic order as well because of his vital contribution to the mystery of the Incarnation.
Joseph’s Necessary Fatherhood
Until our times his contribution was considered only in regards to the external needs of the Christ Child, such as sustenance and protection. But the experience and the resulting psychological studies of our times have brought out the profounder influence of Joseph on the humanity of Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI (when he was still a cardinal) addressed a fundamental common social need in his book The God of Jesus Christ when he said, “The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole.” He elucidates this in the first volume of his study Jesus of Nazareth where he analyzes the Our Father: “It is true, of course, that contemporary men and women have difficulty experiencing the great consolation of the word father immediately, since the experience of the father is in many cases either completely absent or it is obscured by inadequate examples of fatherhood.”
Joseph’s contribution to the Incarnation is evident by the need of boys for a formation in manliness guided by their fathers. Studies show the urgency of the role of the father in the manly growth of boys. There is evidence of serious consequences when that is lacking. So, Joseph’s responsibility was to support Jesus in developing a sound male identity according to natural law. This formation of the son is essential to the responsibilities of a father and of more importance than that of sustenance and protection. It influences the character of the child permanently. Mary could give Jesus his physical body but not his manly identity. That had to come through Joseph.
This position appears confirmed by what Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera of the Congregation for Divine Worship wrote:
To him [Joseph] is due the honour and glory of raising Jesus, namely, of feeding and teaching him, leading him on the paths of life so that he might learn to be a man, learn to work like a man, to love as a man with the heart of a man, so that he might fit into a real history and tradition, that of the chosen and beloved People of God; in order to teach him to pray the prayer of the People as a man. [L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 26 June 2013, pp. 8/9].
Since Joseph, as father, contributed to this necessary male identity in Christ for the development and perfection of his human nature, Joseph’s paternity therefore is rightfully placed in the hypostatic order.
Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that God the Father bestowed on Joseph a unique love similar to his so that he could exercise authority over God the Son. That already takes Joseph out of the category of natural fatherhood.
Furthermore, on that level of the hypostatic order, the incarnation of a Divine Person has its own particular requirement: virginal parents. Thus, Joseph's fatherhood had its own laws, one of a kind, unique — and a mystery, just as Mary's virginal conception and birth of Jesus. In this way, it becomes evident that, according to the laws of the hypostatic order, Joseph is a true and real father.
In the case of Mary and Joseph, it was not a case of human procreation but of a Divine Incarnation. There are similarities due to the human element, but fundamentally a completely new category of parenthood according to the hypostatic order. The question arises: “How can Joseph be a father when not involved with the conception of Jesus?” But, as was stated, this is the conception not of a human person but of a Divine Person, which makes that conception unique, going beyond the human category. In other words, the physical participation of the human father was not necessary — not according to the laws of the singular conception in the hypostatic order. Therefore, we must not limit the examination of either parenthood to the common human type. We can go just so far analyzing according to human experience. As with the motherhood of Mary — virgin before, during and after giving birth to Christ — much of St. Joseph’s virginal but true fatherhood remains a mystery of faith.
Parenthood and the Redemptive Incarnation
There is another important dimension related to and included in this mystery. It was a redemptive incarnation. As quoted in St. Joseph Gems, Pope Pius XI taught, “This was a unique and magnificent mission [given to St. Joseph]…cooperating in the Incarnation and the Redemption.”
Both Mary and Joseph’s parenthood extended to participation in the salvific mission of their divine Son.
Mary’s participation extended to include Jesus’ passion and death. This participation was predicted in Genesis 3:15. Speaking to the demon, God declares in the proto-evangelium, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” — giving her the vocation of the New Eve, the new “mother of the living” (Genesis 3:20). This was fulfilled on Calvary when Jesus gave the beloved disciple to her as a son, and his mother to the disciple as his mother (John 15:26,27). This participation by suffering had been prophesied by Simeon at the Presentation of the divine infant in the Temple, when he declared that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2:35).
Joseph had full responsibility for his family which was the object of King Herod’s vicious hatred. He had to provide for their survival even by going into exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:20) and later settling in the obscurity of Nazareth, under the angel’s directions (Matthew 2:22). Mary gave Jesus his life and Joseph made it secure in the face of fierce threats. The redemption of the world depended on their full cooperation at this crucial time in the young Messiah’s life.
St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 3:9 that “we are co-workers in the service of God.” If that is true of every Christian, then the unique relationship of Mary and Joseph to Jesus elevates their service beyond the ordinary. St. Paul states in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body that is, the Church.” Again, Mary and Joseph participated directly in the sufferings of their Son for that purpose — their joined efforts during his threatened infancy and Mary’s extended participation on Calvary. And so, they served God by suffering with Christ. This service was of a higher order since their relationship to the Redeemer was elevated by their being in the hypostatic order.
We must remember the unique spousal unity between Joseph and Mary. Doctor of the Church St. Lawrence of Brindisi expressed it well in Opera Omnia: Feastday Sermons, “Just as husband and wife are one flesh, so too Joseph and Mary were one heart, one soul, one spirit.” Their perfect unity of hearts and will with that of their Messiah Son required that they accept and take part in his redemptive mission. For Mary this consisted in the explicit participation in Christ’s passion; for Joseph, it was an implicit participation through Jesus’ suffering in infancy, prefiguring Calvary. In this way, it can be said that they jointly became co-redeemers with their Son, Jesus the Christ, the divine Redeemer.
This perfect union of heart, soul, and spirit should be remembered especially when meditating on the mystery of the Presentation of Jesus. The Church sees in this mystery the prophetic mission of the Lamb of God, offering, as it were, the passion of his infancy. That is evident in the Prayer Over the Offering in the Mass of the Presentation of the Lord, “…for you willed that your only begotten Son be offered to you …as the Lamb without blemish.” This same offering is repeated in the Preface of the Mass of Mary and the Presentation, “She… the handmaid of your plan of salvation, who presents to you the spotless Lamb, to be sacrificed on the altar of the cross…” Theirs was a united offering. Joseph was physically present at this first stage. Mary would be present at its consummation on Calvary as well. She must have carried Joseph’s intention in her pierced heart there also.
As head of the household, Joseph appears to be exercising a type of lay priestly role. Dominican Father Timothy McCarthy, in his concise book, The Postconciliar Christian, on the baptismal priesthood of the laity, states, “He exercises his priesthood by offering up to God all his works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, his ordinary married life and family, his daily occupations, his physical and mental relaxations, and the hardships of life, and especially by uniting his own self — offering to that of Christ at Mass.” Joseph and Mary are the perfect exemplars of the spirituality of this mystery.
The fatherhood of Joseph is truly mysterious in its foundation, its purpose and in its functioning. His fatherhood, with his virginal spouse’s motherhood, are to be included in the mighty works of God for which he is to be continuously praised. Psalms 96:8 and 34:3 proclaim this: “Come! Behold the deeds of the Lord, the astounding things he wrought on the earth.” — “O magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt his Name together.”