Renewing Spiritual Fatherhood

REGISTER SYMPOSIUM: The Church must form priests to be spiritual fathers not just in name, but in truth.

Gustav Doré (1832-1883), “Jesus Blessing the Little Children”
Gustav Doré (1832-1883), “Jesus Blessing the Little Children” (photo: Public Domain)
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This Register Symposium is not a physical conference, but a written collection of shared reflections from independent contributors with specialized knowledge regarding the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The nine experts have been asked to reflect on the root causes of the problem, and the most effective path forward for the Church.


The sexual-abuse crisis in the Church has many contributing causes, each of which must be studied, addressed and eradicated.

Among them, one of the most important is the lack of spiritual fatherhood shown in the crises’ three main aspects: the sexual abuse itself, the failure to confront and eliminate it, and the scandal to lie about it and cover it up.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — said in a March 2000 speech in Palermo, Sicily, “The crisis of fatherhood we are experiencing today is an element, perhaps the most important element, threatening man in his humanity.”

The crisis, he clarified, is a “dissolution of fatherhood,” flowing from reducing paternity to a biological phenomenon without its human and spiritual dimensions.

Fathers are treated as superfluous, seen in the explosion of what sociologists now term “sperm dads,” “absent dads,” “dead-beat dads,” “visiting dads,” “nice-guy dads” and various other descriptors for fathers who have no decisive role in protecting, providing for, rearing and mentoring the children they’ve begotten.

This crisis of fatherhood likewise extends to the clergy. Priests and bishops are called “fathers” for a reason. God uses them to give his children a deeper form of life through baptism and the other sacraments. Their fatherhood, however, cannot be reduced just to spiritually generative sacramental actions, but is meant to flow into fatherly identity and behavior, particular in the commitment they make spiritually to protect, provide for, rear and mentor, to teach, sanctify and shepherd — in short, to love with the love of God — the spiritual children entrusted to them.

The dissolution of spiritual fatherhood happens when these spiritual bonds break down, when priests are reduced to ecclesiastical functionaries who never form authentic fatherly bonds with the individuals and families whose baptisms, weddings and funerals they celebrate.

We see this breakdown of spiritual fatherhood in every form of clerical sexual abuse. When a priest looks at the world with the eyes of a spiritual dad, any sexual activity — with minors, those his own age, those much older, with women or with men — is a form of spiritual incest. And incest, even the thought of it, sickens all but the most perverted.

In preaching retreats for seminarians and priests, I stress that if we maintain a healthy sense of spiritual paternity such that we view everyone we serve, of whatever age, as a spiritual son or daughter, then the temptation to regard others with lust, or engage in unchaste activity, or pretend that such spiritually incestuous behavior is “love,” basically disappears. Sexual infidelity in priests begins with this dissolution of spiritual fatherhood.

This is one reason why, if we sincerely want to reform the Church, we can never limit the focus just to the eradication of the molestation of minors. Sexual sins against minors, who are unable to give true consent, are obviously the most execrable. But while spiritually incestuous relations with a 15-year-old are worse in degree than with an 18-, 30- or 90-year-old, we’re still dealing with priests sexually abusing their spiritual children.

Without addressing these gross violations of priestly paternity with older spiritual children, we will never really address the roots of the abuse of their younger children.

The second failure in spiritual fatherhood is with regard to protecting children from those who would use them for their gratification. This negligence is what most shocks parents: that proven abusers would continue to be placed in positions where they can exploit their collar to harm others.

Good fathers risk and give their lives to protect their children from harm. They would never risk inviting their brother whom they know is an abuser to sleep at their home where he might have access to their children. This basic fatherly solicitude, however, was absent among various bishops and chancery officials, who behaved more like businessmen and lawyers than dads. Such clericalism is a blatant defect in loving spiritual paternity.

The third failure is in the notorious cover-ups and lying with regard to abuse in order to protect bishops’ personal reputations or the reputation and material goods of the Church. This basic failure to take responsibility is a spiritual immaturity reminiscent of teenage dads trying to evade their paternal duties.

It’s been said that the supreme test of any civilization is whether it can socialize men by teaching them to be fathers and truly take responsibility to defend, equip, raise and guide their children.

One of the supreme tests for the reform of the Church is to form priests to be spiritual fathers not just in name, but in truth.

Father Roger Landry is a priest

of the Diocese of

Fall River, Massachusetts.