Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the Crisis of Fatherhood

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the Crisis of Fatherhood May 12, 2014

“Something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged!”

A Guest Blog by Dave McClow, M.Div., LCSW, LMFT, a clinical pastoral counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

I am a collector of quotes (well…books, too), and I am thinking through a theology of masculinity.  I think a theology of what it means be to a man culminates in spiritual fatherhood always, and at times in biological fatherhood that is lived out in chivalry as priest, prophet, and king.  Manhood certainly includes and passes through sonship, brotherhood, and husbandhood.  These states of being always have a spiritual side, and only sometimes is there a physical side as brother or husband.  I’ll write more about those things later.  Our culture has inflicted a sustained attack on men and fatherhood, which has resulted in soaring rates of fatherlessness, creating dire consequences for individuals, families, and societies (see my previous blog). I wanted to highlight a few quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger, and later from Pope Benedict XVI, on the crisis of fatherhood, which he sees as a threat to human existence.  These quotes support my call for the Church to lead the way in developing a theology of masculinity.

The Crisis

Of course spiritual and biological fatherhood have their roots in God’s Fatherhood (Eph 3:14), and human fatherhood has a tremendous impact on our perception of and relationship with God.  In 2001, in an address to a congregation in Palermo, Italy, Cardinal Ratzinger basically argues that if you destroy human fatherhood, you destroy humanity.  (A similar case could be made for

God himself “willed to manifest and describe himself as Father.” “Human fatherhood gives us an anticipation of what He is. But when this fatherhood does not exist, when it is experienced only as a biological phenomenon, without its human and spiritual dimension, all statements about God the Father are empty. The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity. The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood is linked to the dissolution of our being sons and daughters.”motherhood.)


Later in this talk he appears to link this threat to humanity with the ability to turn people into numbers and exterminate them in concentration camps.  He restates the threat in the book The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God:

The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. Where fatherhood is perceived only as a biological accident on which no genuinely human claims may be based, or the father is seen as a tyrant whose yoke must be thrown off, something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged (p. 29).


This a powerful indictment of our culture that ridicules men and makes fathers irrelevant, from TV programs, through Government programs, to the ability to conceive babies outside of a sexual relationship—indeed “something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged.” Cardinal Ratzinger continues his connection between the destruction of human fatherhood and our perceptions of God’s fatherhood:

Human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is; but where fatherhood no longer exists, where genuine fatherhood is no longer experienced as a phenomenon that goes bey

ond the biological dimension to embrace a human and intellectual sphere as well, it becomes meaningless to speak of God the Father. Where human fatherhood disappears, it is no longer possible to speak and think of God. It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world. The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole (The God of Jesus Christ, p. 29).

Cardinal Ratzinger is not known to exaggerate!  Clearly he sees a threat to humanity in the attack on fatherhood.  St. John Paul II would agree with the nature and scope of the problem and points out that it is not a new attack: “Original sin, then, attempts to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 228, emphasis in original).

The Damage and the Remedy

The damage to our existence is that men and thus God are seen only as tyrants.  While some men are tyrants, most are not.  Those who are tyrants definitely need our help to live out authentic masculinity and fatherhood.  We, as the Church, need to lead the way in defining masculinity and fatherhood.

God is most certainly not a tyrant.  In fact, he goes to extreme lengths to demonstrate this: he allows us to be the tyrants, complete with murderous rage toward him, and he allows us to kill him.  No one is exempt from this responsibility. It is no mistake that in the Palm Sunday and Good Friday readings of the Passion it is we in the pews who speak the line “Crucify him!”  And what is the response of Jesus?  “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).  If the Father or Jesus were going to be a tyrant here, humanity should have been wiped off the face of the earth for merely threatening the Son of God with death.  Instead, God the Father is demonstrating his love through Jesus on the cross by absorbing, and loving us in spite of, our rage, our shame, and our sin.  I think this is one of the most profound psychological truths of our faith: we are loved even when we rage at God. There is nothing more extreme and nothing more healing.  The world would be a different place if we were to allow Jesus to absorb our shame and rage as he came to do—if we were to direct our rage for others toward him, have him absorb it all, and receive his tender love for us.  The cross is God’s antidote to this attack on fatherhood—it destroys the perception of God as a master and tyrant, revealing him as the true Father that he is.

God’s Fatherhood, Memory, and Our Identity

Pope Benedict XVI further develops the importance of the proper view of God’s Fatherhood.  To remember that God is a good and loving Father helps us know who we are—it forms our identity!  Identity is critical for us as human persons.  I might say that most, if not all, psychological disorders come from identity problems, especially through distortions that come from abuse and neglect.  Benedict gave this reflection on the Sunday readings in a homily at the World Meeting of Families in 2006:

Esther’s father had passed on to her, along with the memory of her forebears and her people, the memory of a God who is the origin of all and to whom all are called to answer. The memory of God the Father, who chose a people for himself and who acts in history for our salvation. The memory of this Father sheds light on our deepest human identity: where we come from, who we are, and how great is our dignity. Certainly we come from our parents and we are their children, but we also come from God who has created us in his image and called us to be his children. Consequently, at the origin of every human being there is not something haphazard or chance, but a loving plan of God. This was revealed to us by Jesus Christ, the true Son of God and a perfect man. He knew whence he came and whence all of us have come: from the love of his Father and our Father.

Memory and remembering are integral parts of our faith, the Eucharist—“Do this in remembrance of me,” and our identities.  Think of the devastation families feel when their par

ents’ memory is gone and they don’t remember their children.  Knowing and remembering our true Father in heaven is crucial for our identities.  It lets us know we are his children and that we are loved even when we have trouble loving him.  Holy Mother Church is not unaware of the difficulties that parenting blunders create for her children and suggests that they must be cleansed and purified:


2779 Before we make our own this first exclamation of the Lord’s Prayer, we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn “from this world.” … The purification of our hearts has to do with paternal or maternal images, stemming from our personal and cultural history, and influencing our relationship with God. God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area “upon him” would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us. (See also 239)




There is a crisis of fatherhood. If fatherhood and men are seen only as “biological accidents” to be ridiculed or as “tyrants” to be thrown off, then God the Father’s face is so disfigured that it is not recognizable and our identities are distorted threatening life itself—indeed “something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged.”  A theology of masculinity is needed—one that restores the basic structure of human existence:  fatherhood.  Men are spiritual sons, brothers, and husbands first, but the summit of being a man is being spiritual fathers always, and biological fathers sometimes. If the summit of being a man is spiritual fatherhood, then the source and model of that fatherhood is God the Father.  This needs to be proclaimed from the pulpit regularly as a part of the New Evangelization to form men to be authentic spiritual fathers.


Men of God, in the meantime, begin your own work in prayer and purification of the false parental images that distort the Father’s true face.  Tear down the idols! If you get stuck, get help!  Start the healing: talk to a priest, a friend, or a counselor; go to a men’s group; or call us at the Pastoral Solutions Institute

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