The Crisis of Fatherhood

By Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone

Many years ago – it must have been late 2008 or 2009, because it was in the wake of the “great recession” – I remember hearing a clinical psychologist share his reflections on the NPR “Morning Edition” program, “A Listener’s Perspective.” He was trying to give encouragement to any man who may have had their egos hurt because they were out of work, and their wives were now the main breadwinners in the family. He gave them assurance that what is most important is not that he be the one who brings home the most money, nor even that he be a super-dad. He spoke of how the very presence of the father in the home makes such a great difference in the lives of his children. Even if he is not a great communicator, or even a great mentor, his simple presence makes all the difference.

The social consequences of the demise of fatherhood cannot be overestimated. For the past 50 years, one social science study after another has demonstrated this reality. We are experiencing so many crises today: homelessness, domestic abuse, drug addiction, mass shootings – the list goes on. We often hear community leaders speaking about getting to “the root of the problem,” but we don’t see them really wanting to get there. The problem is rebuilding fatherhood, which means rebuilding a healthy marriage culture. The studies show the point the clinical psychologist was talking about – the very presence of a father in the family makes all the difference.

In this month of June, then, as we celebrate Father’s Day and the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we are focusing this issue of Catholic San Francisco Magazine on the family, and specifically fatherhood. I am reminded of Pope Francis, who began his pontificate on March 19, 2013, on the feast of St. Joseph, our model for fatherhood.

In reflecting on St. Joseph, the Holy Father said in a 2022 interview with Vatican News that Joseph had an exceptional “ability to know how to listen to God speaking to his heart. Only someone who prays, who has an intense spiritual life, can have the capacity to know how to distinguish God’s voice in the midst of many other voices that dwell in us.”

In the same interview, Pope Francis said that “there is a great urgency, in this historical moment, for meaningful relationships that we could define as spiritual fatherhood.” He said many young people have “the inability to make big life decisions” and are “afraid to decide, to choose, to take a risk.”

It is abundantly clear that we are having trouble as a society raising boys to be good men. Many young men today are disconnected from their families and seduced by a culture that does not offer them a clear pathway to achieve a healthy masculine identity, one that is protective and productive. TV programs, video games, advertisements, movies and other venues are littered with examples that portray men as either powerful villains or immature imbeciles, but not as loving fathers.

The spiritual fatherhood that Pope Francis refers to is not just a metaphor. It is a process that all men must go through to rise above boyish temptations and become good men. To be good fathers requires first becoming spiritual fathers, which is much more meaningful than simply siring a child.

The image on the cover of this magazine is taken from a recent movie about St. Joseph titled “A Father’s Heart.” At the heart of honorable manhood is St. Joseph, who lived a life of sacrifice for the Holy Family. Like Joseph, men today are called to sacrifice lust to love, ambition to service, and strive to be the hero for the people in their lives. It also means serving and sacrificing in everyday ways, such as showing up for work, turning down a night with the boys to stay home with the family and turning off the video games.

Dr. Anthony Lilles, professor of spiritual theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, reflects on page 8 about what it means to be a spiritual father. He opens a window into authentic fatherhood, allowing the reader to rediscover that there is something very good about the world we live in when we recognize and protect the sacredness of family life.

On page 22, Father Cameron Faller, vocations director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, shares wisdom from the wilderness when he draws spiritual insights from the secular TV series “Alone.” Ten men are sent out into the wilderness in British Columbia with limited supplies, and the audience gets to watch who can survive the longest. In describing how to survive in the wilderness, the contestant who ended up winning the competition said, “You can’t run against nature. You have to work with it, or it will run you over. Nature just is. You better understand what it is and get with the program or you will suffer.” In other words, we have a duty to recognize that we are created by God, the author of nature, and we have a responsibility to reverence and respect goodness as reflected in the laws of creation.

Let us take seriously the hard work we need to do to raise our boys to want to become good fathers who take on the responsibility to love and protect the most vulnerable. The ordinary way men make that spiritual transformation is through marriage. By committing to love a particular woman, to be faithful to her, to protect and provide, to care for the children they create (or adopt) together, boys become men worthy of the name. But when a marriage culture breaks down, even more heroism is required of a father to protect and provide for their children and their children’s mother. This means that in a society riven by family fragmentation, all of us men need to step up and become fathers to the fatherless.

As we turn to God to recognize the unfailing fatherly love we all need, let’s recommit to spiritual fatherhood within our families and in our communities. Let’s pledge to become the loving, protective fathers our world so desperately needs.

This article originally ran in the June 2023 issue of Catholic San Francisco.