On Christian Fatherhood
Book Review: “Because of Our Fathers: Twenty-Three Catholics Tell How Their Fathers Led Them to Christ”. Tyler Rowley. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2020. 206 pp. $16.95.
One morning several weeks ago, I received the exciting news that I am going to be (and technically already am) a father. This was something my wife and I had planned and hoped for, so I cannot say it came as a surprise. Still, there was a sense of nervousness and confusion in my head. After all, I can be trained as a theologian, musician, athlete… but how can I be trained and prepared for fatherhood? No amount of books, YouTube videos, or scientific formulae can help me achieve success as a father. Sure, I can adopt the “do no harm” principle and apply it to the way I interact with our future children. But is fatherhood reducible to “don’t be a screw-up”? Or is there an actual specific meaning, purpose, and logic to fatherhood?
For decades now, popular television shows and movies have depicted fathers as dumb, obnoxious, embarrassing, and the like. Look no further than Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, Homer from The Simpsons, or Al Bundy from Married…With Children. Fathers are typically portrayed as slow-thinking, lazy, useless, bored and uninterested in their children, violent and rash when their favorite sport team loses, effeminate and pusillanimous when exposed to sock puppets, constantly rolling their eyes at their nagging wives while sitting on the recliner — a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other. Adam Sandler’s crude performance in Big Daddy (1999) and Chevy Chase’s theriocidal actions in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) were well-received by film audiences and critics looking for a cheap laugh. But they did little to reinforce positive images of fatherhood, let alone promote the importance of Christian fatherhood.
In reflecting about what it means for me to be a father — even as our unborn child continues to develop in the womb — I couldn’t help but think about the positive examples of fathers in my life: my biological father, my grandfather, my spiritual father (a Roman Catholic priest), and more. How did they know what to do, and what to say? What principles shaped the way they saw themselves and their paternal vocation? They obviously did not all take Fatherhood 101 at the local community college. They learned fatherhood not by knowing, but by doing. In that sense, fatherhood could be thought of as having on-the-job training. But I know for a fact that they didn’t simply throw metaphorical mud at the wall and hope some elements of good parenting stuck. They were guided by their Catholic faith, which acted as a lamp unto their feet, a light unto their path (Psalm 119:105).
Examples of good fathers enlightened by their Catholic faith abound in Tyler Rowley’s new book, Because of Our Fathers: Twenty-Three Catholics Tell How Their Fathers Led Them to Christ. In that book, nearly two-dozen Catholic men and women reflect upon the faith of their fathers through personal narratives. Contributors include Bishop Joseph Strickland, well-known Catholic lay apologists (such as Patrick Madrid and Jesse Romero), academics like Dr. Anthony Esolen, multiple Catholic priests, the son of Carl Jr’s founder, former Planned Parenthood employee of the year now-turned-pro life activist Abby Johnson, a son of a former Supreme Court justice, a 6-time NFL Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, and many more. Despite their varied backgrounds and personalities, each contributor shares two things in common: his or her Catholic faith, and the stories of fathers who helped nurture that faith.
The book begins with an excellent — and dare I say prayerful — introduction written by Rowley. He reminds the reader that there is a special dignity and meaning to Christian fatherhood. Whether one looks at the example of Jesus who called God “Father”, or the humble St. Joseph whose gentle strength guided Mary and the Christ child through pregnancy, birth, and flight into Egypt, or St. Paul in his exhortations to male audiences, one finds that fatherhood has a special and providential role in salvation history. Scripture and Tradition are replete with emphases on the importance of the father, whether that be about his responsibilities in the temporal sphere, or in the spiritual sphere. Rowley notes how St. Thomas Aquinas and Pius IX taught that the Christian father (and parents, in general) have a sacred duty to propagate children, provide for them, as well as teach them about Christ, raising children in the Faith. A simple glance at the Church and the world around us will show that these duties are often neglected, if not flat-out ignored. In Rowley’s own words,
In many respects, and in many places around the world, the Catholic Church is in “ruin”. Therefore, the world she is tasked with shepherding is in ruin, and this cultural breakdown can be attributed to the fathers who have abandoned their sacred duty to educate their children ‘to become members of the Church of Christ’. This neglect leaves children unequipped to grow in virtue, pursue the world’s deepest truths, worship correctly, pursue authentic justice, build healthy families of their own, and face the world in the most meaningful and impactful ways… The world’s biggest problem is the ruin of the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church’s biggest problem is the ruin of fatherhood. (13)
Rowley, a husband and father himself, addresses his book to all Catholics, but in particular, to the growing number of disaffiliated Catholic men whose absence in the Church’s pews and mission has left a massive gap in forming future Christians. Using the latest demographic research and sociological analysis, Rowley shows how it is the father’s practice of the faith — and not so much the mother’s (despite that being important, too) — which will largely affect the child’s own future practice. Whether or not a child becomes a practicing adult Christian is largely dependent on his or her father. Rowley cites the Council of Europe’s Population Committee in demonstrating that,
“[I]f fathers fall away from or are lax in their commitment to the faith, their children have only a 2 to 3 percent chance of going to the church regularly when they are adults. On the other hand, if dads go to church regularly, no matter how devoted moms are, between 38 and 44 percent of their children will grow up to be regular churchgoers and between 66 and 75 percent will go to church at least occasionally.” (26)
With an introduction as strong as his, one might wonder why Rowley did not simply just write a whole book on fatherhood! That would definitely be a worthy read. But his approach of interviewing twenty-three Catholics across the country, talking to them about their faith and their fathers, had its own strength. After all, fatherhood is not practiced in uniformity to one particular method or aesthetic, but like all culture, is expressed in a multitude of ways. Even with Christian fatherhood, there is a legitimate diversity of approaches. No two fathers are the same, which is why the stories contained in this book are so interesting. Some of the fathers were rich, and others barely got by. Some of the fathers had advanced theological knowledge of Catholicism, while others had a very simple, yet nonetheless authentic faith. Some of the fathers came from a long line of practicing Catholics; others were converts, with little experience of having Christian fathers themselves. It was comforting to read these narratives, because they helped me realize that fatherhood is less of a specific regimen to follow, and more of an embrace of God’s grace in the present moment. None of the fathers presented in this book were perfect, but they were determined and committed to serve the Lord, their spouse, and their children with the same sacrificial love that Christ has for the Church.
In the Gospels, Jesus taught through stories. Instead of offering a dissertation on the Kingdom of God, Jesus preaches the kingdom through stories featuring mustard seeds, pearls of great price, hidden treasure, yeast, and fishing nets — all common images in first-century Palestine. The stories we tell and the lessons they contain reveal who we are and what we value. And this is why I am glad I came across Tyler Rowley’s book, Because of Our Fathers: Twenty-Three Catholics Tell How Their Fathers Led Them to Christ. Despite the craziness and nonsense in this world, there are still courageous men who answer the call to become Christian husbands and fathers, to guide their children in the Faith, and to set an example for them to follow. If this book proves anything, it’s that answering such a call will result in grateful, virtuous — and Catholic — children.