by Dave McClow
The “prodigal father” is the story of our time. It is the story of fatherlessness in our families. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is and has always been highly aware of the crisis of fatherhood and its implications for society (see my previous blog). He knows that when fatherhood is gutted, “something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged” (The God of Jesus Christ, p. 29). But he is also supremely insightful about what happens in the family, both positively and negatively, because of fathers! Let’s start out with the problems:
“A theologian has said that today we ought to supplement the story of the Prodigal Son with that of the prodigal father. Fathers are often entirely occupied by their work and give more wholehearted attention to their work than to their child, more to achievement than to gifts, and to the tasks implied by those gifts. But the loss of involvement of the father also causes grave inner damage to the sons” (God and the World, pp. 274-275).
I’m not sure why he leaves out daughters, but the effect is just as devastating for daughters. Are you leaving behind the gift of your children for busy-ness or business? Are you too task and achievement oriented? Part of this over-focus is the religious nature of our masculinity—our natural inclination toward sacrifice for a cause. This is masculine spirituality that is often not acknowledged by men or women. If men can’t relate to God as men, they turn to things which are not ultimate—that is, to things Scripture calls idols. This is why work, hobbies, and sports can become all-consuming.
Fear is another component of turning to non-ultimate things. Sometimes a lot of men view the murky waters of relationships and emotions at home like a foreign country to be feared. They would rather turn elsewhere to feel like a success. We need to invoke my vote for St. John Paul II’s #2 motto (after “Totus Tuus, Totally yours, Mary”), “Be not afraid!” We need to have courage! There is nothing wrong with work, hobbies, or sports, but they must be rightly ordered—they must not take precedence over people or God. Even virtues in the extremes become vice.
As Pope, Benedict XVI includes in the problem list broken families, worries, and money problems, along with “the distracting invasion of the media” in our daily life. All of these things “can stand in the way of a calm and constructive relationship between father and child.” “It is not easy for those who have experienced an excessively authoritarian and inflexible father or one who was indifferent and lacking in affection, or even absent, to think serenely of God and to entrust themselves to him with confidence” (General Audience, January 30, 2013).
He nails the problems of modern life including technology; and the perennial problems of fathers who can be excessively rigid, indifferent, lacking in affection, or even absent. These things damage our view of God and make it difficult to trust. Next, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he contrasts two very different fathers: Zeus and God the Father.
If we look for a moment at pagan mythologies, then the father-god Zeus, for instance, is portrayed as moody, unpredictable, and willful: the father does incorporate power and authority, but without the corresponding degree of responsibility, the limitation of power through justice and kindness (God and the World, pp. 274-275).
If you are the kind of father who wants your kids to obey just because you’re the father, you’re in the Zeus camp, which uses the power and authority of the role without the responsibility which limits that power through justice and kindness. This father uses domination and fear to lord it over the kids and demands obedience. Consequently, because they don’t like the master/slave relationship, the kids usually have a temper problem and find ways to rebel. Or as Protestant apologist Josh McDowell has aptly put it, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” The master/slave idea is found more in Islam, a word which means submission. Allah is not a loving Father—in fact, this idea is blasphemous to a Muslim. Allah is an all-powerful God who must be obeyed.
God the Father as our Model
Zeus shows us how not to be a good father. The Pope Emeritus says that Scripture helps us know of “a God who shows us what it really means to be ‘father’; and it is the Gospel, especially, which reveals to us this face of God as a Father who loves” (General Audience, January 30, 2013). The Father uses power and responsibility with justice and kindness, which is a more relational approach. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he unpacks this idea:
The Father as he appears in the Old Testament is quite different [from Zeus], and still more in what Jesus says about the Father: here, power corresponds to responsibility; here we meet a picture of power that is properly directed, that is at one with love, that does not dominate through fear but creates trust. The fatherhood of God means devotion toward us, an acceptance of us by God at the deepest level, so that we can belong to him and turn to him in childlike love. Certainly, his fatherhood does mean that he sets the standards and corrects us with a strictness that manifests his love and that is always ready to forgive (God and the World, pp. 274-275).