Paradoxes of Fatherhood

Fatherhood means being:

  1. An authority without being authoritarian. The father, like God, shares in the authorship of life. He is an authority and therefore someone to learn from and be guided by. But his authority does not restrict the liberty of others. In fact, the purpose of fatherly authority is to cultivate and enhance liberty. St. Thomas Aquinas wisely pointed out that "the respect that one has for the rule flows naturally from the respect one has for the person who gave it" (Ex reverentia praecipientis procedere debet ex reverentia praecepti). A person best understands fatherhood by knowing someone who is a good father. One must begin with the real experience and not a cultural caricature.

  2. A leader without being a frontrunner. Our prevailing notion of leader comes from the worlds of sports and from politics. In relation to the "leader board" in golf, the leader is the one who is ahead of the rest of the field. In the world of politics he is the one who is leading in the political polls by getting more votes than his rivals. But a father is not a leader in this way. He does not try to remove himself from his family. Nor does he regard the members of his family as rivals. On the contrary, he leads in a manner that fulfills each member. His leadership is inseparable from those he leads. What he leads and "fathers" into being is the good of those whom he loves. In other words, fatherhood requires that a father leads by being there, rather than being "ahead of the pack."

  3. A visionary without being arrogant. Every home must have a hearth and a horizon, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar has stated. The father is a visionary in the sense that he has an eye on the future. He has a keen sense of the importance of time. But he has this without presumption or arrogance. He is providential in his fathering. He knows instinctively that his children will grow up and lead independent lives. He provides for them a future vision of themselves and works hard to make that future a reality.

  4. A servant without being servile. The expression "servus servorum Dei," adopted by John Paul II, comes from Pope Gregory the Great. Paradoxically, this servant of the servants of God earned the appellation "Great." "He who humbles himself shall be exalted". The father serves all the members of his family without being in any sense subservient or inferior. One might say, in this respect, that fathers, like tennis players, enjoy an advantage when they serve.

  5. A lover without being sentimental. The love of a father is strong and unwavering. His love is not bound by a feeling, and hence prone to sentimentality. It is strengthened by principles that always focus on the good of others. Love means doing what is in the best interest of others. In this regard, authentic love can be "tough love". Sentimentality means always being nice because one is fearful of criticism. The real father has a spine and is not afraid of whatever opinions others may have.

  6. A supporter without being subordinate. A father is supportive. He holds people up, keeps them going when they are inclined to be discouraged. But his encouraging role does not imply subordination, but the kind of reliability and trustworthiness that one can expect from someone who is strong. He is not supportive in the Hollywood sense of being a "supporting actor." His supportive role is played out, as a matter of fact, as the leading man.

  7. A disciplinarian without being punitive. A good father knows the value of rules and the consequences of disregarding them. He wants his children to be strong in virtue. Therefore, he knows the importance of discipline, restraint, and self-possession. He is not punitive, nor is he overbearing. He makes it clear to his children that there is not true freedom without discipline, the discipleship requires training. He is wary of punishment as such, since it can strike fear in the heart of a child.

  8. Merciful without being spineless.Mercy must be grounded in justice. Otherwise it is dissipation and weakness. In fact, mercy that disregards justice is unjust. A father, because he recognizes the uncompromisable importance of justice is anything but heartless. He is merciful, but his mercy perfects his justice. Mercy without justice is mere capitulation to the desires of others. Justice without mercy is cold legalism.

  9. Humble without being self-deprecating. Humility is based on the honest recognition of who one is and the nature of one's role. It takes into account one's limitations and weaknesses. The humble father, when he encounters difficulties, has enough humility to ask for help, even at times, from his own children. Yet, he never gets down on himself. He knows that remaining self-deprecating at a time of crisis is utterly futile. He has the heart to help and the humility to enlist the help of others.

  10. Courageous without being foolhardy. Courage is not fearlessness, but the ability to rise above fear so that one can do what needs to be done in a time of danger or difficulty. A father does not fall apart when he begins to feel the pressure. Foolhardiness is not courage but an unfocussed and unhelpful recklessness. Moreover, courage, as its etymology suggests, requires heart. The father, above all, is a man of heart.
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