July 29, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Every child has right to receive love from a mother and a father

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

In the fifth chapter of “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis reflects on the life-giving dimension of married love: its fruitfulness. Last week, I offered some reflections on the pope’s view of children. In this column, I want to offer some thoughts on Pope Francis’s vision for parents.

Motherhood is a consistent theme in the written and spoken words of Pope Francis. Motherhood is one of his favorite images for God, who is neither male nor female but in whom we see attributes of both, and for the Church, which is called to be a holy mother modeled on the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Mothers are the strongest antidote to the spread of self-centered individualism,” the pope says. “A society without mothers would be dehumanized, for mothers are always, even in the worst of times, witnesses to tenderness, dedication and moral strength” (“The Joy of Love,” #174).

The pope equates mothers with tenderness and mercy, an attribute that belongs to God first and foremost. But he also celebrates the “dedication and moral strength” that good mothers display—especially when their children are at any risk, physical or spiritual. “A mother who watches over her child with tenderness and compassion helps him or her to grow in confidence, and to experience that the world is a good and welcoming place” (#175). The same tenderness and compassion is what we are celebrating during this Holy Year of Mercy.

Fathers are different, Pope Francis says, but they are no less important. “A father, for his part, helps the child to perceive the limits of life, to be open to the challenges of the wider world, and to see the need for hard work and strenuous effort” (#175).

A father who is confident in his “masculine identity,” and who “demonstrates affection and concern for his wife,” is as important as a caring mother. Pope Francis understands that the roles and responsibilities of father and mother can be mixed depending on individual circumstances and personalities, “but the clear and well-defined presence of both figures, female and male, creates the environment best suited to the growth of the child” (#175).

The sad truth is that today we are too often “a society without fathers.” Pope Francis acknowledges the crisis of fatherhood in contemporary Western culture, wherein “the father figure is said to be symbolically absent, missing or vanished,” and “manhood itself seems to be called into question” (#176).

The Holy Father sees this as an extreme reaction to the days of authoritarian father figures. “In our day, the problem no longer seems to be the overbearing presence of the father so much as his absence, his not being there. Fathers are often so caught up in themselves and their work, and at times in their own self-fulfillment, that they neglect their families” (#176).

The pope argues that fathers should always be present to their wives and children, but he makes it clear that presence does not mean controlling. “Fathers who are too controlling overshadow their children, they don’t let them develop” (#177). It is not good for children to grow up without a father, the pope says, or to grow up before they are ready.

Pope Francis worries that the same cultural and economic forces that draw fathers away from their children are beginning to effect mothers as well.

Quoting St. John Paul II, Pope Francis says that “the woman stands before the man as a mother, the subject of the new human life that is conceived and develops in her, and from her is born into the world” (#173). This primacy of the mother is threatened by attitudes that devalue the mother’s role in the family and in society.

“I certainly value feminism,” Pope Francis says, “but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood. For the grandeur of women includes all the rights derived from their inalienable human dignity, but also from their feminine genius, which is essential to society. Their specifically feminine abilities—motherhood in particular—also grant duties, because womanhood also entails a specific mission in this world, a mission that society needs to protect and preserve for the good of all” ( #173).

Both parents are necessary to the growth and development of children. This is truly a countercultural view today, and Pope Francis would be the first to caution us not to judge families that fall short of this ideal.

May God bless all parents! †

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