“Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.”
The prophet Malachi foretold that the coming of the Messiah would make men better fathers. In his own words: “To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 3:24) During the Old Testament era, the absence of the Holy Spirit left men’s hearts unaffectionate and aloof. Rulers were brutal to their citizens and fathers were often cold toward their children. As with everything, there are notable exceptions. However, it wasn’t unknown for Roman emperors, the Herod dynasty and other pagan rulers to eliminate their sons if they proved to be an obstacle. Even Absalom rose up and rebelled against his father, Kind David (II Samuel 13).
Before Christ, infanticide was also common in the most civilized parts of the world. And in worst case scenarios, human sacrifices were practiced on every continent. For instance, where the State of Illinois is today, there was an Indian tribe called the “Mound Builders,” also known as the Natchez Indians. This sun-worshipping tribe, it was recently discovered, practiced human sacrifice. Even with Israel and Judah in the Old Testament, upon falling away from the exclusive worship of Yahweh and thus adoring other gods, succumbed to the ritual of child and human sacrifice. “They immolated their sons and daughters by fire, practiced fortune-telling and divination, and sold themselves into evil doing in the LORD'S sight, provoking him till, in his great anger against Israel, the LORD put them away out of his sight.” (II Kings 17:17-18) This is what unredeemed human nature is capable of. We take it for granted what Christ has meant to the world and the civilizing effect he has had on human beings. As Belloc said, one thing stands out, the unquestioned prevalence of cruelty in the unbaptized world.
But out of this darkness, God promised that a new day would dawn for humanity. Seven hundred years before the Incarnation of Christ, the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.” (Ezekiel 36:25-26) With natural hearts, men would turn toward their children and become the fathers they were created to be. This is why the angel Gabriel, when he appeared to St. Zachariah in the Temple, would confirm the words of the prophet Malachi: “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
With a new and generous diffusion of divine grace from heaven, there arose a new understanding of God himself. In days of old, he was Yahweh, the Almighty, the Supreme Being, whose name was not to be pronounced. With the coming of his Son, however, the Almighty was also to be looked upon as a Father. St. Paul reminds us: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:15-17)
Supernatural fatherhood in the form of the priesthood and the natural fatherhood as it exists in the institution of the family collaborate with one another to mediate the Divine Fatherhood of God. In many respects, the priest at the parish level ideally serves as a template and source of strength for fathers of families. When a priest is not the spiritual father he should be for parishioners, this deficit has a ripple effect into natural fatherhood. Perhaps this is why the website, fatherhood.org could report the following statistics from 2009:
“According to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data, over 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers. That is 1 out of every 3 (33%) children in America. Nearly 2 in 3 (64%) African American children live in father-absent homes. One in three (34%) Hispanic children, and 1 in 4 (25%) white children live in father-absent homes. In 1960, only 11% of children lived in father-absent homes. Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.”
But the good news is that we, as Catholics, know where the font of renewal is to be found. God had decreed, from all eternity, that He would father His beloved Son and express that Divine Fatherhood through the Catholic priesthood. And as seminaries in the 21 century pump out more well-formed priests, fathers who sit in the pews will better benefit from God's fatherly love and discipline. It is from the spoken Word of God, from the life of Christ as it is communicated through the Seven Sacraments and from the banquet of the altar, that fathers can learn to turn their hearts toward their children. Sitting at the feet of Mother Church, fathers, over the centuries, were inspired to balance their authority and strength with tenderness and affection. It is there that they became real men and served as a symbol of the Fatherhood of God. And from the sanctuary of the home, children, through the guidance of involved fathers, were likewise made into productive citizens who, in many cases, became great leaders of nations.
What once was, can be again. The Catholic Church can restore the institution of fatherhood in today's world.