Fatherhood and Authority
It is no mystery for any Catholic that all authority comes from God. Being the Creator of all things, He is the Master of all creatures and has absolute rights over all of them. In His Divine wisdom, He also wished to share that authority with His creation, delegating His own power to some, but not all, of His creatures. Some are elevated to the rank of kings, presidents, priests, or parents, receiving directly from God a conditional but real authority over others, entering the Divine Plan of God, receiving the responsibility to lead others and having to render account for this.
There is no doubt that a father of a family participates in the authority of God. “If the mother is the heart, the father is the head of the family,” as Pius XII says.1 He has authority over his family, his wife and children. But this authority, as a participation in the Divine authority, has specific goals: first, a natural happiness of the family, that is, to take care of his family, to foster order, peace, and virtue so as to reach a certain happiness in this life. He must also lead everyone towards a supernatural happiness, that is, to foster and lead everyone towards knowing, serving, and loving God, by this means saving their souls. The authority entrusted to him is not for his own benefit but for the good of those dependent on him. In other words, he has received power over his family and must exercise it. He will have to render an account of this. “Since God has given the family its existence, its dignity, its social function, it must answer to God for them,” added Pius XII.
Having Power and Exercising Power
However, there is a difference between having power or authority and exercising it. It is indeed two different things: to be entrusted a mission and to execute it. To take an example, teachers have authority over their students by their very function. However, some know how to be respected; others have a more difficult time. All of them have received from God the same authority but not all will exercise it as well as they maybe should. It is the same with parents and therefore with fathers.
As a matter of fact, there is a natural disposition to being respected and obeyed, but not everyone receives this gift. Some indeed will have no difficulty in imposing themselves; they have a natural disposition to it. Those should be careful not to abuse it. Their natural tendency will be to overuse it, and therefore they need to temper that natural ability with patience, affection, and gentleness, encouraging and supporting the efforts they ask. In this case, obedience is not so much the challenge as the effort to be loved. But others will not have such a natural facility; they will find it more difficult to impose their will on others, to give direction and be obeyed. They need to acquire an effective authority essentially by a growing firmness in the direction or order they give, as well as constancy. In this case, they will easily be loved but need to emphasize the importance of obedience. One has to soften his firmness; the other has to strengthen his gentleness. There are qualities, means, or even rules necessary for exercising and strengthening authority, which all fathers must work on improving, whatever their natural dispositions are. Let us try to see what are the most important ones.
Virtue Is Essential
The personal acquisition of virtues is essential for a father. It must be a constant care for parents to form themselves in these good habits so as to be able to pass them on to their children. Giving a good example follows as a natural effect of developing and practicing the virtues. How would children obey their father if they see, especially as they grow older, that he is not himself obeying God’s commandments or when there are constant expressions of disrespect for other authorities, civil or religious? The main way for children to learn the difference between good and evil is the example their parents give them. A good prayer life is one of the good examples a father must take care to give to his children, showing them the importance of it by practicing it daily, praying with them, praying with his wife, praying on his own. Blessed are the children who see their parents praying the rosary together daily!
But what is most important in order to acquire a true and effective authority over others is to learn self-control. A lack of self-discipline always diminishes authority. To lead others, one needs to learn to control his temper, his passions, and his feelings. It is too common a practice, for instance, to correct children because of feelings of the moment. It is not because it is wrong but because one becomes frustrated or annoyed. Passions or feelings lead one to act too permissively at times and too strongly at others, even for the same actions. They lead one to be unjust in many ways, but especially in the very important function of all authorities: correcting faults and mistakes.
This point needs some attention. Indeed, one of the most difficult and delicate, but most important roles of a father is to correct and punish his children when necessary. It is delicate because no one likes to correct others, especially those he loves. It is always painful. On the other hand, no one likes to be corrected either. That is why the first disposition and even the only goal must be the good of the child. What is good for him? What will help him to become a man, a woman, a better Christian? Without that disposition, any correction or even punishment is not only useless but counter-productive. In order to reach the goal, the amendment or the improvement of a child, one has to move progressively.
Prevent and Correct Faults
Correction should come first. By means of exhortations, parents can prevent faults by giving advice and appealing to their good will. The second step when a child is at fault will usually be a reprimand not in anger but with calm and peace. The child must indeed understand little by little that he is reprimanded because his actions or behavior were wrong, not just because he made others angry. If this remains without effect, without amendment or change in behavior, then punishing is necessary.
But as mentioned before, punishing is difficult because it must lead to better behavior, to virtue and not to rebellion. That is why some rules will help to reach this goal:
- The first one is to remain calm. Anger shows a personal reaction but does not express that the correction is due to an objective fault.
- Punishment when necessary should be given without many warnings.
- It is advisable to punish rarely but firmly when necessary.
- Any punishment should always be proportionate to the fault.
Parents should not give in to the resistance of children. A parent might say no to a request and sooner or later give in simply because of the tears, noise, or because the child is being too grouchy. This is very confusing for the children and attacks the very principle of authority. Correction is no longer for the good of the child but for our own good. On the contrary, to be able to fulfill the divine mission of leading, one must keep a just and equal treatment at all times and for all.
Finally, giving encouragement and compliments for signs of good will when visible also helps the children to accept more willingly the necessary corrections or punishments. It also consolidates the authority. One is more able to accept the reprimand of a father who is able to see also the efforts. The balance between the two simply brings respect.
All authority comes from God, from God who is a Father to us: “Our Father who art in heaven.” Anyone in authority should therefore imitate God in His Fatherhood. It is so true that all authority on earth must be a fatherhood, and all fatherhood must exercise authority. There is no other way to be a good father of a family than to imitate God, to become little by little, by efforts of virtues, to His likeness. Fathers, in leading your family, imitate God in His patience, in His love, and in His justice.
“It is clear that your first duty in the sanctuary of the family home is to provide—with due respect and the perfection, humanly possible, of its integrity, of its unity, of the natural hierarchy which unites the members among themselves—for the preservation of the physical, intellectual, moral and religious sanctity of the family,” teaches Pius XII.
1 Allocution to the Fathers of Families, given by Pope Pius XII on September 18, 1951.