The Sacredness of Fatherhood
Many adults have said that the most striking childhood offense they can recollect was when they talked back or even raised their hand against one of their parents.
Although it may not be the most serious infraction, it strikes a chord which runs deep in the human heart: to offend the one who gave one’s life is like cutting the branch on which one is sitting. It is attacking something more important than the persons involved. It is uprooting the very foundation of human life and human authority. It is as if one struck at God’s face itself.
This alone tells us the sacredness of parents and especially of the father, the head of the family. Without getting too deep into the subject, it might prove useful to explore the role of the father in antiquity, the respective subjects which this common name covers, and offer some guidelines as to his powers and limits.
The Human Origins of Paternity
In his Ancient City (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1980), the 19th-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges defends the thesis that the origin of the State was the gens, that is, the tribe or family. A family was composed of a father, a mother, children, and slaves. This group required discipline. To whom, then, belonged the chief authority? To the father? No. There was in every house something above the father himself: it was the domestic religion. This is that god whom the Greeks called the hearth-master, whom the Romans called Lar familiaris.
This divinity of the interior was what fixed rank in the family, and the father was first in the presence of the sacred fire which was the altar place for all religious rites, especially in connection with the dead ancestors turned into half-gods, the manes. The father was not only the strong man, the protector who commanded obedience; he was the priest, heir to the hearth, the continuator of the ancestors, the parent stock of the descendants, the depositary of the mysterious rites of worship, and of the sacred formulas of prayer. The whole religion resided in him. He could almost say, Hindu-like, “I am the god.” When death came, he would join his ancestors and become also a god whose protection his descendants were to invoke.
His name, pater, is the same in Greek, in Latin, and in Sanskrit. This name, which was given to gods and to celibates, does not necessarily include paternity, which receives a distinctive term in these Indo-European civilizations (Gânitar; gennètèr, genitor). The word pater had another sense. In religious language, it was applied to the gods; in legal language, to every man who had a worship and a domain. It was synonymous with the word king. It contained in itself, not the idea of paternity, but that of power, authority, majestic dignity.
The diverse rights which Greek and Roman laws conferred upon the father consider him as the master of the patrimony or as a judge over his subjects, but especially as a religious chief. The father is the supreme chief of the domestic religion. He is responsible for the perpetuity of the worship, and for that of the family. Whatever affects this perpetuity, which is his first care and his first duty, depends upon him alone. Hence, he has rights to recognize the child at its birth or to reject it. Barbarous as this custom is, it is not contrary to the principles on which the family is founded. This is because, even when the filiation is uncontested, no one is admitted into the sacred circle of the family without its chief and an initiation into its worship. Likewise, the father has the right to repudiate the wife, either in case of sterility, because the family must not become extinct; or in case of adultery, which would bring foreign blood into the tribe. He has also the right to give his daughter in marriage—that is to say, to cede to another the power which he has over her. He has a foremost right of marrying his son as this concerns very closely the perpetuity of the family.
Who Is My Father?
The fourth commandment, written at the head of the second table of the Mosaic Law, orders man to honor his parents. Oddly, it adds also the reason for this precept and a temporal sanction. “Honor thy father, forget not the groaning of thy mother: remember that thou hadst not been born but through them…” (Eccl. 7:29-30). “Honor them…that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long lived upon earth” (Eph. 6:2-3). To practice piety towards one’s parents is to remount to the source of our human existence and to merit that its course may last as long and as happily as we may wish for.
If we need to venerate our progenitors in the flesh, we need to recall that, in the present economy, there is also another life, higher and more divine than that of nature, that is to say, the supernatural life. As heaven is above earth, so the life of the soul is above that of the body. Our soul is granted the life of grace which is given us by God through human channels. This paternity which has begotten us to this higher life has a right also to our love and gratitude. Our homage must be consistent with the blessings received. If the worship due to our ancestors in the flesh is great, no less is that owed to our spiritual leaders. If we love dearly those who taught us the rudiments of speech, how much more need we love those who taught us firstly the language of God?
And, ultimately, our gratitude must rise all the way to heaven, to God, “from whom all paternity in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:15), God who is the source of all authority and power, as Christ testified before Pilate: “Thou wouldst have no power against me unless it were given thee from above” (Jn. 19:11). God has fathered the whole of creation, drawing everything out of nothing by His simple word. Beyond all others, He can be called the father of all things; He enjoys supreme dominion over things. He enjoys authority over all as its Creator, and also as He fulfills truly the meaning of authority which comes from the Latin augere—giving increase.
What Is the Scope of Paternity?
In Greek and Roman antiquity, as seen above, the powers of the father were almost limitless, including that of life and death over the minors under his care, his wife included. Not so with the advent of Christianity. The post-Judaic economy of salvation is a rupture from the past specifically in that it emancipates the soul from the slavery of sin and affords us the liberty of God’s children. Does this translate into a free-for-all in domestic matters? Not quite!
In one of his homilies (Le Cardinal Pie de A à Z [Éditions de Paris], 2005, p. 686), Cardinal Pie illustrates the limits of parental authority. St. Martin, against his parents’ will, became a catechumen at age ten. Then what of the natural law? Does it not, in conjunction with revealed law, tell the son to obey his parents? Yes, and yet the Gospel adds another statement: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt. 10:37). And St. Gregory observes that “if we weigh the nature of the divine precept, we may by a wise distinction both obey and disobey. Thus, honoring our parents because of the ties of nature, we may flee away from them if we find them adverse to the road which leads to God.”
In another case, Cardinal Pie (ibid., p. 688) brings up a passage in St. Paul where the ancient sense of paternity seems utterly preserved: “both he that giveth his virgin in marriage, doth well; and he that giveth her not, doth better” (I Cor. 7:38). At first sight it seems as if the Creator had given all our rights to our procreators, and that he entrusted to them the choice of our state in life. A closer examination shows that this is not quite the case. Human fatherhood is subject to the higher domain of the Celestial Father, the author of all fatherhood. And God’s will is signified by a multiplicity of signs and circumstances which direct the paternal exercise, the first of which is the free will of the child. No one, not even a father, can violate this domain. Neither for a nuptial contract nor the sacred vows of religion can a father do away with the free consent of his child. Here are two rights, two forces, not vying against each other as they proclaim foolishly today, but harmonizing mutually to fulfill the designs of God over His creatures.
Blessed is the father who, under God’s eye, gently helps the burgeoning of each of his children according to the vocation which they have been assigned in heaven! Blessed these Christian marriages where the spouses need only remember the teachings of the domestic tradition!