Catholic men have been assigned a dauntingly impressive set of responsibilities. It is stated unambiguously in the marriage ceremony. While most men accept the obligations, the virtuous exercise of paternal authority seems a struggle for many of us. It is not because we haven’t been told what we need to do. If the constant teaching of the Church and the examples of other Catholic fathers were not enough, the charitable and necessary reminders from the wife should make it clear. Despite all of the assistance, many of us Catholic men labor to be authoritative fathers and husbands.
What is that keeps us from being effective fathers and loving husbands, fulfilling our obligations? Psychological science has demonstrated that effective parenting requires in part being authoritative. However, at least two impediments interfere with achieving that mission; we men don’t think we can do it well enough and our culture is suspicious of men who are authoritative within their families.
A large volume of psychological research has identified a parenting style that is most likely to result in raising healthy, high functioning children. Two essential dimensions of parenting are demandingness, and responsiveness. Demandingness is essentially having moderately high expectations of the child and holding them accountable. Behavior is monitored and when misbehavior occurs it is corrected in a firm, warm manner. Positive disciplinary practices are followed as much as possible, but negative consequences are used as necessary, in a measured, proportionate way.
Responsiveness is the second dimension. It is discerning how the child is doing, and then challenging or supporting the child as necessary. It is a child-focused style of parenting. The give and take of open communication allow parents to discern what their children truly need and want, and children have the opportunity to state their views and perspectives, and even negotiate to some degree.
Utilizing the two dimensions, parenting styles have been categorized into four types: authoritative, neglectful, permissive, and authoritarian.
The healthiest parenting style, authoritative, is both demanding and responsive. The household has predictable structure and sufficient communication that the child understands what is expected of them and the parents know the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and can accurately discern the child’s perspective. While expectations are high, they are tempered by the capabilities and preferences of their child.
The most harmful style is neglectful, neither demanding nor responsive. Parents neither have many expectations nor know enough of their children’s needs to be supportive. In general, this style has little to do with characteristics of the child or financial limitations; it can be due to parental ignorance of the requirements of childrearing or psychological difficulties, such as depression or personality disorders which make the parent unavailable to their children.
Permissive parenting is responsive to the child’s wants, but little is expected. The child will have many things, will be involved in activities, but will not experience meeting expectations or fulfilling commitments. The child will most likely not understand self-discipline is a necessity for accomplishment, and life is not all about him or her.
Authoritarian parenting is highly demanding, and not responsive. It is very parent-focused; the child is to do as he or she is told. A premium is placed on obedience but there is little nurturance or accommodation to individual needs and characteristics. In this style, the communication is top down, with little information especially as regards emotions flowing from child to parent.
Effective parenting is balanced, consisting in large measures of orderliness and reciprocal, mostly affectionate communication. Good qualities are not pursued so emphatically that it becomes disproportionate, that a good now becomes its opposite. I especially hope that it is apparent that it falls on the parents to provide the structure and modeling the communication, and that the exercise of authority is necessary to accomplish those ends. More importantly, authoritative parenting is entirely consistent with Catholic teaching, emphasizing both the proper order of things and charity towards each other.
The Role of the Catholic Father in Parenting
A Catholic father, if he is to perform his paternal duty, will strive to be an authoritative parent for his children. As the head of the household, he will not only model it himself, but he will also cooperate with his wife to help her carry out her part of the task. It will not be a complete division of labor. That is, he will not be the only one who assures compliance with expectations nor will it be only his wife who is nurturing and responsive to the child’s needs.
Exercising virtuous authority is one area that Catholic men struggle to fulfill their responsibilities. In particular I am going to focus on what interferes with Catholic fathers being authoritative regarding their children, since given the research on good parenting practices that is what would be best for their child.
The obstacles to being an authoritative Catholic father, based in virtue, are numerous but I will address two of the more serious ones. One impediment is the father fears that the responsibilities exceed his capabilities; he may believe that he may be too flawed, self-centered, and deficient in the requisite skills to adequately exert authority. A second hurdle is that living in a culture which is distrustful of a man asserting leadership of his family can undermine his efforts to be authoritative.
It is true that a careful inventory of the skills necessary to execute the responsibilities of fatherhood would be lengthy. Paternal authority will be moral, emotional, social, and physical, in varying degrees depending upon the circumstance, and the father has to operate in each of these domains. Who of us is comfortable in all of these ways?
Fathers must function at home in much the same way that they function in the workplace. They must plan ahead and have a vision of what must be done. He is both a leader and a follower. He needs to accurately judge the needs and desires of those around him, and balance the competing demands on resources. He must imagine the possibilities of 10 years hence and focus on the minutia of daily tasks. If you work, you do have the skills.
You might feel inadequate and overwhelmed, but do not succumb to the temptation to abdicate your responsibilities as the family leader. To do so means leaving it to others: wife, school, other youth, and neighbors, to raise your children. Be reassured that whatever you may need to do as a father, you have performed similar tasks in other situations. More importantly, the job is so essential that simply showing up to do it as best you can is vastly superior to not doing it all. I can think of no better application of Chesterton’s assertion that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” As a child clinical psychologist, I can assure you that a well-intentioned and present father, even a lazy one, is far superior to being absent.
Masculine Authority in the Family
Authority in general is viewed suspiciously in our culture, and especially in the context of family life. Most believe that parents and certainly fathers should instruct their children in appropriate behavior, and be willing to demand that children act civilly towards friends, teachers, other adults, and definitely do not be disrespectful towards their mothers. The obligation to see that children learn to act appropriately and effectively is non-controversial until you start describing it as an example of exerting authority.
If the obligations are enumerated without specifying that the father has “the right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience,” few objections will be raised. If authority is invoked, the complaint is that the woman and children are relegated to being second class members of the family and oppressed by arbitrary, unbridled, masculine power. Authority is little more than the power to coerce, not benign in any way. Authority within the family is not acknowledged as necessary to accomplish what parents, and especially the father, are divinely enjoined to do. The notion of the virtuous exercise of authority at least as regards family relations is not in the vocabulary of many in our culture.
One must admit that there are examples of paternal authority being used to justify exploitation of family members, e.g. sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, domestic violence, narcissistic selfishness. Rather than being a servant leader, the man is taking advantage of his position to satisfy his creature comforts, even if it does not constitute abuse. From the outside, it can look innocent, it might appear authoritative. Because we Catholic men believe true, virtuous authority is so lacking in general, we are prone to overlook when it is being exploited for dad’s benefit.
The Model of Virtuous Authoritative Fatherhood
Whenever you despair of being an authoritative leader of your family, recall that you can cultivate existing skills to be a quality father. Be confident. Look around. You know men, just like you, who are assertive, capable heads of their families. If they can do it, so can you. Listen to your family, your priest, reflect and pray for help, allow yourself to be humbled, and then think of St. Joseph. He exercised authority, and we know his Family was subject to him. Imagine the challenge—a wife without sin and a Son who was perfect.