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Two visions of fatherhood

Two visions of Catholic fatherhood compete today.

All across America on any weeknight you can glimpse the dominant vision in a drive thru, where a good Catholic dad buys dinner for his daughter before he drops her off at ballet practice. His wife is across town with their son at soccer practice. They’ll all get home late, fall into bed, and do it again the next day. They rarely eat together as a family and their living room is immaculate and unused.

On Sunday, this same dad worships with his son at Mass. His wife will attend a later Mass because she’s with their daughter at her regional orchestra competition. They will be united briefly late in the evening after a flurry of activity.  

OK, OK. Please hear me out. I’m not beating up on this man or his beautiful family. I am often this man, and to be clear, he is a good and loving Catholic dad. But for the sake of argument, let’s paint him as an extreme embodiment of an entire vision of fatherhood.

This Catholic dad sees his role as serving his family primarily through activities outside his physical home. His home is essentially a base or pitstop, what Christendom philosophy professor John Cuddeback calls a “staging area,” which the family uses to “rest and refuel for remote daily activities.” He pursues what I’ll call a vision of “home base fatherhood.”

But there is a second vision.

All across America on any weeknight you can glimpse this vision in a family kitchen, where a good Catholic dad helps his wife prepare dinner. After the meal, chores, and family prayer, he’ll read with his kids, fall into bed, and do it again the next day. They have dinner as a family most evenings and their living room is bustling with life.

On Sunday, this same dad worships with his whole family at Mass. Afterward they will head home and host some friends for lunch. He and his wife will be together throughout the day as they visit with their guests and as their kids ransack the basement, play outside, and track mud through the living room.  

I know. You’re thinking “Norman Rockwell.” Throwback. Unrealistic. But remember, we’re constructing an extreme example for the sake of argument. This Catholic dad sees his role as serving his family fundamentally through activities within his physical home. His home is essentially a “household,” what Cuddeback calls “a society of daily living” that the family uses for basic activities such as “meals together, family work projects, reading aloud” and “daily prayer.” This man pursues what I’ll call a vision of “household fatherhood.”

Look, no dad I know resides in an ivory tower. Most of us have messy, complicated lives, and we constantly jump (or stumble) back and forth between these two visions of fatherhood. But in a recent First Things essay entitled “Reclaiming the Household” and in his Bacon from Acorns blog, Cuddeback makes a compelling case for upping our game on the household, drawing on ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families.

“Husbands and fathers,” he writes, “face a dramatic and pressing need to develop habits that reinvigorate the life of the household. Men need to think about how to orient their families around common projects and enterprises … Whatever form it takes, there is no substitute for the shoulder-to-shoulder unity of the family doing work together.”

No one said fatherhood would be easy. Every family is unique, but we all desperately need to renew our vision. I want to look back on these decades of parenting knowing that there was a faith-filled method to the madness, that my wife and I intentionally led rather than reacted or merely survived. Cuddeback first outlines the high stakes, then challenges, and finally clarifies our vision.

“At the end of the day,” Cuddeback told me, “a father has to ask himself: am I going to let the multitude of pressures from outside my home distract me from the first and foundational place my heart and attention belong?”

Fellow fathers, may we answer well. Two competing visions. One life to live. A broken, wounded world all around us. And our one and only household to reclaim.

Johnson is diocesan director of evangelization.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019