Greg Ellis, a Hollywood veteran best known for his turn in the Pirates of the Carribean series, likens the family court to a cartel: mum gets the kids and dad gets to pay monthly instalments of child support to have possible access to his children.
The typical post-divorce court ordered arrangement seems to suggest that the father’s worth in the family is based more on the bacon he brings home than on anything else he can possibly provide.
At the same time, these post-divorce arrangements draw on a long-held belief that fathers provide for the necessities of the family.
In his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII writes, “It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten”.
Leo was writing against socialism’s push to absorb the family and the individual and replace the roles of father and provider with the government itself, and so considers the role fathers play in providing money and property for their families.
But it’s obvious the literal meaning of Leo’s words isn’t their whole meaning – a divorced father hardly fulfils the role of “provider” when he pays the child support to his ex-wife so his children won’t starve. Like a car without a windscreen, something is missing in this arrangement.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refrains from naming the father as the provider for the family. Instead, it names parents as co-operators in a common goal.
A father’s worth is more than the wage he earns. He can outsource the material needs of his family. However, he cannot outsource what his presence in the family provides.
Dad’s presence in the family is the same thing God the Father first provides. He might lose his job, but his kids don’t care, they just want dad there.
With his presence, the father provides the first encounter of God’s Fatherly love to his children and an example of how love exists and functions in the world.
Dad also shows his kids how to love mum. Similarly, as spiritual fathers, priests set examples for the lay in loving Mother Church. Fathers, therefore, provide witnessing to the vocation of loving holiness.
Additionally, a father’s presence can model how to suffer. A Russian proverb states that the parents’ job is to teach their children how to suffer well. How to suffer well might be the best thing a father can do for his children as suffering finds everyone, even Jesus.
Sickness, unemployment, persecution, betrayal, and loss are inevitable in life. During periods of suffering, the father provides examples of compassion, how to handle stress, how to deal with evil and how to persevere in faith, hope and prayer.
The father cannot give these examples if he is not present because he works six days a week, 14 hours a day. Ironically, chasing zeroes in a paycheck runs the danger of making fathers just as absent from the home as a divorced parent.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refrains from naming the father as the provider for the family. Instead, it names parents as co-operators in a common goal, almost to suggest the time where a father could be the sole bread winner has passed, or was never meant to be – at least not in the way nations experienced it in the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
Certainly the Proverbs 31 “wife of noble character” seems to be more than a mere homemaker.
Much has happened in the world since Leo’s encyclical: two world wars, the rise of American capitalism, economic depressions, the rise of political liberalism and radical individualism, the sexual revolution, radical feminism, abortion on demand, and legal euthanasia just to name a few.
But perhaps the most damning thing to change since 1891, as demonstrated by the courts is, as Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea says, the rejection of fatherhood. If fatherhood has not been rejected, it has been reduced to an optional add-on at best and at worst a cash cow.