"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers are not fungible

I was going to give my preferred homilette on the Sunday Mass readings today, but over the past few years I've come to realize what self-indulgence that usually is. The way I used to get through many of the painfully mediocre homilies I've heard was to compose my own in my head. But then I realized that I was substituting my own wisdom for that of the spiritual fathers celebrating the Mass. Many were indeed bad preachers and clueless liturgists, unlike those of us who've never doubted we could do a better job in our sleep. But also unlike yours truly, those men had been called by God to be something priceless for their people. That had to count for more than what I thought about the exegetical issues at hand, or indeed about most anything else. And today that's got me thinking that fathers, in the ordinary sense of term, are not fungible.

I learned that phrase from Professor Brad Wilcox writing in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Here's the immediate context:
Until recently, there was one primary challenge to the intellectually fashionable view that fathers are fungible. It came from scholarship showing that children did better—e.g., were much more likely to finish school, avoid teen pregnancy and stay out of prison—in intact, married families than in homes headed by a single parent, most of whom are women.

Yet scholars such as Ms. Drexler were able to retort that much of the research relies on a comparison of middle-class married families with poor single mothers, so that differences in how children fare might be largely the result of socioeconomic differences. In their view, middle-class women who have a decent income and a good education can do just as good a job as a middle-class married mother and father.

That view ran into some major trouble this month, with the release of the report, "My Daddy's Name is Donor," by the Commission on Parenthood's Future (of which I am a member). The report is the first study to compare a large random sample of 485 young adults (18-45) conceived through donor insemination to 563 young adults conceived the old-fashioned way.

Significantly, the single women who chose to have a child by donor insemination were better-educated and slightly better off than the parents who had biological children together. So the study's results cannot be dismissed on the grounds that affluent marrieds were being compared to poor single mothers.
Ordinarily I would overlook articles like that, because what they say strikes me as so obvious. It is just obvious that, as Wilcox says, "despite the latest propaganda in favor of a father-optional future, this study suggests two stubborn truths: Children long to know and be known by their biological fathers, and they are much more likely to thrive when they have their own father in their lives." But after I called my own father today and was honored by one of my own children, I read that article and admitted that what ought to be obvious is not obvious in the politically correct world. Plenty of educated people hold as principle that fathers, in the ordinary sense of the term, are optional accessories in their children's lives. Many other people live as though that were the case, even though they wouldn't assert it and might not even like it. And millions of divorced men feel that the mothers of their children regard them as, at best, sperm donors and cash cows. Certainly most children, even those who have been not been properly loved by their fathers, know better. But it's not fashionable to admit that. It's a lot more fashionable to depict fathers as jerks, cretins, or abusers.

Some of my conservative and/or Catholic friends believe that the denigration of fathers is part-and-parcel of some grand conspiracy to destroy the family. It might be the UN, or the Marxists, or certain key 20th-century cultural icons such as Freud, Margaret Mead, and Picasso, whose creative ideas seemed to be closely bound up with their desire for sexual license. But I seriously doubt it's an organized conspiracy of human beings, save perhaps on the local level in California and New York. There's just a tremendous cultural force behind easy divorce, contraception, abortion, gay "marriage," artificial procreation, and other practices which corrode the traditional family. That's because the core of modernity's ideology is the goal of radical autonomy.

On this view, human freedom is so absolute, so precious, that anything which limits our freedom to define ourselves is either a political or a cosmic injustice. It's almost as if we're bigots if we believe that there is such a thing as human nature and that it admits of only so much self-definition by individuals. Nominalism has become not only respectable but morally obligatory. If that's how one sees human dignity, then anything that's important for who we are, but is nonetheless out of our control, is going to be either questioned, resisted, or changed (perhaps by evolving technology). To be sure, not many people want to do that to their mothers. Motherhood is still sacrosanct, largely for good and instinctual reasons. But a great many people do that to their fathers. The authority of the father in the family is now equated with the "domination" and "oppression" of "patriarchy." I've never thought of 'patriarchy' as a dirty word, but Hell's Philological Arm has succeeded in making it so. As women slowly but steadily achieve economic parity with men, the very usefulness of husbands and fathers as such, as distinct from that of the interchangeable "spouse" and "parent," now seems obscure to the educated classes. A great many people still feel otherwise, but most cannot articulate why they should. And so the erosion of fatherhood proceeds apace because of a faulty conception of freedom that now dominates thought.

The solution is holy patriarchs: in the family, in the church, even in the state. It's going to take women a while to recognize that such a thing is even possible, let alone necessary. But they'll come around if men do. I hope and pray to myself.
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