Editor’s Note: The following address was delivered by Archbishop Chaput on May 1, 1999, to the pastoral workers of the Diocese of Cheyenne. Catholic Lane offers the address to our readers in three parts this week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
These have been a tough couple of decades for fathers in particular, and men in general. In saying that, I need to underline that no man should be excused his abusiveness, and no father should be excused the abandonment of his children. Much of the trouble men find themselves in these days is of their own making. If men act like bullies or drones, women will very reasonably act to defend themselves and their children. But today, the critiques of men in our society go a lot deeper than just correcting bad male behavior. They attack men’s identity and undermine the whole idea of fatherhood. In the process, women and children are hurt, families are damaged, and our understanding of God Himself becomes confused.
Let me outline three criticisms, or problems, which make our times especially hard for fathers.
The first problem is with Dad’s genes. I mean the genes in Dad’s blood — not the ones he wears. And it’s described best in a 1996 book called Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. How’s that for a title. One of the authors, Richard Wrangham, is a Harvard professor of anthroplogy. The other, Dale Peterson, is a science writer. Their idea is simple: Most apes are violent. Humans and chimpanzees have very similar DNA. Both species murder their own kind; battle for breeding rights; and dominate their females. Male aggression in both these species comes from ecological pressures which encouraged violent male leadership at an early evolutionary stage in order to survive. The rest is history . . . including our own.
But one ape species is different. The bonobos, a special kind of chimpanzee, live in a remote forest in Zaire. According to Wrangham and Peterson, the bonobos evolved under friendlier ecological conditions. This reduced the need for male dominance. It also allowed females to bond into groups. Today, these female groups restrain male behavior and enforce a kind of pacifism. As a result, bonobos not only don’t rape and murder each other, they also enjoy a lot of recreational sex.
Now, if you’re beginning to get suspicious about the kind of “science” involved here, you’re not alone. Even the authors admit they stretch a point or two. But their concluding logic is very important. Let me quote it directly: “. . . just as nonaggressive strains of other mammals can be bred by artificial selection, so a peaceful strain of human could be bred too. With some concerted worldwide action, we could probably get measurable results within a few generations. Society could, through its own reproductive choices, actually breed a kinder, gentler man — with a temperament less like a chimpanzee’s, more like a bonobo’s.”
As you’d expect, the authors have a pretty hostile view of the traditional family and marriage, which they see as a trap for women cooked up by patriarchal power.
Dad’s second big problem is economic. Marx and Engels were wrong about a lot of things. But they were probably right that capitalism — if left to its own devices — naturally undermines most traditional institutions, including the family. Or as Neil Postman once put it, the real radicals are not Marxists who quote Lenin, but television executives in conservative suits who just want to sell their products . . . and don’t much care which traditions and beliefs get dumped in the process.
Children now watch 5,000 hours of televison before they enter kindergarten and 16,000 hours before they graduate from high school. The average American sees 1,000 commercials a week, and 1 million before he or she is 20. And what commercials teach is this: The best things in life are not free; in fact, they cost quite a bit of money . . . but we should get them anyway, because otherwise, we won’t be happy. Consumer capitalism encourages appetites; which require spending; which encourages debt; which demands more work to earn more money; which gets spent on bigger appetites; and so on. That’s its nature. The result, in many families, is the elevation of money as the only real measure of value. Which implies that if you don’t get paid for your labor — and obviously, stay at home mothers don’t get paid — your work is somehow inferior. Which helps drive more and more women into the workforce.
My point is this. Our economy has changed. Many men don’t play the same, clear, solitary provider role for their families they once did in the past. At the same time, family members are taught by the mass media to see themselves as self-contained consumers. So the internal economic life of the family has also changed — from a common purpose shared by all family members, to a collection of competing individual interests. In other words, Dad’s muscle work isn’t as valuable as it used to be. And even a good male “brainworker” can rarely keep up with the costs of consumerist family life.
The final problem men face is philosophical — or more accurately, political. Most men would agree that many good things have come out of the women’s movement since the 1960s. Real feminism resists abortion and is naturally prolife. But a certain kind of modern feminism is not just pro-woman, but anti-male. In the words of one feminist scholar, “Socialist feminists see [the traditional]family structure as a cornerstone of women’s oppression: it enforces women’s dependence on men, it enforces heterosexuality and it imposes the prevailing masculine and feminine character structure on the next generation.”
She goes on to stress that the difference between socialist feminists and plain old women’s-rights activists is that socialist feminists support “a possible transformation of ‘physical’ human capacities, some of which until now have been seen as biologically limited to one sex. This transformation might include possibilities for insemination, for lactation and for gestation, so that, for example, one woman could inseminate another, so that men and non-parturitive women could lactate and so that fertilized ova could get transplanted into women’s or even men’s bodies.”
This is pretty strange stuff, but I’m not exaggerating. I’m quoting a respected scholar at a mainline university.
What should we make of all this?
First, each of these three tendencies is inhuman. Each turns the human person into an object. We’re determined by our genes, so we have to breed better pacifists. We’re determined by what we earn and buy, so we have to earn and buy more. We’re determined by the limitations of our gender, so we have to rewire our biology to serve our politics. These are just bad ideas. Nowhere in any of these tendencies is there any room for fathers, mothers or families as we traditionally understand them. And not surprisingly, who else is absent? God.
The biggest delusion of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s was that women and children could survive and even prosper without husbands and fathers; that divorce could be a good thing with little or no impact on the children involved. Just the opposite is true.
The evidence is clear. The breakdown of intact, two-parent families severely damages children. Worse, as single-parent and step-parent households increase, our social fabric weakens. There’s no mystery to the data: Children need fathers, and we all suffer if fathers disappear. Which is why David Blankenhorn, the author of Fatherless America, can say that “fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation. It is the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society. It is also the engine driving our most urgent social problems from to crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women.”
Author Robert Samuelson puts it another way: “The only solution [to our contemporary problems]is to reconstruct, somehow, families that provide the love, sense of self-worth and discipline that children require to develop into responsible, self-sufficient adults. But no one really knows how to do this . . . ”
Of course, that’s not quite true. I think the solution exists, and we can find it in our faith.
Friday: Part III: What Should We Do?