What is Fatherhood?
In what sense is the priest father? Are we only talking of a metaphor or is there reality involved? In order to answer this question we will firstly ask “what is fatherhood?”.
Fatherhood is a form of causality that transmits, nurtures and educates life.
Life however is an analogous term: there are different types and levels of life ranging from the life of God (containing the perfect form of life) to that of man (life that has spiritual and material dimensions) to that of the animals (a material existence). Therefore the act of causing life – fatherhood – is also an analogous term; in other words it is used in similar but differing ways depending on the level of life to which it refers. The unvarying dimension is that the one called “father” is source, origin or principle of another’s life in such a way that he participates in his life.
Consequently the different ways fatherhood occurs depends on the nature of the one who causes.
The First Person of the Blessed Trinity is naturally Father to the Second Person whom he begets as God from God, one in being with the Father. God the Father is also father to the Christian through causing a participation in his own divine life, sanctifying grace, making man his son or daughter: “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” (Rom. 8:15-16).
Man, as both a spiritual and material being, can only be father if he relates to the new life he brings into existence both biologically as origin but also spiritually through nurturing and educating the new life. This is essential because fatherhood must always correspond to the nature of the one who causes it or it is simply not fatherhood. Now, since man is psychosomatic, fatherhood is also psychosomatic: the father is father spiritually as well as biologically – or else he is a pseudo-father, a mere “sperm donor”!
How can a man be fulfilled in his personality if he is not mature spiritually as well as physically? How can a child become an authentic man or woman with a healthy body and mind, a developed intelligence, a strong will, a keen sensibility, and with a capacity for loving relationships unless his father and mother educate him or her? As for the man who begets a child and abandons him physically or spiritually or both, he is not a father but has a less-than-animal-like relationship to his children because animals at least remain loyal to their offspring.
The Four Forms of Fatherhood
Therefore according to the nature of the one who gives life to another, there are four forms of fatherhood: the natural, the biological, the spiritual and the supernatural.
The spiritual is no less real than the biological: “Someone is called father”, wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “ not only by reason of carnal generation, but some are called fathers for various other reasons when there is due to them some reverence. Thus the apostles are called fathers as well as other saints because of their teaching and example of faith,….prelates are also called fathers and these are to be venerated since they are ministers of God,….all these then are to be venerated since all bear in some way the likeness of the Father who is in Heaven” .
Men have a likeness of God’s fatherhood because of their nature as creative causes: they are “sub-creators” within God’s creation. Since time immemorial mankind has recognized not only physical fatherhood but also spiritual fatherhood as real and important by giving the title of “father” to any man who has become the fountainhead of something deeply affecting the spirit either of one or more of his fellow-men or of society as a whole. Since his creativity has touched their spiritual depths, his fellowmen recognize that he has become in some way their father.
For instance nations have been awarding the title “Pater Patriae” [Father of the Fatherland] to heroes and leaders such as Saint Stephen of Hungary since ancient times implying that the nation owes a great deal of itself to its spiritual father’s mind and heart. Likewise, in the USA, in the case of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” because he was its principal author; the scientist John Dalton, “Father of the Atomic Theory” while another scientist, the priest Georges Lemaître is the “Father of the Big Bang theory”; the Catholic politicians Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann are often called the “ Founding Fathers of the European Union”, and Dante, is “Father of the Italian language”.
Another type of spiritual fatherhood is that of mentoring when a man greatly influences another person through wisely guiding him on the journey of life.