What a Christian Father Is Supposed to Be

May 2015By Christopher Beiting

Christopher Beiting is Chair of the Department of History at Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana.

The Father of the Family: A Christian Perspective.  By Clayton C. Barbeau. Sophia Institute Press. 160 pages. $11.95.

Joseph’s Way: The Call to Fatherly Greatness — Prayer of Faith.  By Devin Schadt. Ignatius Press. 343 pages. $16.95.



Social-science data show that if a non-religious mother in a non-religious family converts to Christianity, there’s a seventeen percent chance the rest of the family will convert as well. But if a non-religious father converts, there’s a ninety-three percent chance the rest of the family will follow. Here the importance and centrality of the father to the family and to Christianity become obvious. “If you wish to change the world, change the father,” notes author Devin Schadt, and that is true — for better or for worse. It’s fair to wonder if the current wretched state of the family is not due entirely to our own failings but is part of a hellish plot to defy God the Father by destroying human fatherhood. Recall Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio’s “Letter to the Carmelite Nuns of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires” (June 2010), in which he describes political efforts to “redefine” the family as “a ‘move’ of the father of lies.” In any case, it is one thing to curse the darkness and another thing to light a candle. A pair of recently published works attempts the latter, providing good advice for men who wish to be better and holier fathers.

The Father of the Family is the new edition of a work originally published in 1961. Author Clayton Barbeau, a California-based family therapist, author, novelist, speaker, and television host, is in a good position to give advice: Now in his eighties, he is a Korean War veteran and Bronze Star recipient, a widower, the father of eight children, and the grandfather of many more. Thus, the current edition is the work of an experienced and successful husband and father.

Barbeau reminds us that fatherhood is important because the core Christian conception of God is God as Father. This is found in the Old Testament and more so in the New Testament, when Jesus addresses God as a loving Father. From this basic premise, Barbeau considers seven different images of fatherhood as seen through the lens of Scripture. Fathers are creators, makers of their families through acts of love and sexuality, with the father-mother-child dynamic as an earthly mirroring of the heavenly Trinity. Fathers are lovers, called to love their wives and children as persons. Barbeau reminds the reader that even as modernity understands love as an uncontrollable product of emotions, Christian love is an act of the will that desires the best for the beloved. Fathers are Christ-like, and Barbeau stresses not just the matrimonial image of the love of Christ and His Church, or the fatherly role Christ played as teacher, but also the fact that Christ was a union of soul and body, and marriage should reflect this. Fathers are priests, with the family serving as the smallest form of the domestic Church. Barbeau reminds fathers of their duty as religious leaders of their families, and presses for the restoration of some quasi-sacerdotal fatherly practices like the paternal blessing. Fathers are teachers and, in direct competition with many false images of masculinity and heroism, need to raise their children right and set counter-examples to those of the world. Fathers are breadwinners and must manage the task of providing for their families without falling into the trap of defining themselves by their jobs to the neglect of the family, or succumbing to greed and consumerism. Since it is not by bread alone — or “stuff” alone — by which we live, fathers must strive for a poverty of spirit that provides for legitimate needs but also seeks detachment from the world. Finally, fathers are potential saints, and must face the challenge of attaining sanctity while remaining in the midst of the world. This involves suffering and sacrifice, undergoing the cross before the resurrection. On the subject of sacrifice, Barbeau reminds fathers that marital relations with their wives must at times involve both periods of abstinence and cultivated lovemaking.

Joseph’s Way by Devin Schadt is a reflection on the role of Christian fatherhood as seen through the lens of St. Joseph. Given that St. Joseph never actually says anything anywhere in the Gospels, this might seem a difficult task, but Joseph’s Way manages it by examining the Patriarchs of the Old Testament, comparing and contrasting them with St. Joseph. The result is delightfully old-fashioned in its exegesis; the typological approach to Scripture and deep, meditative tone led one reviewer to liken the work to Thomas à Kempis’s, which isn’t a bad comparison. Schadt addresses the reader throughout as “my brother” or “my brother in Christ,” and his book has an iconic element, an invitation to contemplate Joseph and the Patriarchs, that gives it an Eastern feel. At the same time, Schadt unifies this traditional approach to Scripture with the very modern spirit of Pope St. John Paul II, particularly the Holy Father’s theology of the body and his exhortations on St. Joseph.

Joseph’s Way gives the impression of being the product of an experienced, learned, older man, possibly a monastic of some sort. So it’s a little surprising to discover that the Fathers of St. Joseph movement, associated with the author and the book, is actually a lay movement of ordinary fathers that meets biweekly at a parish in Illinois for meditation, prayer, and Mass in a quest to become better Christians and better fathers. Schadt himself is a young father of five and co-founder of the movement. A former youth minister, Schadt discovered to his chagrin that, in the process of serving God, he was neglecting his own family. His model for Christian life was the active evangelization of St. Paul. After a “road to Damascus” experience, he felt challenged to change his model of emulation from St. Paul to St. Joseph. Joseph’s Way is the fruit of Schadt’s realization that the model of the silent, homebound St. Joseph is just as valid for Christian male sanctity as the evangelical, traveling St. Paul.

While there are many books on parenting, and many on St. Joseph, there aren’t many that effectively fuse the two topics. Joseph’s Way does. It’s worth noting that typological analysis of St. Joseph through the lens of Abraham and Jacob (future volumes will consider Moses and David) reveals that, for all their faith, the Patriarchs present many bad examples in addition to good ones. Less-than-perfect fathers can take heart from this! Joseph’s Way contains eighty short meditations of about three to five pages each, and should be read as the author intended: a little bit every day, with frequent meditation, rather than a large amount at once. Unfortunately, this most unusual work is not well served by some of its advertising, which partakes of the worst language of contemporary gnostic self-help books — “How to Unlock the Hidden Power That All Fathers Possess!” — and readers must overlook that aspect of it.

In an age hell-bent on denigrating, sidelining, or eliminating fatherhood, The Father of the Family and Joseph’s Way provide valuable guidance on the vocation of Christian fatherhood. Both can serve a wide variety of men, from those with experience but in need of deepening their vocation as fathers to those casualties of modernity who have no idea what a Christian father is supposed to be.



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