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The Abusing Father?

Wrath of God

With the greatest respect to Cardinal John Dew…

Last weekend, the leader of New Zealand’s Roman Catholics, Cardinal John Dew, was in the secular news. In response to the sexual abuse crisis, he said it is “time to stop calling priests ‘Father’“. That article was the secular media reporting and reflecting on the Cardinal’s April letter making that particular point.

At heart, Cardinal John’s argument (it’s unclear – does he want people to refer to him as “Mr Dew”?) is that “Father” is a term of power which demands unquestioning obedience, usurping the place of God, creating a relationship of dependance…

This reasoning should not be passed over without some serious reflection. Suggesting that the term and image of “father” increases the likelihood to abuse is a very serious allegation about fatherhood in our culture.

Are we seriously going to agree that being seen to be father-like increases the chance of abuse?! Surely, the image (and reality) of “father” should primarily be of sacrifice, of service, of love, care, commitment, of placing the other first, of self-sacrifice even?!

Of all people, surely priests are to image the loving nature of God. And, if the human term “father” leads us to the image (and reality) of the tendency to abuse then we have a very serious issue in our culture that needs an even bigger conversation.

Secondly, since the Cardinal’s April letter, Selectively Biblical Literalists have gleefully said, “I told you so”, ripping this saying of Jesus out of its context and Jesus’ tendency to irony and hyperbole:

call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.

Jesus in Matthew 23:9

Dovetailing with my first point, those same Selectively Biblical Literalists, in explaining how we are saved, regularly image God the “Father” as an almighty cosmic child abuser who takes out his (in his mind at least) justified (!) rage on his son rather than on those who “deserve” to be so severely (crucifixion-level or sent-to-eternal-burning) punished.

There may be those who have not had wonderful fathers; there may be those who have not been (or are currently not) wonderful fathers themselves – but, to allow “father” to be synonymous with “tending towards abusing” is assuming some horrendous reality of fatherhood in this culture. If that synonym proves to be a tragically high proportion of people’s experience in our culture, then we need to do far more serious work than simply changing nomenclature.

Thirdly, I agree with public relations specialist Deborah Pead:

[Roman Catholics] are dreaming if they think dropping the word ‘Father’ is going to deliver anything meaningful for them – that should be just one thing in a whole suite of activities. They need not just a re-brand but almost to rebirth the organisation.

A starting question I suggest is: when did the Vatican begin to acknowledge that abuse is not simply a breach of celibacy vows or a sin on the soul of the perpetrator? When did the Vatican begin to acknowledge that there is a victim in this abuse? Christianity generally has an unhealthy attitude to sex – and the sexual abuse crisis highlights this.

To be continued…

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2 Responses to The Abusing Father?

  1. I’m not sure about the term “Father” increasing abuse, but I sense that priests value being called Father, so if all of a country’s priests (of a denomination) decided to forego that honour until (say) they had a “clean” record for a decade, it could be a form of collective penance – an indication they take the issue seriously – and something like a modern equivalent of sack-cloth and ashes? Perhaps there is too much individualism in modern thinking about failings (a particular person committed a particular crime – must be somebody else’s problem), whereas the O.T. idea seems to be more about an entire people humbling themselves, collectively acknowledging the shame, and saying “we messed up” in the symbolic ways that meant so much in their day.

    • Thanks, Mark. I wonder, then, if it might be better to have a penance closer to being a priest, rather than one that is connected to a much larger group (fathers). So, just as an example, all of a country’s priests (of a denomination) decided to forego wearing a clerical collar – or instead of a white clerical collar all wore one of a different colour? Easter Season Blessings.

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