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  • Mary Shivanandan

Fatherhood and the Charism of Chastity



Many have pointed out that unless there is a rediscovery of true fatherhood and the charism of chastity, we are unlikely to see the end of the sex abuse crisis in the Church. St. Joseph is a symbol of both in consecrated celibacy and in family life. Of course, my book, The Holy Family Model Not Exception focuses more on his role as the human father of a human as well as divine family. in a sense all baptized families, like the Holy Family, are both human and divine. Let is never forget that in the Old Testament, the Covenant was passed down through the family and God spoke of his bridal relationship to his people. There were strict laws governing adultery and fornication to protect the family although leeway was given to the stronger sexual desires of men. Even so, the Israelites constantly rebelled and worshipped false gods.

As I relate, in the Middle Ages, a Gnostic heresy, which denies the importance of the body, arose. Either the body was rejected or indulged as of no account. St. Dominic fostered saying the Rosary and encouraged women to breastfeed, a very bodily, earthy act. Husbands seemed left out but they were very important for protecting the vulnerable mother. Then arose the practice of wet nursing with poorer women paid to nurse the infants of the nobility. However, the procreative and unitive aspects remained joined. That changed with contraception in the 19th century. With the advent of the hormonal contraceptive pill in the 1950s and 1960s, backed up by legalized abortion, women could decide unilaterally whether to have a baby or not. In a sense, men became superfluous to the family. This is where Humanae vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical is critical. He affirmed the illicitness of contraception and the unbreakable connection, which God has instituted, between the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality a doctrine all Christian Churches held until 1930.

Where does St Joseph come in? His role as the chaste spouse of Mary has been recognized, albeit gradually. He was held up as the model for men religious and priests and was very important during the reform of the seminaries at the time of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformations. As I have noted earlier, the priority of consent was recognized in the High Middle Ages, but his role as Mary’s spouse and father of Christ was not really encouraged as a model for the father of human families. For one thing he had no sexual intercourse. How could he model a human husband and father? We forget that he continually communed with Christ.

We deny the power of Christ if we say it is impossible for the man to abstain. But it does call for a deep prayer life and trust in divine Providence.

Christ brought a new emphasis on chastity as a loving response of self-gift. There was good reason for Joseph to refrain from conjugal intercourse, just as those who practice natural family planning (NFP) must, if the couple determine they should not have another child. Or as St. Paul VI puts it in Humanae vitae, “the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indefinite period, a new birth” (HV 10). We deny the power of Christ if we say it is impossible for the man to abstain. But it does call for a deep prayer life and trust in divine Providence, as St. John Paul II states in his wonderful encyclical letter, Redemptoris Custos. In which he stresses St. Joseph’s deep interior life.

With contraception always available, it is not going to be easy, especially for the young to embrace chastity. I would like to propose three important paths, St John Paull II’s theology of the body, learning about fertility through a program such as TeenSTAR and becoming aware of all the sociological research (eg through the web site Marripedia) that shows how the traditional family of father, mother and children is the bedrock of society. These links are on my website, www.maryshivanandan.com. First a word about St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. As he states right at the end, this monumental work was undertaken in large part because “it is from this topic that the questions spring that run in some way through the whole of our reflection” (MW133:4). I was privileged to write my doctoral thesis on this work, out of which has come the experiential study guide, A New Language published by the non-profit organization, Imago Dei. It is highly recommended as an introduction to the anthropology of gift. Since the person is both physical and spiritual, it is also beneficial to learn experientially how joint fertility is the responsibility of both the man and the women through TeenSTAR. Such knowledge gives young people a sense of their dignity in more ways than one. And, of course, there are other programs out there teaching this vital information.


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