Speaking at a summit of faith leaders and representatives of civic organisations discussing how to meet the challenges faced by society, Archbishop Vincent Nichols looked to the “powerful and positive influence fathers can have on the formation of tomorrow’s good citizens”.
The President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales described the contribution of a good father as “a precious gift which we must take every opportunity to support”.
The summit, organised by Citizens UK, was called “Planning Ahead for a Generation”.
Planning ahead for a generation invites us to hold present before us those who will come after us. At the same time we must also hold dear the good things we receive from those who came before us. It is these good things received, proven by the test of time, that we wish to gift to the next generation, not to restrict but to enrich. If we forget the past we will lose the future. More specifically, I want to emphasise the need to treasure the irreplaceable role of families in handing on the principles, values and ways of life that form and nurture good citizens one generation after another.
In the immediacy of present hardship families are often best placed to respond to those who are bearing the stress of deprivation, as a source of either practical or emotional help. Also families can be channels used to bring extra help to the growing number of children in our society who do not receive proper levels of nourishment or who lack adequate clothing. It is distressing to know that charities now using schools to distribute clothing to families in crisis, as well as providing food first thing in the school day.
But in the long term there are crucial values that families, with the right support, can help to establish and nurture. For example, the family is rooted in, and fosters, that faithfulness and commitment upon which our civil society depends. Within families there exists and is passed on a culture of relating well one to another. This does not mean relating easily. It means working hard at sustaining relationships in good times and bad. It means giving time to relationships for their own sake. It means learning and practicing love.
This love, which often alone holds a family together, is strong and expansive enough to embrace uniqueness, individuality. Such love fully respects each member, letting flourish his or her dignity as a person: a person whose value is not reduced to spending power; a person who is not reduced to an anonymous digit by an overly bureaucratic state; a person who is not reduced to a unit of economic production or a potential vote on a ballot paper. Love recognises and cherishes the inner life of each person, their capacity for fun and laughter, their tears when distressed and in pain, their joy in beauty and, most of all, their loveliness and generosity in giving and receiving love itself. In this way the family teaches that we are spiritual beings, and that we instinctively reach out for the spiritual, for the face of God, and for fulfilment in relationship with the living and true God. When this spiritual depth of every person is forgotten then we have indeed lost our future.
Families at their best are not sealed units, only looking inwards; rather the love and values they hold are open to others. Families are crucial building blocks of a stable society, tutoring young people in commitment to wider projects. This tutoring is so essential for all ‘covenantal’ enterprises in our society, to use a phrase of Lord Sachs, the outgoing Chief Rabbi. As you will know he distinguishes society’s activities into the political, the economic and the covenantal. And it is last of these, the enterprises we take on for shared common purpose, that most enrich our lives. I can certainly testify to the rich contribution families make to the life and living mission of the Church. Families give credible witness to the Church’s proclamation of the need for faithfulness and of virtues that endure from one generation to the next, in contrast to the short-term self- gratification and other values of today’s fashion which threaten the well-being of our single, human family, both now and in future generations.
Our society, and the Church, will continue to thrive just so long as we continue to offer that support to families which enables them to fulfil this tremendous potential for good. Perhaps at this Summit we might identify more precisely the nature of the support families need.
For instance, support in the form of better and more affordable housing to alleviate the pressure on family relationships that overcrowding and high rents cause. Would Community Land Trusts offer a most effective way to tackle these problems by allowing people to purchase homes at affordable rates based on local incomes, in places to which they would have a long-term commitment and where there is space for families to thrive? Only 200 yards from here is the East London Community Land trust, the first in the UK and the result of long effort by Citizens UK.
Within this vision of the family, a special word must be said about the role of fathers.
You know, one of the most satisfying titles for any priest is ‘Father’, because our role is to help raise the next generation, to nurture within youngsters a deep sense of vocation, of commitment and faithful service to others, rooted in a growing relationship with God. I like to think whatever fatherly qualities my ministry possess are qualities inherited from my own father. He was a principled man, yet combined high expectations with a wonderful depth of compassion. He was a teacher and a perfectionist, in everything he wanted to achieve, whether it was making a book-case or helping me with my homework. He used to drive me crazy because I wanted to get it finished quickly and out to play. I wanted to make do and move on. He wanted it done properly, from first principles. I am sure that those two incentives are still at work in me today!
Now in wishing to emphasise the importance of fathers, I acknowledge immediately that just as all families do not actually fit the description of family life I have given, so neither are all fathers – or priests – exactly brilliant. But this raises the question: why not? Just as we need to examine what support families need in order to be all they have the power to be, so we must ask: what support do those who have fathered children require so that they can truly be fathers?
Please do not misunderstand me. I also want to make it absolutely clear that I have no desire whatsoever to belittle mothers bringing up children on their own, nor the children themselves. We all know fantastic mothers who, without the presence of the father, are bringing up their children to be great citizens of the future. And in some cases we may have to admit this wouldn’t be the case were the father still on the scene!
Yet this should not stop us celebrating fatherhood and highlighting the positive contribution fathers make to families and to society. Committed, faithful fathers are good for their children – for their educational achievement, psychological well-being and their social behaviour.
To a significant degree, a father influences his children through the quality of his relationship with the mother of his children. When he enjoys a healthy relationship with her, he’s probably going to spend greater time with his children. A mother who is genuinely loved and valued by her children’s father shares this affirmation with her children. Evidence indicates that fathers who treat the mother of their children with respect, and deal with conflict in an adult and appropriate manner, are more likely to have sons who understand how they are to treat women and who are less likely to act in an aggressive fashion towards them. Girls with respectful fathers involved in their upbringing learn how they should expect men to treat them. They are less likely to become ensnared in violent or unhealthy relationships. Whilst, of course, many generous and committed fathers are found outside of marriage, it seems that they are more likely to be found within the bond of marriage itself.
The powerful and positive influence fathers can have on the formation of tomorrow’s good citizens, is a precious gift which we must take every opportunity to support.
Promoting the Living Wage, for example, already provides such support by enabling fathers to meet their families’ needs with pride and dignity. For over one hundred years, Catholic Social Teaching has proposed that fair pay is one that enables the employees to meet the needs of their families. This underpins the Living Wage now endorsed by politicians of all sides and accepted by hundreds of businesses. And yet more than five million workers bring home an income insufficient to cover basic outgoings, the significant majority of child poverty exists in working households, and low paid workers now make up the largest group relying on food banks for their meals.
So there is much to be done. We cannot remain satisfied with simply discussing ways in which family, marriage, fatherhood can be better supported when planning ahead for a generation. Rather, together let’s seek the means to make sure this planning becomes reality.