Richard Dawkins & Co. = Paisley 2.0?

Some years ago, I was invited to address a seminar at the Palace of Westminster for members of the House of Lords and House of Commons interested in Catholic social doctrine. The seminar was advertised in the daily schedules of both houses of Parliament and by 11 a.m. a dozen or so peers and MPs had gathered in a conference room. As Lord Alton of Liverpool was introducing me, a gray head thrust itself inside the door to see what was afoot. Alas, before I could seize the microphone and say, “Do come in, Dr. Paisley, and see what the Whore of Babylon is up to,” David Alton finished his introduction and invited me to begin my presentation—for which, alas, the Rev. Ian Paisley did not tarry.

It was something of a disappointment, for I was eager to get to grips with the old anti-Catholic firebrand from Northern Ireland. An exchange of polemics is unlikely now, though, for Dr. Paisley is so far gone in respectability as to have been raised to the peerage as Lord Bannside. Yet a few embers of anti-Catholic bigotry still smolder within his lordship’s breast: during Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the United Kingdom, Dr. Paisley told the Telegraph that “I don’t want his blessing” and then claimed, absurdly, that “I just got a notice from their website that if you pay 25 pounds and go to Mass today, you’ll get out of purgatory quicker.”

Still, there’s something a bit ragged, a bit shopworn, about Ian Paisley’s complaints these days. He’s engaged in anti-Catholic bombast for so long that whatever notes he manages to coax from his tarnished trumpet sound muted and flat: a matter of going through the motions for the sake of auld lang syne (if an Ulsterman like Paisley will permit me the reference).

The serious anti-Catholic antics prior to the Pope’s pilgrimage to Scotland and England came, not from Ian Paisley, but from “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, their allies in the British media (generally vicious in the run-up to Benedict’s arrival), and their legal show-pony, Geoffrey Robinson, Q.C., a transplanted Australian seeking to export the joys of American liability law to the U.K., as a base from which to plunder the Vatican of what he imagines to be its Croesus-like wealth. These people came unglued in anticipation of the Pope’s arrival: Dawkins & Co. originally proposed having the Pope arrested as an abettor of child-rape, and the op-ed pages were filled with raucous anti-Catholic blather for weeks before Benedict XVI set foot in the United Kingdom.

In the event, of course, it all came a cropper, to use a local phrase. As a courageous Scottish bishop, Philip Tartaglia, put it to me during the visit, “the Pope’s grace and intelligence” won the day, to the point where even the BBC—which had disgraced itself with forays into the Paisleyan fever swamps of anti-Catholicism in recent months—was providing reasonably balanced, and occasionally even positive, coverage of papal events in Glasgow and London. The hyper-secularist chattering classes had had their innings; the people turned out in droves anyway, to be with the Bishop of Rome and to give him the kind of cordial and respectful welcome first extended to him on his arrival by the ever-impressive Queen Elizabeth II.  By the time Benedict left, even Prime Minister David Cameron, not previously noted for his enthusiasm about Joseph Ratzinger, was telling the Pope that he had given all Britons important things to think about.

Benedict XVI’s success in the U.K. challenges the often-supine British hierarchy to be as humanly compelling and intellectually forceful as the Pope. If the bishops of the U.K. gather their nerve, they may eventually recognize that the new atheists are in danger of becoming Paisley 2.0: people so perfervid, so over-the-top, in their antipathies as to be dismissed as fundamentally unserious. The virulence of the new atheists’ pre-papal visit commentary suggests they may fear this fate for themselves. In which case, to use another local phrase, it’s time to put in the boot.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.