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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

In the Name of the Fatherless

Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo (1819-1823), detail

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46): the words of a son feeling abandoned by his father.

Both Freud and Jung (among many others) identified the significance of the father-imago in the psychological makeup of both men and women (the Oedipal conflict, the Elektra complex…). The two pioneering psychoanalysts were interested in how this worked in the psyche and how the unregenerated father-imago could haunt people throughout their lives (they also, obviously, were interested in the mother-imago). They wrote, of course, when single-parent homes were relatively rare.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the very first paper I wrote in college (on vellum with a goose-quill pen) long, long ago. It was a research paper on gangs. The gist of the paper (or so I seem to remember) was that gangs offer boys/young men, most of whom come from single-parent families with no father in the picture, the opportunity to be initiated into manhood. It’s a fraternal organization, like freemasonry; and, like freemasonry, gangs often have coded language, signs, and even secret handshakes that indicate membership. The problem, however, is that those doing the initiating are not men who have been initiated into manhood by men. Basically, it’s Lord of the Flies, and invariably with the same results. I don’t think gang culture is all that different now.

I also encountered a related phenomenon when I was a Waldorf teacher (and Master Teacher) in a previous lifetime. In Waldorf education, ideally a teacher stays with the same group of children from first through eighth grade. During my tenure, I noticed that in sixth grade I started getting trouble from some boys in the class. This is not unheard of, to be sure, even with kids in the most stable of home environments. What I discerned, however, is that the boys who were struggling the most at this time—either in terms of academics or behavior—tended to be the boys with poor (or nonexistent) relationships with their fathers. I, as probably the only stable male presence in their lives, found myself on the receiving end of their subconscious rage for their biological fathers. That energy needs an outlet. When I met with a group of curative teachers and physicians about this situation, they asked me what I thought these boys needed. I told them, “Something so archetypally male that they could even hurt themselves if they’re not paying attention.” We came up with a unique therapy for one boy: blacksmithing. His mother, a wonderful and trusting woman, agreed to let him try (he had never met his father). He did end up burning his hand (nothing serious), but when he was applying to college several years later he named this event as a kind of Rubicon: it changed him. I had the pleasure of teaching him in college. He was one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and grounded students I’ve ever met.

Another thing the curative group and I decided was to employ story as a way to heal the souls of these boys. Thankfully, myth and legend are replete with stories of absent fathers and boys who need to find their way without them. Arthur, Parsifal, Jason, Hercules—need I mention Jesus?—are all figures who found their way despite their absent fathers (usually divine). And The Odyssey is perhaps the father-search par excellence as Telemachus seeks his father Odysseus while Odysseus reciprocally strives to find his way home to his wife Penelope and both his son and father. There is clearly a deep psychological need for resolution with the father-imago, whether the actual father is absent or not.

According to the Pew Research Center, about one-third of all children in the US are being raised in households with unmarried parents (most of them single mothers). And, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find trustworthy statistics, estimates suggest that a staggering percentage of men (70–80%) serving time in prison come from single-parent homes. Of course, many other factors—poverty, race, etc.—play into these statistics; but fatherlessness should not be dismissed as a minor issue. Indeed, even in the best of situations, men are struggling—to find employment or even to finish college. Though not typical, I will never forget the gangbanger (his name was Darrien) who came to class one day after having missed a session: he’d spent two days in the hospital with five gunshot wounds. He didn’t finish the course. I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m not optimistic.

Given the epidemic of fatherlessness and the attendant unregenerated father-imago that haunts western civilization at the moment (the father portrayed as the idiot in every TV sitcom surely is symptomatic of such a development) it is no wonder that Jordan Peterson has attracted the interest of so many young men. From my perspective, Peterson’s message to young men is pretty standard dad advice, telling them, “You’ll struggle, but that’s how it goes. Work hard, be honest. Don’t complain.” Of course, with so many dads in absentia, it’s no wonder Peterson became a phenomenon and his advice cause for scandal.

This father-imago, though, is even more complicated. As Adam DeVille describes in his forthcoming book, The Crucifixion of the Church, the Catholic imaginary needs to come to terms with the father-imago in a very real way. He writes,

When Christ says “call no man father,” for we have but one father and he is in heaven dwelling invisibly, I would argue that Christ (long before Freud) was aware of the dangers of human psychology. Those dangers are such that we need to be extremely careful about projecting on to God the Father images and expectations from our early experience of “fathers,” whether biological or ecclesial. It is too easy for the mind, often in unconscious ways we rarely come to perceive (except, as Freud would later suggest, largely through our repeated, and typically unhealthy, actions[1]), to subtly equate parts of our earthly paternal experiences with expectations of how our heavenly Father is and how He treats us.
What we need now more than ever is for the Church to be purified and purged of paternalistic titles, images, and practices; we need a campaign of welcome and necessary iconoclasm, dismantling false images and powerful pretentions of popes and other papas or fathers in the Catholic imaginary, but also directly in the governance of the Church. Here, to be sure, I am not talking about their vital sacramental role—in, e.g., celebrating the Eucharist, or forgiving sins, or in ordinations—but rather the psychological role they play in the Catholic imaginary. Their sacramental role is integral to the Church’s very nature and cannot be touched.[2]

So, it seems that we have a seriously compromised father-imago in our culture (and I think the Catholic Church is the palimpsest of our culture, whether we like it or not). All around us, we see the unhealthy consequences of fatherlessness and the projection of that lack onto false fathers. I understand that there is no easy resolution of this complex. So much needs untangling. This crisis looks us in the face everywhere. But I don’t think we see it.

[1] See his essay “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” in vol. 12 of the Strachey Standard Edition (1950): 145-57. The original was published in 1914.

[2] Adam A.J. DeVille, The Crucifixion of the Church: Clericalism, Scandal, and the Hope for Renewal (Angelico, 2019).

Michael can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

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