HomePage  Prof May Home Page

The Mission of Fatherhood: “To Reveal and Relive on Earth

the Very Fatherhood of God” (cf. Familiaris consortio, 25).*

William E. May

Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology

John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family

at The Catholic University of America


In his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world (Familiaris consortio), Pope John Paul II had much to say about women and mothers. He had relatively little to say about men as husbands and fathers, but what little he did say challenges us to reflect deeply on “the mission of fatherhood.”

The Holy Father began the brief section devoted explicitly to the role of husbands and fathers by saying: “Within the conjugal and family communion-community, the man is called upon to live his gift and role as husband and father,” and he concluded by declaring:

In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God (cf. Eph 3:15), a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife (cf. Gaudium et spes, 52), by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and  by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church. [1]

Here John Paul II affirms that the husband/father has the sublime mission of “revealing” and “reliving” on earth the “very Fatherhood of God,” and he sketches some of the principal duties the husband/father must carry out if he is to do this. Although he does not explicitly say that the husband/father is the “head” of the wife and of the household, he clearly assigns to him a leadership role, one emphasizing the husband/father’s service to his family. He likewise implies that the exercise of authority by the husband/father within the family is both proper and necessary. For how could he “reveal” and “relive” the very Fatherhood of God by ensuring the “harmonious and united development of all the members of the family” unless there was some authority proper and exclusive to him as husband and father?

Since God himself has entrusted this sublime mission to the man, the husband/father, and not to the woman, the wife-mother, God must have equipped the man to carry out this mission. But before offering reflections on this matter, it will be appropriate to consider why we call God “Father.” In doing so we will discover clues about the identity of the male human person, the one called to be husband and father. I will therefore begin with the question, why do we call God “Father.”

I will then try to show how a man, the male human person called to be husband and father, is equipped to carry out the sublime mission entrusted to him by reflecting on the complementarity  between men and women and on how the traits characteristic of the male are related to his role as father, how, that is, they provide the natural “equipment,” as it were, for the husband/father to exercise the mission entrusted to him by God. I will follow this with observations on the husband-wife relationship and the meaning of the husband’s “headship.”  But we must begin by thinking about God’s Fatherhood.

1. Why We Call God “Father”

I think that Benedict Ashley, O. P.,  provides us with good insights into the reasons why we call God “Father.” [2] My presentation here is based on Ashley’s excellent discussion of this matter.

The God who reveals himself to humankind in the Old Testament reveals himself as the only God, as the almighty Creator, who gives existence not only to the Chosen People but to all that is. He is revealed as an utterly transcendent being, as the wholly Other. But, as Ashley notes, “the relationship of otherness is not well expressed by the child’s relationship to its mother because she is more same than other, since her children develop within her body and are nourished at her breast. On the contrary, the relation of the child to its father is more a relation to the Other, but an Other who is still caring.” Thus the Old Testament symbolized God as Father in order to express his absolute transcendence and total otherness. [3]

Moreover, Ashley continues, with reference to the names given to God and to the divine persons, we need to recognize the difference between metaphorical analogy, based on a merely accidental and extrinsic resemblance, and a proper analogy, based on an essential and intrinsic resemblance. When Scriptures call God “my rock” (Ps 18:3), “rock” is used metaphorically: the point of comparison is “solidity,”  but solidity is not the very nature of a rock nor is it the very nature of God. Thus the comparison is superficial. But when the Scriptures call God “Light” (1 Jn 1:5) the analogy is proper, since it based on what is essential to both “light” and “God.” Just as it is the very nature of light to reveal the visible world to us, so it is the very nature of  God to know and reveal to us the truth of all things, visible and invisible.[4]

With all this in mind, what about using the word “Father” to name God, and, specifically, the First Person of the Trinity? Ashley says that if, when we apply the term “Father” to God and do so by comparing the human male’s impregnation of the female to God’s creative act, “the analogy is merely metaphorical, since impregnation is intrinsic to the human male, but not to God who creates ex nihilo, and therefore the resemblance is merely extrinsic and accidental. But,” Ashley continues,

if we abstract from the dependence in reproduction of the human male on the human female he impregnates and use the term ‘Father’ as an analogy to the God who creates out of nothing, we are using an analogy that is proper, since the point of comparison (active agency) is essential and intrinsic both to the human father and the Divine Father, although of very different types….The term ‘Father’ used of God in no way implies that he is male, but only that as our father gave us life and loves and cares for us, so does God.[5]

In addition, the name “Father” is especially appropriate for the First Person of the Trinity. Here the analogy is not, “as a human father is efficient cause of his child, so is God the efficient cause of the universe,” but rather, as Ashley notes, “As the human father is principle of his child, so the First Person, God the Father, is the principle of the Second Person, God the Son.”[6]

It is, then, fitting to call God “Father.” Of the three persons in the Trinity God the Father in his inner being emphasizes, as it were, the otherness of God, his transcendence as almighty creator. He likewise is the One who is the giver of all good things, giving to us, in particular, his only-begotten Son as our redeemer and lord, and, in and through his Son, his Spirit of love who fills our hearts with love and enables us to share in the very life of the triune God and to become, in and with Jesus, truly children of God, able to call him “our” Father.

I believe it significant that, in his beautiful hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” Henry Van Dyck addresses God as the “Wellspring of the Joy of Living, and the Ocean Depth of Happy Rest.” [7] It seems to me that, of the three divine persons, the Father more emphatically than the Son and the Spirit is characterized in this way; in particular, he is the source of life itself and the joy of living; even in giving us rest—in welcoming us “home,” as it were, he is the principle of a beatifying joy. He is also, as his Son Jesus reveals to us, the Father “rich in mercy” (cf. Eph. 2:4), a truth about God the Father set forth magnificently by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, with particular poignancy in the magnificent chapter of that encyclical meditating on the Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son as set forth in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke (cf. Dives in Misericordia, nos. 5-6). It is instructive to note, so it seems to me, that the Father in this beautiful parable (who stands for our heavenly Father) is at pains, as John Paul II emphasizes, to inform the elder son how fitting it was, on the “homecoming” of the son who was lost and now is found, “to make merry and be glad” (Luke 15:32; Dives in Misericordia, 6).

In summary: we fittingly call God—and specifically, the First Person of the  Blessed Trinity—“Father,” because he is the superabundant source of all that is, the “principle” of everything, even within the Trinity. He is, as it were, the “wellspring of the joy of living.” He is the “Other,” but the Other who cares, and cares deeply for those dependent on him. He is rich in mercy, seeking reconciliation, watching over his creation with providential love, with a wise and loving plan for human existence. His Fatherhood is manifested in deeds, in what he does for his children.

Since these seem to be the principal reasons why God, in his inspired word, has revealed that the first person of the Blessed Trinity is fittingly called “Father,” it seems that the features characteristically attributed to God the Father might be features analogously found in the human person, the male of the species, who is called upon by God himself to the sublime mission of revealing and reliving on earth the very Fatherhood of God. I will now reflect on the features distinguishing the human male person, the man, from the human female person, the woman to see whether consideration of these characteristics can help us understand how God himself has, as it were, equipped the man person for the sublime mission entrusted to him.

2. Sexual Complementarity and the Role of a Father

A. The Sexual Complementarity of Man and Woman

Human persons, male and female, are body persons, not spirit persons. Human persons, male and female, are bodily, sexual beings. The creation account in Genesis 1:27-28 describes them as living beings bodily and sexual in nature, blessed with fertility and summoned to multiply their kind. The account in Genesis 2:7,18, 21-25) even more graphically affirms the personal nature of the human body. It says that “the man,” on awakening from the deep sleep into which the Lord God had cast him and on seeing “the woman” who had been formed from his side, declares: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:24). In uttering this cry, the man, as John Paul II has noted, “seems to say: here is a  body that expresses the ‘person’”![8] Men and women, in short, are body persons, not spirit persons. This is a matter of extreme importance.

Precisely because men and women are body persons, not spirit persons, it follows that the more apparent anatomical differences between males and females, including their sexual differences, are“ not mere accidentals…[instead], differences in the body are revelations of differences in the depths of their being.”[9]

Indeed, as John Paul II has said,  the sexuality of man and woman, “by means of which [they] give themselves to one another through the acts mutual and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something merely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such.” [10]Human sexuality is bodily, and our bodies are not impersonal instruments to be used by us as persons; rather, they are integral to our being as persons. The human  body, in other words, reveals a human person; and since the human body is inescapably either male or female, it is the revelation of a man-person or a woman-person. Precisely because of their sexual differences, manifest in their bodies, the man-person and the woman-person can give themselves to one another bodily, becoming literally “one flesh,” one living organism as it were. [11]Since the body, male or female, is the expression of a human person, it follows that a man and a woman, in giving their bodies to one another, give their persons to one another. Their bodily gift to each  other is the outward sign, the sacrament, of the communion of persons existing between them; and this sacrament, in turn, is an image of the communion of persons we know as the Triune God. The body is the means and sign of the gift of the man-person to the woman-person and vice versa. Pope John Paul II calls this capacity of the human body to express the communion of persons the nuptial meaning of the body.[12]

Males and females differ in their sexuality, and complementarily so. But the nature of this sexual complementarity needs to be clarified. In an earlier essay [13]I sought to identify the nature of male-female complementarity by considering the significance of the marital act because this unique kind of act, in which husband and wife literally become “one flesh,” is made possible precisely  because of the complementarity of their sexual differences: this act expresses and symbolizes in a very concrete way their sexual complementarity.

In the marital act husband and wife “give” themselves to one another and “receive” one another. But they do so in strikingly different ways precisely because of their sexual complementarity. In this act the husband can enter into the body person of his wife whereas she cannot enter into his; but his wife is uniquely capable of receiving him into her body person. Both husband and wife “give” and “receive” each other; but the husband “gives” himself to his wife and by doing so “receives” her: he “gives in a receiving sort of way.” The wife, on the other hand, “receives” her husband into herself, her body person, and in so doing “gives” herself to him: she “receives in a giving sort of way.” The husband cannot, in this act, give himself to his wife unless she gives herself to him by receiving him, nor can she receive him in this self-giving way unless he gives himself to her in this receiving way. We can thus conclude, with Robert Joyce, that a man is “a human being who both gives in a receiving way and receives in a giving way, but is so structured in his being that he is emphatically inclined toward giving in a receiving way,” whereas a woman “is a human  being who both gives in a receiving way and receives in a giving way, but is so structured in her being that she is emphatically inclined toward receiving in a giving way.” [14]

Moreover, in giving himself to his wife in the marital act the husband releases into her body-person millions of his sperm, which go in search for an ovum. Should his wife be fertile and an ovum present within her, one of his sperm may succeed in uniting with it, in becoming “one flesh” with it, and in doing so bring into being a new human person. These facts illumine dramatically another dimension of male-female sexual complementarity. The man, as it were, symbolizes the superabundance and differentiation of being, for his sperm are differentiated into those that will generate a male child and those that will generate a female child. From this we can see that the man, in imaging God, emphasizes his transcendence and otherness. The woman, as it were, symbolizes the oneness of unity of being, insofar as ordinarily she produces only one ovum during a fertile cycle, and what we might call the withinness or abidingness of being. The woman, in imaging God, emphasizes his immanence to his creatures, his withinness.

God is both the superabundant giver of good gifts and the One who is within us, who longs to welcome us into our heavenly home and give our hearts refreshment and peace. This aspect of his being is, as we saw earlier, beautifully expressed in Henry Van Dyck’s hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” when he addresses God as “the wellspring of the joy of living and the ocean depth of happy rest.” Both men and women are called upon to image God as the “wellspring of the joy of living and the ocean depth of happy rest.” But the man, in his way of imaging God, emphasizes his transcendent, superabundant goodness, his glory as the “wellspring of the joy of living,” whereas the woman, in her way of imaging God, emphasizes his immanence, his “withinness,” his glory as the “ocean depth of happy rest.” The wife/mother, who receives human life in a giving sort of way, welcomes her children and her husband within herself, giving them happy rest, whereas the husband/father is the one who should bring to his wife and children the “good things” of creation; he is called to be, within the family, the “wellspring of the joy of living.”

A man, in short, gives in a receiving sort of way, points to God’s otherness and transcendence, and in imaging him emphasizes that God is indeed the wellspring of the joy of living; a woman, on the other hand, who receives in a giving sort of way, points to God’s immanence and “withinness,” and in imaging him shows that he is in truth the ocean depth happy rest. Man and woman embody and manifest these aspects of their personality in a wide variety of ways. Thus, precisely  because a woman’s sexuality emphasizes the withinness, the sameness, and the depth of being and because a man’s sexuality emphasizes the expansiveness and otherness of being, a woman’s sexual identity is more interior, intimately linked to her being, her  bodiliness, whereas a man’s sexual identity is more exterior, more closely associated with his actions, his realization of himself in the external world. This is the reason, as numerous studies have shown, that a woman more easily comes to a realization of what it means to be feminine and a woman than a man does in coming to realize what it means to be masculine and a man.[15]A point common to these studies is that men need to go out of themselves in order to discover and secure their masculinity, whereas women do not. This seems to account for the fact, as Walter Ong has noted, that “the received symbol for woman, Venus’ mirror , adopted  by feminists apparently everywhere, signifies self-possession, gazing at oneself as projected into the outside world or environment and reflected back into the self from there, whole. The received symbol for man, Mars’ spear, signifies conflict, change, stress, dissection, division.”[16]

 The complementary sexual differences of men and women are also manifested in their social behavior, as numerous studies, once more, point out.[16]As a whole, women tend to respond to situations as entire persons, with their minds, bodies, and emotions integrated, whereas men tend to respond in a more diffuse and differentiated manner. On the whole, women are more oriented toward helping or caring for personal needs, whereas men, on the whole, are more inclined to formulate and pursue long-range goals and to reach objectives that they have set for themselves As one writer, Steven Clark, puts the matter: “in social situations men are more oriented to goals outside the situation (what the situation can become), women, to internal goals (relieving needs, giving comfort and pleasure).” [18]These major tendencies seem to correspond to the complementary differences that we have seen: the man emphasizes otherness and differentiation, exteriority and transcendence (here of a situation) and superabundance, while the woman emphasizes sameness and withinness, interiority, depth and rest.

B. Man as Father

Here we can first briefly consider woman as mother, then man as father. As we know, when new human life comes to be in and through the marital act, it comes to be within the wife/mother. This new life, like every human life is, as John Paul II says, entrusted “to each and every other human being, but in a special way the human being is entrusted to woman, precisely because the woman in virtue of her special experience of motherhood is seen to have a specific sensitivity towards the human person and all that constitutes the individual’s true welfare, beginning with the fundamental value of life.” [19]Moreover, as the Holy Father observes elsewhere, “motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life as it develops in the mother’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life and ‘understands’ with unique intuition what is happening within inside her “ Continuing, he says:

In the light of  the “beginning,” the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude toward human beings—not only towards her own child but every human being—which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man—even with his sharing in parenthood—always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother…[20]

Note how, in motherhood, the woman’s sexuality as a “receiving in a giving sort of way” and as symbolizing the withinness of being and God as the “ocean depth of happy rest” is manifested. Moreover, what the pope has to say here about the woman’s “unique intution” and “understanding” of what is going on within her fits in well with what we have seen before about the psychic-spiritual life of women. A woman is, precisely because of her sexuality and her way of imaging God, uniquely prepared to receive new human life lovingly and give it the care it needs to take root and grow. Indeed, the biologically determined relationship between mother and child, whom she nurtures in her womb and suckles at her breast seems to “shape those qualities usually associated with  mothering: unconditional availability, receptivity, and tenderness.” [21]

From this we can see that a woman  becomes a mother more or less “naturally.” As one contemporary writer puts it, “simply stated, an adult female will be naturally transformed into a social mother when she bears a child.” But the same author goes on to say, “there is no corresponding natural transformation for a male.” [22] A father, as Pope John Paul II himself notes in one of the passages cited above, has to “learn his own ‘fatherhood’”—and, he says, he learns this from the mother. She has to let her husband be a father by allowing him to become involved with his own children. Their own well-being requires his loving presence. It is also true, I believe, that a man learns to be a father from his own father, and blessed are those whose fathers “relived and revealed on earth the very fatherhood of God.” Fathers, as John W. Miller says, must “insert themselves into the bond between mother and child as a ‘second other’ by an initiative very much like that of adoption. Where this initiative is energetic and winsome,” Miller continues,

 an essential autonomy from the mother is fostered and children of both sexes are significantly helped in orienting themselves to the cultural universe outside the home…Maternal values are not thereby repudiated—fathers too may [and ought to] embody tender mother-like attributes without ceasing to be fathers—but the exclusivity of the mother-bond is challenged by an authority that separates the child and orients it toward its personal future in extra-familial society.[23]

We have already noted that, on the whole, men tend to be more differentiated than women in their responses to persons and situations, to be more goal-oriented, and that their sexual identity depends to a much greater extent than does a woman’s on what they do. While a woman nurtures, a man, as Ashley puts it, “tends to construct, i.e., to impose an order on things, whether it is the simple physical fact of initiating pregnancy, providing the home as shelter and protection, or the more spiritual tasks of disciplning the children physically and mentally, or undertaking the work of the wider social order. Where the woman allows a child to grow, the father causes the child to grow.”[24]

A man, in short, becomes a man and a father by doing things that a father ought to do. John Paul II indicated these in the passage from Familiaris consortio cited at the beginning of this paper when he said that a man reveals and relives the very Fatherhood of God  by “exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife (cf. Gaudium et spes, 52), by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and his Church.”[25]

The father indeed has the primary responsibility to protect and provide for his wife and children. He is their guardian or custos, just as St. Joseph, who was truly Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father, was, as John Paul II addresses him in his Apostolic Letter on this great saint, the custos Redemptoris. This fatherly task is particularly important during his wife’s pregnancy and during infancy, when both his wife and his children are particularly vulnerable and need to have a sense of security rooted in the conviction that this human person—the “other” in their lives—is there to care for them. The father, in short, has primary responsibility to see to it that his wife and children are provided for. In saying this I am not excluding the possibility that in specific families the wife-mother may be the one who can contribute more economically to the family. It may be that she has special talents and has acquired more marketably profitable capacities and could therefore more adequately meet the financial needs of the family than could the husband-father. But even in such situations it is nonetheless the husband/father’s responsibility to see to it that his wife and children are provided for. Only if he is allowed to do so can he do the things a father must do to find his identity.

The father also has an indispensable role to play in the education of his children (as John Paul II affirmed), a role complementary to that of the mother. Precisely because of the characteristics that define a mother as a woman (interiority, withinness, depth of  being, tranquility or peacefulness as the ocean depth of happy rest) she has a predominant role to play in educating her children when they are very young and when their personal needs are of such paramount importance. The father, too, has responsibility here (and I will briefly return to this). But the father’s role in the education of his children becomes more and more central as they mature and enter into their teens. He must help introduce them to the external world of work; he must watch over their friends, to make sure that they will not be led down blind alleys. As his sons mature and grow in strength, they will (ordinarily) soon be much stronger than their mother and their sisters—and their father as well. They may be tempted to abuse their strength by seeking to dominate their mother and sisters; hence they must be taught, and taught by their father, that men who are true to their vocation do not tyrannize women or lord it over them  because of superior physical strength. They must be disciplined, and the father is the one chiefly responsible for doing this. And a father’s daughters need to have a man—their father—affirm them in their femininity and show them, by his faithful love of their mother, that they must treasure themselves as female persons and not allow males to exploit them for their sexual values.

Here it is important to realize that fathering and mothering are by no means mutually exclusive. The complementarity between males and females is sharply differentiated at their biological roots—only the woman can conceive and nurture the child within her womb and nurse it after birth. Nonetheless the personality and character traits (the “masculine” and the “feminine,” the giving in a receiving sort of way and receiving in a giving sort of way, the “wellspring of the joy of living” and the “ocean depth of happy rest”) although complementarily dominant in the male and the female, these characteristics are present in both men and women, albeit with different emphases. Children need to be both accepted and nurtured, to be challenged and held to standards, and mothers and fathers must both accept and nurture them, challenge them and hold them to standards. But they do so in somewhat differing modalities, with the mothers accentuating acceptance and nurture, the fathers challenging and disciplining.[26]

The father, above all, shows his fatherhood by being merciful, by doing deeds of mercy. Our Holy Father has stressed that our Father God is rich in mercy and that the merciful love so eloquently spoken of in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) “is supremely indispensable  between those who are closest to one another: between husbands and wives, between parents and children.”[27]This merciful love, an attribute preeminently predicated of God the Father, must characterize the way men exercise fatherhood on earth.

The various duties incumbent upon fathers—and for which they are equipped bv reason of the features characteristic of them as male person—noted here are indispensable, John Paul II indicates, if men are properly, in revealing and reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, to “ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.”[28]This is the task assigned to the husband/father, and for him to exercise it he must have, within the family itself, a unique kind of authority, the authority of headship. I will now briefly consider this.

3. The Husband/Wife Relationship: The “Headship” of the Husband/Father

Some New Testament passages, explicitly concerned with the relationship between husbands and wives, indicate that husbands hold primacy: e.g., “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands” (Eph 3:24). But other NT passages, not explicitly concerned with marriage but with the relationship between men and women in general, emphasize their equal dignity: e.g. “There is no longer Jew nor Greek; there is no longer slave nor free; there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Past papal teaching, e.g., that of Pope Pius XI in facing an emergent feminism, relied on the Ephesians text to reaffirm that marriage includes “the primacy of the husband with respect to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience.”[29]John Paul II has emphasized the mutual subjection of the spouses. In commenting on Ephesians 5:21-22, after emphasizing the passage in which husbands are exhorted to love their wives, he writes as follows:

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: “Wives,  be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (5:22-23). The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious traditions of the time, is to  be understood and carried out in a new way, as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).  This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual. [30]

John Paul II’s interpretation shows that one cannot interpret Ephesians properly if one thinks that it either countenances male domination or imposes a one-sided subjection of wives to husbands. The sacred author’s intention is to call both husbands and wives to mutual self-sacrifice out of love for Christ. A man’s characteristic temptation (cf. Gen 3) is to abuse and neglect their wives—hence they are admonished to love them and care for them; a woman’s characteristic temptation, particularly in response to their husband’s failures, is to rebel against them and hence they are advised to obey them.

In speaking of the mutual submission of husbands and wives to each other out of love for Christ, John Paul II, as Germain Grisez has properly noted and discussed at length, in no way rejected the tradition represented by Pope Pius XI. The different papal teachings are compatible. As Grisez points out, Pius XI, while admonishing wives to obey their husbands, was careful to emphasize that a husband must respect his wife’s equal personal dignity and should not dominate her, because she is equal in dignity to her husband. John Paul II, stressing the obligation of spouses to submit mutually to one another in Christ, notes that male domination of women is the result of the latter’s vulnerability and of original sin. But at the same time he emphasizes the “specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman.” Women rightly resist domination, but in doing so they must not, he says, become “masculinized” and “appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine originality.”[31] By affirming the difference between men and women John Paul II implies the legitimacy of sexually differentiated roles in marriage. Although he does not spell these out, either in Mulieris dignitatem or in Familiaris consortio, he affirms, as I have stressed, that the husband/father has a leadership (headship) role within the family, and the implication is that this role requires of the husband/father a unique kind of authority within the family.

To understand this we must first recognize the need of authority in any human community. But authority is not to be confused with domination and the exercise of power—these are abuses of authority. Rather, authority is a necessary principle of cooperation and is thus a service to a community. Marriage and family life require cooperation and unified decisions, and authority is properly the ability to make choices and decisions.

Authority, in short, is not power but decision making. Within marriage and family both husband and wife (and, within the family as the children grow the children as well) have their own responsibility to make decisions. In some respects and in many decisions the difference in the spouses’ role within the family should not affect the exercise of authority in the family; each family member has authority in his or her proper sphere of activity. Naturally, the spouses should communicate as fully as possible regarding decisions affecting the family’s common good. They should seek consensus.

But at times consensus is not reached, but a decision must be made. Sometimes as emergency arises calling for an immediate decision, and there is no opportunity to seek consensus. At other times there can be legitimate differences between the spouses regarding morally acceptable ways of acting. But only one can be chosen and the elements of the family’s common good at stake will not be protected or realized unless a decision is made. In such instances, the responsibility (and authority) for making a decision lies with the father, and we can recognize this in light of what has already been said regarding the complementarity of men and women. Several of the father’s attributes equip him for this: at times, his superior strength is relevant; very often, his experience in dealing with the external world and his tendency to devise means to achieve particular goals is of crucial significance. Of course, the husband/father may well conclude that the course of action recommended by his wife is indeed the best for the family as a whole. But it is necessary for the common good of the family that there one of the spouses should have the authority, when consensus is not possible, to act for the common good of the family. Precisely because of the features that characterize the male and equip him for his mission of “revealing and reliving on earth of the very Fatherhood of God” and of ensuring the “harmonious and united development of all the members of the family,” I hold that the ultimate decision-making authority within the family rests on the husband/father. In exercising this authority, however, he must remember that he must make decisions for the common good of the family, not in order to satisfy his personal desires. He must be self-sacrificing and self-giving in making choices for the well-being of all, for their harmonious and unified development. Exercising authority in this way in no way means that his whims will prevail or that he will impose his will on his wife and children. It means, rather, that he will lead them as one who witnesses to the self-giving love of God himself. He will, in exercising this authority, be “rich in mercy.”[32]


[1] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 25.

[2] Benedict Ashley, O.P., Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 103-109,

[3] Ibid., p. 104.

[4] Ibid., pp. 105-106.

[5] Ibid., p. 107.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] Henry Van Dyck, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” Poems of Henry Van Dyck (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, n.d.). This beautiful hymn has been set in music, using as the musical score Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

[8] Pope John Paul II, “Nuptial Meaning of the Body,” in The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997), p. 61.

[9] Robert E. Joyce, in Mary Rosera Joyce and Robert E. Joyce, New Dynamics in Sexual Love (Collegeville, MN: St. John’s University Press, 1970), pp. 34-35.

[10] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 11, emphasis added.

[11] On this see Robert P. George and Gerard V. Bradley, “Marriage and the Liberal Imagination,” The Georgetown Law Journal 84 (December 1995) 301-320.

[12] The “nuptial meaning” of the body is developed by Pope John Paul II in many of the addresses found in The Theology of the Body. See in particular, the following: “Nuptial Meaning of the Body,” pp. 60-63; “The Man-Person Becomes a Gift in the Freedom of Love,” pp. 63-66; “Mystery of Man’s Original Innocence,” pp. 66-69.

[13] See my essay, “Marriage and the Complementarity of Male and Female.” This was my inaugural lecture as the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C., and was given in March, 1992. The essay was then published in Anthropotes: Rivista sulla persona e la famiglia 8 (1992), 41-61, and was reprinted partially as chapter two of my book Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), pp. 39-66.

[14] Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy and Ethics of Man and Woman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), pp. 67-68.

[15] See, for example, the following: J. Bardwick, The Psychology of Women (New York: Harper & Row, 1971); Margaret Mead, Male and Female (New York: Dell, 1949); Robert Stoller, Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity (New York: Science House, 1968); Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups (New York: Random House, 1969); Walter Ong, S.J., Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 70-80, 97-98, 112-115; Benedict Ashley, O.P., Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian  (Braintree, MA: The Pope John Center, 1985), pp. 434-436.

[16] Ong,  Fighting for Life, p. 77.

[17] In addition to works cited in footnote 10, see Steven Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in the Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980). In chapters sixteen and seventeen (pp. 371-466) Clark summarizes relevant material from the descriptive social sciences and experimental psychology bearing on the differences between males and females. Clark provides an exhaustive search of the literature, providing excellent bibliographical notes. See also Alice Schlegel, Sexual Stratification: A Cross-Cultural View (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

[18] Clark, Man and Woman in Christ, p. 390.

[19] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, 51. See also his Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, 30: “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human  being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way—precisely because of their femininity—and this in a particular way determines their vocation.”

[20] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, 18.

[21] John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering: Why We Call God “Father” (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 57.

[22] Peter J. Wilson, Man, the Promising Primate: The Conditions of Human Evolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 71.

[23] John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering: Why We Call God “Father” (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 57.

[24] Benedict Ashley, O.P.,  “Moral Theology and Mariology,” Anthropotes: Rivista di studi sulla persona e la famiglia 7 (1991), 140.

[25] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 25.

[26] See Basil Cole, O.P., “Reflexions pour une spiritualite masculine,” trans.  Guy Bedouelle, O.P., Sources (Fribourg) 12 (March-April 1987) 49-55.

[27] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Dives in Misericordia, 14.

[28] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio,25.

[29] Pope Pius XI, Encyclical  Casti connubii, AAS  22 (1930) 549.

[30] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, 24.

[31] Ibid., 10. See Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993), pp. 614-619.

[32] On this matter, see Grisez, Living a Christian Life, pp. 629-633.

*This paper has now been published in Josephinum: Journal of Theology, New Series, Vol. 9. No. 1 (Winter/Spring, 2002),pp.42-55.

Copyright ©; William E. May 2002

Version: 11th March 2002

 HomePage  Prof May Home Page