Justice and the Domestic Church

On the occasion of Father’s Day, we should consider that fully one quarter of households in the United States have no father present. On a per-capita basis, one in three children does not have his or her biological father present. Liberals will shrug at this unprecedented divergence from all past experience and say that it doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the consequences of fatherlessness are all around us. Whether we like to admit it or not, broken homes have a negative impact on our society as a whole.

St. Joseph by Guido Reni

St. Joseph by Guido Reni

In the Litany of St. Joseph, we ask “Joseph most just” to intercede on our behalf while in the Litany of Loreto, we ask for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Mirror of justice” to pray for us. This is not some coincidence. Both the mother and the father are responsible for teaching their children the meaning of justice, although they do so in different ways. In the Holy Family, the parents of our Lord and Savior provide us with an example for all parents as their children’s first teachers in the domestic church.

In the traditional family unit with a stay-at-home mom, the mother spends every day with her children, watching and nurturing them. When they misbehave, she teaches them patience and forbearance by withholding punishment, but at the same time warns them that such behavior will incur a penalty at the end of the day when the father returns home. Children should not fear their mother, but they must be taught to respect her commands.

On the other hand, the father is usually away from the home for most of his waking hours, making a living through his toil so that he can provide for his family. However, when he returns home, he is also the judge. He consults with his wife on the transgressions of the day (which hopefully are few and far between) and they discuss and agree on what punishments are merited given the circumstances. Then, after an explanation of what the child did wrong, the father administers the penalty [Note: I should clarify here that the punishment need not be violent and depending on the situation it may be better if it is not. More important is that the penalty is consistently applied].

Through this, the children learn that justice is altogether something different from vengeance. In single-parent families, the source of justice–such as it is–is the same person as the victim. If a child is acting out, there is no purpose served by the mother waiting to administer punishment, because there is no one else to do it. Instead of waiting for a non-existent father to come home from work, the haggard and overworked mother is likely to haul off and smack the well-deserving little brat upside the head right then and there. This is probably the worst possible thing she could do.

The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated. The idea of justice depends on our trust that the judge is an impartial third party who is neither an accomplice nor an accuser. As a result of this impartiality, the child learns that justice is not dispensed out of anger or cruelty, but is dispassionate and impersonal, while at the same time being consistent and inevitable. By being away from the home when children are at their most mischievous, the father maintains his impartiality and thus inspires a healthy fear in his children not of himself or of retaliation, but of just punishment.

Statistics show that the declining divorce rate matches the recent decline in adolescent crime. When children grow up in a traditional family with both a father and a mother present, they are blessed with an innate understanding of true justice, because they have always experienced it from the age of reason onwards. However, as more children are raised in single-family homes, we can expect to see more and more violent crimes being committed by adolescents. It should go without saying, but the health of our society really does depend on the health of marriage and on the special role of fathers in the family.


Categories:Catholic Social Teaching Culture Marriage

  • Larry

    What Joshua is suggesting is that we negate 3800 years of evolution and learning and use parenting skills from the time of Moses that re-surfaced in the 1950’s in the United States. “Father knows best” is not reality. This approach to disciplining children is fear based and creates adults who are either afraid of their father or very angry at their father. It’s the exact opposite of how children should be disciplined. It also places the mother in a subservient role, so typical of Catholic based doctrine. Were I a female, this post would bother me even more, I’m sure.

  • Mary

    Pish-posh! There are PLENTY of circumstances when mothers have to administer “justice” swiftly and decisively in order to address discipline situations immediately. The “wait till your Father gets home” model is not the only way to discipline kids, and it is not necessarily even the most effective.

    This article is filled with sweeping generalizations that are completely unsubstantiated or inadequately supported. How can you suggest that “liberals will say this does not matter” based on ONE article written by a 16 year old kid?? That’s ridiculous.

  • Bob Sanders

    What evidence do you have that single mothers are more likely to use corporal punishment? This seems like a harmful and baseless claim.

    • SLCMLC

      Exactly Bob, there’s really no evidence in any of this (other than the claim “linking” declining divorce rates and adolescent crime as if that’s causation, not necessarily just correlation). I don’t even disagree with some of the author’s points but usually most people provide evidence to back up their points.

      • Bob Sanders

        Thank you. There is no evidence to support any of this. I know of no evidence supposing that discipline handed down by fathers absent during the day is somehow more effective. I don’t even know how one would study this.

        Furthermore, there is an assumption that the “traditional family unit” only resembles the 1950s style American family unit, and that this type of unit is the most successful. Where are the comparative studies with other types of traditional family units that vary widely across the world?

        In some cultures, many women occupy the same households and communally raise children. Some mothers stay at home and work a farm or fields the entire day. In parts of Pakistan, no one goes to work, and everyone shares communally in sustenance farming.

        Are these units somehow less desirable? And how do we know this?


    How exactly do liberals “shrug at this unprecedented divergence from all past experience and say that it doesn’t matter”? Because one person from a single parent background wrote a blog entry that says she is still proud of the way she grew up? What did the author expect her to say, that she’s ashamed and bitter about it?

    I think just about everyone agrees that kids are better off in a loving household with two parents who serve as a great team. Unfortunately this is just not realistic for many families and it’s especially ironic that most of these single mothers made the decision we’d all support to carry their children to term instead of having an abortion. Their reward is to be told by the author that their idea of justice is “likely to haul off and smack the well-deserving little brat upside the head right then and there”. WHAT? Any evidence that single mothers are more likely to engage in physical violence against their kids than fathers in a traditional household?

    It’s definitely an interesting topic to talk about if women should go back to work or stay at home to raise kids, if kids are better off being raised in a home with two miserable parents instead of them getting divorced, and the role of justice/punishment that should be held by the mother/father. The author doesn’t really present any evidences to support his view, other than a “link” between declining divorce rates and juvenile crime as if there aren’t a million factors here.

    We all can reasonably agree that it would be nice if every child had a father. Any ideas how to make this happen?

    • Maddie

      Your last question is so key. Many Catholics I know do not understand why legal means must be taken to prevent gay Americans from raising children, yet it’s perfectly OK within the realm of law to let single mothers keep on parenting.

  • Catholic Mama

    This is an interesting perspective, and developmental psychology supports the idea that children benefit from the near-constant presence of a nurturing mother who provides gentle guidance rather than punishment, but younger children have little sense of time and move on quickly. Hours-later punishment by the father who just walked in the door would seem more likely to provide confusion or dread/fear of the Father’s arrival rather than introducing children to the concept of justice,.

    “Just wait until your father gets home to rain cruelty/’justice’ on you” actually seems a little more in keeping with Protestant theology than with Catholic, which emphasizes mercy and continual reconciliation with sweet Mother Church. John Paul II wrote some interesting reflections on this.



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