Life is Patriarchal — Get Over It

By Dwight Longenecker Published on July 27, 2021

One of the targets for the woke crowd is patriarchy. That is to say, “Dad = bad.” When this is translated into petty arguments and politicized protests, the anti-patriarchy movement comes across as a gigantic hissy fit by a spoiled adolescent who is mad at Dad.

To be fair, the critics of patriarchy have a point. There are some bad dads. Really bad. Deadbeat dads who father children then disappear give all fathers a bad name. Adulterous husbands who cheat on their wives and abandon their families cast a shadow over the role of father. Priests and pastors who play a fatherly role in religion, and who betray their calling through abuse, embezzlement and scandal all besmirch the name of the Father.

The Religious Roots of Patriarchy

Western society has inherited patriarchy as part of the legacy of Judaism and Christianity. The Jews look back to the foundation of their faith in Father Abraham, and Jesus taught his followers to call God, “Abba-Father” — a term of intimacy like “Papa.” Patriarchy was woven into Western society as Catholic priests were called “Father.” The head of a monastery is called an “Abbot” — the name being derived from “Abba,” and the word “Pope” is descended from the Greek word “pappas” — Father.

The loving father is constantly outpouring his love and creativity and goodness in service and self giving to others, and the wife and children respond to this constant self giving with mutual respect and self-giving service back again.

This heritage of patriarchy eventually put all the power in the hands of the paterfamilias. “Father knows best” was the catchphrase and the father was not only the head of the home, but the big boss in every other aspect of life. Given the frailty of human nature, this power play was abused by too many men who grabbed at power and used their position and privilege for selfish purposes.

While this display of patriarchy often prevailed, it was an ugly outgrowth and distortion of the patriarchy taught by the Christian faith. Christian patriarchy is rooted in Biblical theology and anthropology. The Christian understanding of God and man is that God is our Heavenly Father. This is not a cultural construct, or merely Judeo-Christian preference, but part of the Divine Revelation rooted in Jesus Christ’s own self understanding and his revelation to us of what God is like.

Made to be Children of God the Father and be Mothers and Fathers to Children

The first principle is that God is our Father and we are his children. As such, the Genesis story teaches that men and women are created in his image. Both are created equal in his image.

Integral to the story is that it is not good for man to be alone. He is to be united to his wife and become one flesh. They are to be fruitful and multiply. Man is not independent of woman and woman is not independent of man. They are not only equal, but equally co-dependent. Furthermore, their purpose as man and woman is not only to come together, but to have children, and therefore to become mothers and fathers.

One of the results of the contraceptive culture is that we have forgotten the primary purpose of sex and therefore of our own sexuality. Sex is primarily for the transmission of life, therefore the mission of both men and women is to be mothers and fathers. This is the divine plan. This is how we are wired. Through parenthood we come to understand ourselves, one another and God. This is how we experience love and learn forgiveness. This is how we experience the need for self sacrifice.

A Patriarchy Rooted in Self Sacrifice

It is from these foundational beliefs that patriarchy arises naturally. Patriarchy is not imposed or constructed for social purposes. It is part of the natural order. It is written into the code of what it means to be man and woman living together as husband and wife within a system of belief that makes sense of the world.

Within this understanding of the whole mystery of marriage and what it means to be man and woman, patriarchy finds its natural and perfect home. But what is that patriarchy like? It is to be rooted in self sacrifice. To whom much is given, much is required. The ideal of mutual self giving was stated by St Paul: “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her. Wives be subject to your husbands as in the Lord.”

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Therefore Catholic patriarchy is a patriarchy of service. The loving father never asks of his wife and children anything but what is for their very best. The loving father is the ‘servant of the servants of God.’ The loving father is constantly outpouring his love and creativity and goodness in service and self giving to others, and the wife and children respond to this constant self giving with mutual respect and self-giving service back again. In this way the constant self giving of God the Father is reflected and pictured within the domestic church we call the family.

We Do Not Abandon God’s Ideals Because They Have Been Abused

This is the ideal of Christian patriarchy. That this ideal is rarely reached is clear. That the ideal is often abused is obvious. That the ideal is little understood and little appreciated we must admit. That patriarchy without the high standard of self sacrifice has led to gross abuses of power, abuse of women and abuse of children must be admitted.

Nevertheless, we do not abandon ideals because they are not reached. Whenever we are tempted to abandon a seemingly impossible ideal, or an ideal which has not been met or which has been abused we must ask ourselves a couple of questions: first of all, did we really understand the ideal to start with? Second, if we did understand the ideal, might we have come closer to reaching it? Thirdly, if we abandon the ideal, what are we going to get in its place?


Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in South Carolina. His new book is Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness.

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