Fatherlessness in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution

Author: Father Bill Miscamble

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This text was taken from a talk on October 11th with Fr. Miscamble

Thanks to Merlot Fogarty and Mattie Lossing for the invitation to speak to you on this very important topic. I am grateful to have the opportunity and I see my role primarily as beginning a conversation. I hope to offer a few thoughts that will stimulate good discussion. I speak merely as a priest engaged in the lives of others over decades, and not as an ‘expert’ on the subject.

I want to address in pretty brief fashion a number of major areas. Each could warrant significant talks and discussion in their own right. I have cobbled together this talk from a variety of sources. I shall try to identify the main ones.

At the outset I want to commend to you a book that was published over 25 years ago. It is by David Blankenhorn. The title gives the theme of the book: Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. Blankenhorn identified the seriousness of this social issue. I wish I could report that the problem has been well addressed since his book’s publication, but, dear friends, we all know otherwise. 

In some ways, and at least for some groups in the society, we have witnessed the ‘collapse of fatherhood as a social role for men’ and this, in turn, has had enormous ripple effects throughout the society--including on the life issues.


Let me first get out on the table some crucial clarifications regarding the IMPORTANCE of marriage and families, which are of course so integrally related to the issue of fatherlessness. I want to assert strongly that stable, man-woman marriage is the basis for a strong and healthy society. Traditional marriage provides the basis for healthy relations between men and women and significant benefits for children. 

When I preside at weddings (which I like to do), I often introduce into my homily, for a little levity, that marriage is “good” for people, but especially for men.  (I encourage all the husbands present in the congregation to acknowledge that point immediately to their wives). Joking aside, there is considerable evidence that suggests that marriage is beneficial (and particularly for men!) in areas such as physical health, mental health, longevity, financial well-being, etc. But dear friends, I don’t want you to think of marriage just in these utilitarian ways. It is, of course, for Catholics a sacrament and how men and women can live out their Christian vocations. But put all that aside. 

The crucial point I want to make is that marriage has significant benefits for the children of married parents. Such children have advantages in many ways over children of unmarried parents. This is a basic fact. Please keep it in mind.


Now, let me turn and address specifically the reality that marriage is what truly creates fatherhood. Now, I do not mean to say that there are not biological links between a man and his child, even if the man plays no part in the child’s life. But real fatherhood comes when the man is married to the mother of his children and deeply involved with her in the raising of his children. 

Fatherhood lies at the heart of the family. I do not deny the primacy of the mother-infant bond – we all know that from our own experience – but if a father’s relationship with his children is severely attenuated or even ended, the child is deeply deprived. 

Let me add that for most men getting married and becoming fathers and raising their kids is a crucial step to maturation as a man, because these roles draw from him the self-giving, the sacrificing, that is crucial for a truly good MAN. It is where--day in and day out--the man lays down his life for others! Now, again, let me note that I am not an expert in these matters, but let me repeat if a father is not involved deeply in his children’s lives, providing love, respect, and attachment, that child misses something essential in the move to full maturity. 

The work of the great Catholic cultural commentator Mary Eberstadt is important here. (She has spoken at Notre Dame a number of times). --I listened to her book How the West Really Lost God on audio last year, but I have also read reviews of her important book Primal Screams. 

From what I have been able to garner, Eberstadt shows how children from intact families (with parent and grandparents), exhibit a different concept of identity from children who grow up with a single parent. She has made the point that the collapse of the family is part of the fallout from the sexual revolution of the 1960s with all its attendant consequences from artificial birth control, to easy divorce,  from ‘living together’ which later devolved into the hook-up culture and so forth.  (Saint Pope Paul VI warned about much of this in his 1968 encylical Humanae Vitae.) Eberstadt argues that it has resulted in generations of young folk being set somewhat adrift.  Shepoints out that recent social dysfunction results in significant part because of family breakdown and fatherlessness that has afflicted the U.S. now for two generations.

She notes that almost one in four children today grows up without a father at home. For some groups it is higher. For African-Americans it is now 65 percent of children--but the number also is increasing for working-class whites and Hispanics. Eberstadt points to the social science evidence of the consequences. Let me mention some: The vast majority of incarcerated juveniles have grown up in a fatherless home; absent fathers, she notes, predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, domestic violence and other less-than optimal outcomes. She also suggests that “Fatherlessness leads to a search for father substitutes.”  And that some of these are TOXIC, for example, gang membership in inner cities where a high percentage of gang members come from father-absent homes. (Perhaps the young men are seeking a sense of belonging.)

Eberstadt also argues that a lot of identity politics can be traced back to fatherless circumstances.  Or, at least, there is a connection there. She argues that identitarian groups can function as a substitute for a functioning family). By the way this phenomenon applies to groups on the left and the right. Missing Dads are part of the problem, but not a mono-causal interpretation for her. It goes along with the decline in religious practice and the breakdown in community and even attachment to country.  She posits there is a connection between loss of family and loss of faith and loss of patriotism. I leave you to reflect on that complex mix.

But back to fatherless and family break-down: what might it have to say to us, and how does it connect to respect for life?

One of the consequences of “fatherlessess” is its negative impact on boys who eventually grow into teenagers and then young adult males. This doesn’t apply in every circumstance, of course, but generally speaking the lack of a decisive person from whom to learn such essential skills as “diligence, compromise, teamwork, delayed gratification, and self-control” has social consequences.  Good male behavior is not modeled for them, including, most importantly, respect for women.  Women can be seen a mere objects. You might have sex with a woman but you don’t seek to build any long-term relationship. Hence a generation of young men have emerged among whom there are many who are not well-equipped to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood.   For some, sadly, they are not well-equipped to take on any serious responsibilities and to become productive citizens.

By the way -- I have focused here on the impact of boys from absent fathers. But I certainly note that girls are also greatly affected. For them there is confusion, anger, anxiety and anguish aplenty for girls, as one memoir has put it.  (Jonetta Rose Barras, WaPo, 2015). Their experience in a fatherless home can lead them fear rejection, abandonment and commitment and, sadly, to feel themselves unworthy of love. Again, not in all cases. In a sense this is all preliminary setting of the stage to turn to the issue of fatherlessness and abortion.


So, my friends, we have a situation of family breakdown and situations where many children grow up in fatherlessness homes.   Fewer people are choosing to marry.  More folk live in a cohabiting arrangements. There has been a significant decoupling of marriage and parenthood. Single parenting households have grown significantly and the majority of sing le parent households are headed by women. These households tend to be among the most financial vulnerable groups.   


Well, here I want to draw some connections. I am drawing some very plain statistics from a NYT time article from December 2021. [“Who Gets Abortions in America,” NYT, December 14, 2021.) It notes that the portrait of who gets abortions in America has changed--teenagers are getting fewer abortions .

The typical ‘abortion patient” now possesses these characteristics (among others):

  • is already a mother 
  • in her mid to late twenties
  • has a low income
  • is unmarried

The NYT story gave details to flesh out these descriptions. Some women who already had children said that they had abortions so as to better parent the kid or kids they already had. About half the women who had an abortion in Guttmacher surveys from around 2014 were below the poverty line with another quarter very close to poverty.  Low income women have been a growing share of those seeking abortion in recent decades.   These women worry that they cannot afford a child. Nearly half of those who have abortions are single. A third are living with a partner of some sort; but only 14 percent are married.

Cohabiting but unmarried people are overrepresented in abortion numbers, while --PLEASE NOTE -- married people are underrepresented, based on their share of the population.

Okay, I’m no whiz bang social scientist who does all kinds of regression analysis and determines correlations and causes and so forth. But let me put out for discussion purposes: There is an obvious connection between poor and unmarried women heading fatherless homes and abortion. We know that Planned Parenthood recognizes this, and that sick outfit targets poor and minority neighborhoods.


Well, I have gone on enough but let me start to bring my initial remarks to a close by posing the question: What is to be done?

Clearly the macro picture involves recovering from the ravages of the sexual revolution and the devastation it has caused to both men and women through family breakdown and a devaluing of sex. There seems to be some signs that this is occurring. In one modest sign, British writer named Louise Perry -- a feminist and a “woman of the left” (as they say!) -- has recently written a book entitled The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.

It is getting a good bit of play.  This is amazing since she believes that men and women are different physically, emotionally, sexually and in practically every way.  She believes in monogamous man-woman marriage.  She argues against the hook-up culture and pornography.  She believes the sexual revolution has been an unmitigated disaster for women.  (Or so said one review of her book!)

Now, she is a highly educated woman -- but something tells me that those poor single women choosing to have an abortion might on reflection, if given the chance, think much the same about the sexual revolution given the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. Might they not choose to have their child if they had a responsible husband and together with him could have some better financial stability and the prospect of raising their kids in a decent way? Is that possible?

Well, let us assume that it is -- then perhaps part of our challenge is to push back against the toxic elements of the sexual revolution that have done such damage to men and women, and to rebuild a MARRIAGE CULTURE.

THIS is hardly an easy task but steps can be taken on both the big scale and on the smaller scale in our personal and communal lives. You must prepare yourselves to be and commit yourselves to being good spouses and parents.

(I once did engaged couples retreats and gave talks on these matters -- now I am too old for that sort of thing.  But I will share with Mattie talks on these matters which I gave long ago. Anyone who wants a copy can ask her.)

Here at Notre Dame we need to place greater emphasis on premarital chastity and on preparing you good students to live out your vocations as husband and wife and as parents. (By the way, I see this being lived out in wonderful families in town -- some various faculty members and others. I see them at St. Thomas More Academy when I say Mass there.)

But on the macro level we need to think about and be concerned about the crisis of fatherlessness and the crisis facing boys and men.  Not the guys here of course--your prospects are fine. But many American men are struggling. The evidence is all about from the education system and graduation rates, and from workforce numbers to family breakdown, from worklessness, suicide rates and overdose deaths. The crisis facing American men is so overwhelming.  One in three American men with only a high school diploma is out of the workforce!!

(I pray that a recent book by Richard Reeves entitled Of Boys and Men might draw more attention to this whole issue.)

Friends, let us turn to a crucial point.   We need more marriageable men -- men who have good jobs and can commit themselves to life with the woman whose children they father.   We need fewer men who get a woman pregnant and then pressure their baby’s mother to “get rid of it” as the terrible expression of the throwaway culture puts it. I think there is a growing recognition of that in the political domain-- but much work remains to be done.  Helping men re-engage and live responsibly is a huge task but we won’t address it if don’t identify it and speak about it. It still remains one of our most urgent “social problems” as David Blankenhorn said a quarter century ago.

Now, when you guys here graduate and form families of your own that will be important.  You must be a light to others.  But will you do more? Can you begin to change the culture of American business?  Post-Dobbs we have seen where the biggest American corporations stand on the life issues. They have made statements about how they will facilitate and fund abortions for their female employees etc.

Clearly for the big corporations family commitments are an inconvenience because they impede the bottom line.  Motherhood is an obstacle to productivity.  As one observer has put it “modern feminism and managerial capitalism march hand-in-hand against the family.”  Xan DeSanctis wrote a recent important piece entitled “Why Big Business Loves Abortion” which examined the matter in some detail.

Have ND grads and have Catholics in general made their businesses more family friendly? I offer this as something for you to keep in mind when you come in to positions of leadership yourselves. Well, there is much rebuilding and recovery of marriage and family to be done and in emphasizing the need for fathers to live out their vocations well.  Don’t be afraid to play your part.  In doing so you will be furthering the cause of life.

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Thank you for being here.



David Blankenhorn,  Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (1996)

Mary Eberstadt,  Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. (2019)

Mary Eberstadt,  How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. (2014)

(Also note her:  Adam and Eve After the Pill:  Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. (2013)

Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.  (2022)

Richard V. Reeves,  Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters and What to Do About It. (2022)