The Essence of Fatherhood

Fundamental for Any True Shepherd of the Church

Should Catholics ever fall into a concept of God which disregards the Three Distinct Persons of the Blessed Trinity, in favor of One God with three functions or modes of operation? And does not this concept weaken the possibility of a personal relationship between us and God?

First, we should be aware that this notion is called Sabellianism, a heresy attributed to Sabellius, a priest and theologian from the third century. He held three different but closely related positions:

  • Monarchianism, a notion which emphasized God as One Indivisible Being or Single Divine Person — in stark contrast to Trinitarianism, which defined the Godhead as Three Distinct Coeternal and Co-immanent Persons, Who are: One in Essence, One in Substance, and One in Nature.
  • Modalism, which asserted that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not Three Distinct Persons, but three functions or modes of operation proper to this Single Indivisible Being or Single Divine Person.
  • And, finally, Patripassianism, which takes for granted the central principle of Modalism, that if God is a Single Indivisible Being or Single Divine Person, it naturally follows that the Father died on the Cross to save us from our sins.

Ultimately, Sabellius was excommunicated by Pope Callistus I (c. 220), and Sabellianism was rejected by the ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Following this, in the year 382, the Council of Rome, with Pope Damasus I presiding, condemned this heresy.

Here we must recognize, if God were One Indivisible Being or Single Divine Person, this would alter significantly the relationship possible between God and His people. In fact, because God is Divine and Unseen, it would be considerably more difficult to comprehend God as a Loving Father and much easier to perceive Him as harsh and judgmental, or uninterested and distant.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church elucidates three realities which form a foundation for the Dogma of the Most Holy Trinity: that the Trinity is One; that the Divine Persons are distinct from one another; and that the Divine Persons are relative to one another.

The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the ‘consubstantial Trinity’ (cf. Council of Constantinople II (553): DS 421). The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: ‘The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e., by nature one God’ (cf. Council of Toledo XI (675): DS 530:26). In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215): ‘Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature’ (cf. Lateran Council IV (1215): DS 804).

“The divine persons are really distinct from one another. ‘God is one but not solitary’ (cf. Fides Damasi: DS 71). ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ ‘Holy Spirit’ are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: ‘He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son’ (cf. Council of Toledo XI (675): DS 530:25). They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: ‘It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds’ (cf. Lateran Council IV (1215): DS 804). The divine Unity is Triune.

“The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: ‘In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance’ (cf. Council of Toledo XI (675): DS 528). Indeed ‘everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship’ (cf. Council of Florence (1442): DS 1330). ‘Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son’” (cf. Council of Florence (1442): DS 1331).1

Therefore, all Catholics confess One God in Three Persons the Consubstantial Trinity, and, that each Person of the Trinity is God whole and entire: The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e., by nature one God. While at the same time, as concerns Divine Personhood or distinct relations: He is not the Father Who is the Son, nor is the Son He Who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit He Who is the Father or the Son.

Thus, the Three Persons of the Trinity are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: it is the Father Who Generates, the Son Who is Begotten, and the Holy Spirit Who Proceeds. This is to say, that the Persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a unity of relations and “‘God is love’ (cf. l Jn. 4:8,16): God’s very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret (cf. 1 Cor. 2:7–16; Eph. 3:9–12): God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.”2

God the Father from all eternity Generates the Son, He is Begotten and not made. This means that the Son is Generated (Begotten) and is not created as God creates ex nihilo (out of nothing) the material world, plants, animals, etc. And, as concerns the Holy Spirit:

“The Latin tradition of the Creed confesses that the Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque).’ The Council of Florence in 1438 explains: ‘The Holy Spirit is eternally from Father and Son; He has his nature and subsistence at once (simul) from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration. . . . And, since the Father has through generation given to the only-begotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom he is eternally born, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son’” (cf. Council of Florence (1439): DS 1300–1301).3

From all eternity, there are Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, distinct by their relations, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, because God’s very Being is Love and within Him there is an Eternal Exchange of Love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it becomes easier for God’s people to relate to Him and come to the understanding that they themselves are destined to share in this eternal exchange of love.

Thus, it is out of Love that God creates:

“We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom (cf. Wis. 9:9). It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness: ‘For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’ (cf. Rev. 4:11). Therefore, the Psalmist exclaims: ‘O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all’; and ‘The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made’” (cf. Ps. 104:24; 145:9).4

God chose to create, not out of necessity, rather, in His Great Love He desires that His creatures share in His Being, Wisdom and Goodness. And, God created man in His Own Image and Likeness: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”5 Following this, God created the first man: “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”6

From all eternity God generated the Son; thus, He is a Father within His very Being and He is the Father of all mankind, because He created man out of the dust of the earth.

God created the first man and woman in His Image and Likeness and established them in His friendship. Yet, we know:

“Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of (cf. Gen. 3:1–11; Rom. 5:19). All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.

“In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully ‘divinized’ by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to ‘be like God,’ but ‘without God, before God, and not in accordance with God’ (cf. St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua: PG 91,1156C; cf. Gen. 3:5).

“Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness (cf. Rom. 3:23). They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image — that of a God jealous of his prerogatives (cf. Gen. 3:5–10).

“The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination (cf. Gen. 3:7–16). Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man (cf. Gen. 3:17, 19). Because of man, creation is now subject ‘to its bondage to decay’ (cf. Rom. 8:21). Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will ‘return to the ground’ (cf. Gen. 3:19; cf. 2:17), for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history” (cf. Rom. 5:12).7

Although Adam and Eve abuse their freedom and make the choice to disobey Gods command not to eat from the tree in the midst of the garden, preferring themselves to God, and desiring to “be like God,” butwithout God, before God, and not in accordance with God,” we know that God continues in His Love for them.

Nevertheless, though God loves His children, there are consequences to this sinful act. Adam and Eve lose: the grace of original holiness, they fear the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image, harmony is destroyed, control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body are shattered and the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.

And original sin has consequences which reach far beyond the persons of Adam and Eve. Creation is now subject to its bondage to decay and Death makes its entrance into human history. Original sin, from the moment of its commission, is inherited by all of mankind and is known as the fall of man:

“It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ — a state and not an act.

“Although it is proper to each individual (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1513), original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’ Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”8

So, where does this leave mankind? God gives us an indication through His first act after questioning the man, woman, and serpent in the garden, when God lists the consequences of their sin:

“Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.’ The LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’ To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.”9

Here we must see, even after Adam and Eve sin against God Who provides for all of their physical and spiritual needs, He fashions them garments of skins and clothes them.

Mankind is in need more than ever of a Loving Father Who is willing to sacrifice everything for His children. And what more could God do for us than send His Only Begotten Son to take on flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that He might teach us to love as the Father loves, and to offer His Very Life on the Cross to save us from our sins, providing the grace we need to live an upright life?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of this great gift to mankind in his Wednesday Audience, January 30, 2013:

“It is the Gospel, especially, which reveals to us this face of God as a Father who loves, even to the point of giving his own Son for humanity’s salvation. The reference to the father figure thus helps us to understand something of the love of God, which is nevertheless infinitely greater, more faithful, and more total than the love of any man.

“‘What man of you,’ Jesus asks in order to show the disciples the Father’s face, ‘will give his son a stone if he asks for bread? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (cf. Mt. 7:9–11; cf. Lk. 11:11–13). God is our Father because he blessed us and chose us before the creation of the world (cf. Eph. 1:3–6), he has really made us his children in Jesus (cf. 1 Jn. 3:1). And as Father, God accompanies our lives with love, giving us his Word, his teaching, his grace and his Spirit.

“. . . God is a Father who never abandons his children, a loving Father who supports, helps, welcomes, pardons and saves with a faithfulness that surpasses by far that of men and women, opening onto dimensions of eternity. ‘For his steadfast love endures for ever,’ as Psalm 136 [135] repeats in every verse, as in a litany, retracing the history of salvation. The love of God the Father never fails, he does not tire of us; it is a love that gives to the end, even to the sacrifice of his Son. Faith gives us this certainty which becomes a firm rock in the construction of our life: we can face all the moments of difficulty and danger, the experience of the darkness of despair in times of crisis and suffering, sustained by our trust that God does not forsake us and is always close in order to save us and lead us to eternal life.

“It is in the Lord Jesus that the benevolent face of the Father, who is in heaven, is fully revealed. It is in knowing him that we may also know the Father (cf. Jn. 8:19; 14:7). It is in seeing him that we can see the Father, because he is in the Father and the Father is in him (cf. Jn. 14:9,11). He is ‘the image of the invisible God’ and as the hymn of the Letter to the Colossians describes him, he is: ‘the first-born of all creation . . . the first-born from the dead,’ ‘in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ and the reconciliation of all things, ‘whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (cf. Col. 1:13–20).

“Faith in God the Father asks for belief in the Son, under the action of the Spirit, recognizing in the Cross that saves the definitive revelation of divine love. God is our Father, giving us his Son; God is our Father, pardoning our sin and bringing us to joy in everlasting life; God is our Father, giving us the Spirit that makes us sons and enables us to call him, in truth ‘Abba, Father!’ (cf. Rom. 8:15). It is for this reason that Jesus, teaching us to pray, invites us to say ‘Our Father’ (cf. Mt. 6:9–13; cf. Lk. 11:2–4).

“Consequently, God’s fatherhood is infinite love, tenderness that bends over us, frail children, in need of everything. Psalm 103 [102], the great hymn of divine mercy, proclaims: ‘As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust’ (cf. vv. 13–14). It is our smallness, our frail human nature that becomes an appeal to the Lord’s mercy, that he may show his greatness and tenderness as a Father, helping, forgiving us and saving us.

“And God responded to our plea by sending his Son who died and rose for us; he entered our frailty and did what man on his own could never have done: as an innocent lamb he took upon himself the sin of the world and reopened our path to communion with God, making us true children of God. It is there, in the Paschal Mystery, that the definitive face of the Father is revealed in its full splendour. And it is there, on the glorious Cross, that God’s omnipotence as the ‘almighty Father’ is fully manifested.”10

So, how can any true shepherd of the Church disregard the heart of God the Father — the Merciful and Forgiving Father, Who provides for, protects, guides, and admonishes His children? How could the shepherd ignore the great gift and privilege he has received in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the ontological change or spiritual character which configures him more closely to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit? How could he allow himself to overlook the central goal of Fatherhood, that he and his children continue to flourish in the Truth, striving always through God’s Grace to reach Eternal Life?

There are many factors which can lead to this blindness or lack of awareness. The first and most damaging is sin and concupiscence. The focus upon a spirit of accomplishment, rather than a spirit of heartfelt prayer. The desire to avoid confrontation at all costs, though Christ exhorts His disciples to admonish those who persist in error: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”11 And, lastly, through harboring a desire to be well liked, adopting a permissiveness or false charity toward those under one’s care.

Nevertheless, the true shepherd accepts the role bestowed upon him; in mercy and love he admonishes his children when they lose their way. In charity, he corrects the error, because he knows in his heart of hearts that it is for the true good of his children, even when they refuse to recognize it, or think ill of him as a result of his intervention.

The pastoral role of any shepherd of the Church is to uphold doctrine, the true teachings of the Church, and to understand that these teachings are passed down to us by Christ Himself: “Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work.”12

Here we must acknowledge that man does not possess the authority to change the teachings of Christ — for any purpose, especially, under the guise of being pastoral toward God’s faithful. This does no service to the Spotless Bride of Christ.

The role of a shepherd is to stand in the breach and lay down his life for love of his friends. To pattern his life after that of the Good Shepherd, to be of service, not simply because he has been appointed a shepherd, but also because he is a child of God and will one day have to stand before the Judgment Seat of God and give an account for his actions.

Thus, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continues to speak of the Fatherhood of God:

“Nevertheless, faith in almighty God impels us to have a very different approach: to learn to know that God’s thought is different from our own, that God’s ways are different from ours (cf. Is. 55:8) and that his omnipotence is also different. It is not expressed as an automatic or arbitrary force but is marked by a loving and paternal freedom. In fact, by creating free creatures, by giving us freedom, God renounced some of his power, allowing for the power of our freedom. Thus, he loves and respects the free response of love to his call. As Father, God wishes us to become his children and to live as such in his Son, in communion, in full familiarity with him. His omnipotence is not expressed in violence, it is not expressed in the destruction of every adverse power as we might like; rather it is expressed in love, in mercy, in forgiveness, in accepting our freedom and in the tireless call for conversion of heart, in an attitude only seemingly weak — God seems weak if we think of Jesus Christ who prays, who lets himself be killed. This apparently weak attitude consists of patience, meekness and love, it shows that this is the real way to be powerful! This is God’s power! And this power will win! The sage of the Book of Wisdom addressed God in these words: ‘For you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook men’s sins, that they may repent. For you love all things that exist. . . You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord who loves the living” (cf. 11:23–24a, 26).

Only those who are truly powerful can tolerate evil and show compassion; only those who are truly powerful can fully exercise the force of love. And God, to whom all things belong because all things were made by him, shows his power by loving everything and everyone, patiently waiting for the conversion of us human beings, whom he wants to be his children.

God waits for our conversion. God’s omnipotent love knows no bounds, to the extent that he ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (cf. Rom. 8:32). The omnipotence of love is not that of worldly power, but is that of the total gift, and Jesus, the Son of God reveals to the world the true omnipotence of the Father by giving his life for us sinners.

This is the true, authentic and perfect divine power: to respond to evil not with evil but with good, to insults with forgiveness, to homicidal hatred with life-giving love. Thus, evil is truly vanquished because it is cleansed by God’s love; thus, death is defeated once and for all because it is transformed into a gift of life. God the Father raises the Son: death, the great enemy (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26), is engulfed and deprived of its sting (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54–55), and we, delivered from sin, can have access to our reality as children of God.”13

  1. Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. 2nd ed. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1997, 253–255. (Hereafter cited as CCC.)
  2. CCC, 221.
  3. CCC, 246.
  4. CCC, 295.
  5. Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), 2015. The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testaments revised A.D. 1881–1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894). 2nd Catholic ed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, Gn. 1:26. (Hereafter cited as RSV).
  6. RSV, Gn. 2:7.
  7. CCC, 397–400.
  8. CCC, 404–405.
  9. RSV, Gn. 3:13–21.
  10. Benedict XVI, General Audience, 30 January 2013. (Hereafter cited as Benedict XVI.)
  11. RSV, Mt. 18:15–17.
  12. RSV, 2 Jn. 1:9–11.
  13. Benedict XVI.
Rev. Kenneth M. Dos Santos, MIC About Rev. Kenneth M. Dos Santos, MIC

Rev. Kenneth M. Dos Santos, MIC, is a member of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy Province, located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and was ordained a priest in 2010. He is currently serving as a Provincial Councilor and is the Superior of a Marian house in Thompson, Connecticut. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and an MDiv from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. He is the author of Hagia Sophia: the Wisdom of God as Offered to the Modern World (Marian Heritage, 2021).