Restore Fatherhood to End School Violence
There are no words to describe the horror and the evil that unfolded at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. Twenty-one innocent people are dead, including 19 beautiful children and two of their teachers. Hundreds of the children’s classmates will be scarred for life, haunted by nightmares of the unbridled malevolence that entered their lives that day. Families are shattered, a community traumatized, a nation broken.
Again, we are reading the names and gazing at the pictures of the innocents, trying to comprehend how and why it is that such children, going about the normal business of childhood, should find themselves in an instant thrust into the midst of something darker than any horror film. Again, we are reading about the life of a disturbed young man, wondering how anyone so young could think nothing of pointing a gun into the face of a child who had never wished harm upon him or anyone else, and pull the trigger.
And again, we are thrust into the maelstrom of the unending, and seemingly pointless political debates about the causes and the solutions. While a majority want to politicize the situation, very few are speaking about the underlying issues – breakdown of the family and widespread moral and social decay, including the widespread acceptance of violence targeted at the most innocent of all – the child in the womb – and our vulnerable elderly and sick.
Everywhere you look now, there is overwhelming evidence of increasing social fragmentation and isolation. Lacking the fundamental social safety net of an intact, loving family and the stability of an intact community constituted of intact families, more and more people live their lives as atomized individuals. Cut off from the deep, mutual relationships of family and friendship, they withdraw into the fantasy worlds of ubiquitous (and often violent and nihilistic) entertainment, social media, video games, and pornography.
From this place of isolation, a handful of young men have emerged over the past few decades to “make their mark” by rampaging through schools and other public venues, behaving as if the lives of their peers are no more real than the characters in their movies and video games, and their own lives worth no more than a handful of dust.
Divorce and Fatherlessness: A Thread Uniting Many School Shooters
Anthony Esolen, in response to the tragic event in Uvalde, notes that when his parents were young teens routinely brought guns to school, either to participate in the school’s shooting club, or to go hunting after school was out. Yet there were no mass shootings. Why not?, he asks.
Most obviously, our families were intact. That meant there was a father in the home—not in prison, not off with his latest bedmate somewhere, not languishing in a city far away and working himself thin to pay off an adulterous wife and her new bedmate. The father stands for authority. The neurologists and the endocrinologists themselves tell us what the father in the home does, by the unwitting action of the body, to the temperaments of the children. And that does not begin to describe the moral direction he gives, to restrain, channel, and direct the aggressions of his sons; and to be a rock of reliability for his daughters, so that they need neither fear the male sex nor rush toward it for affirmation.
We should not be surprised that the Uvalde shooter had no father in his life, or that his family was, in general, a mess. At the time of the shooting, Salvador Ramos was living with his grandmother, after reportedly having a falling-out with his drug-addicted mother. His father lived at a distance with his live-in girlfriend. His grandfather told ABC News that Ramos spent most of his time in his room, alone. So alienated was he from his family that he thought nothing of shooting his own grandmother in the face, apparently in response to a dispute over his phone bill.
“Man cannot live without love,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II in Redemptoris hominis, his encyclical about fatherhood, the love from God the Father to fallen humanity. “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”
A person first encounters love in the family. Or, rather, should. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it:
The family has central importance in reference to the person. It is in this cradle of life and love that people are born and grow; when a child is conceived, society receives the gift of a new person who is called ‘from the innermost depths of self to communion with others and to the giving of self to others.’ It is in the family, therefore, that the mutual giving of self on the part of man and woman united in marriage creates an environment of life in which children ‘develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny’ (no. 212).
In ideal circumstances, a child first encounters the reality of total, self-giving love through the presence and concern of his mother. But as the child grows, the father’s love becomes more and more important, particularly as the child advances into the disorienting and dangerous world of adulthood. At such a time, a child needs the sense of security that comes of knowing that he is loved by a strong, present father, who will be there to help him get up when he falls, and to challenge him to reach the utmost of his potential.
Alas, fewer and fewer children experience family in this way. We have witnessed over the last century and a half a concerted attempt by various ideologues either to redefine marriage and family, to fatally undermine their stability, or to fundamentally transform their nature. Such actions have been catastrophic, leading to the normalization of contraception and its anti-life mentality, an unprecedented acceptance of cohabitation and divorce, dangerously low global birth rates, children traumatized by being abandoned by one or both of their parents, a huge increase in fatherless households, an increasingly hostile war of the sexes, and, of course, the deaths of millions of unborn children through the violence of abortion.
These realities demonstrate what happens when the truth about marriage, family, and the nature of man and woman are abandoned. As Pope St. Paul VI says, “man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature” (Humanae vitae, 1968, no. 31). As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in the quotation above, without experiencing the love of family, a person’s life comes to seem “senseless.”
So senseless, perhaps, that he is willing to destroy his life in one last, catastrophically misguided effort to achieve notoriety by taking the lives of innocents. As family researcher W. Bradford Wilcox wrote some years ago, one thread uniting the lives of many school shooters is divorce and fatherlessness. Though most fatherless boys will not commit atrocities, notes Wilcox, nevertheless “every year enough fatherless boys fall prey to the ministrations of a gang or the rage induced by a high-school bully or the emotional fallout of painful divorce to end up causing real harm to themselves or the members of their communities.”
We can now, sadly, add Ramos’ name to our nation’s sordid list of fatherless killers.
The Abolition of Morality
And then, as Esolen points out, there is the fact that as a society we have systematically expunged a normative code of ethics from the public square, including in our schools. It used to be, he notes, that we “generally accepted a clear moral love to govern the passions.” Now, however, God has been abolished. The idea of moral truth itself has been abolished.
As a consequence, we have experienced a tsunami of moral decadence that has engulfed the whole of society. The mentality of “if it feels good, then do it” governs the majority. Love for one another and for our neighbor has been compromised by an explicit creed of individualism.
This situation is exacerbated by a growth in secular values, supported by a mindset that elevates ego and desires above the natural moral law, which not only leads to a loss of the sense of God, but inevitably leads individuals and society to choose, accept, promote, and defend what is offensive and contrary to human dignity and the respect owed to human persons – i.e., murder, promiscuity, fornication, cohabitation, adultery, divorce, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, etc.
In this world, communities that used to share responsibilities for one another have disintegrated. Men and women no longer relate to one another in relationships of mutual self-concern. Instead, the law of the jungle prevails, with men and women seeking only to “get” what they can out of one another – an attitude that follows through into the (fewer and fewer) marriages, which often end in divorce. Because marriage and family and the general good of society are so mutually dependent, any attempt to undermine the former not only poses a grave harm to these natural institutions, but also to society itself.
Religious teachings, one key way of inculcating morality, are under siege, a reality in the U.S. for well over a half a century. Traditional moral absolutes, transmitted through our families and churches, have been abandoned as guiding principles and replaced in the name of not being judgmental and the endorsement of the idea that one lifestyle or set of values is just as good as another. Simply put, people are not held accountable for their behavior, and we accept excuses.
Morality, however, is society’s first line of defense against uncivilized behavior. The most powerful check on violence and societal chaos is not by an external force. It is the internal guidance of conscience informed by transcendent moral precepts. We must accept the fact that laws, policies, and regulations alone cannot produce a civilized society.
We ought, instead, to focus upon a deeper need: strengthening marriages and families, where real moral education takes place, and pursuing the kind of deep, meaningful spiritual renewal that penetrates churches, schools, and communities, ensuring that everywhere they turn, children are immersed in a self-reinforcing worldview that prioritizes responsibilities over rights, love over egoism, and community over individualism.
In this way we must ensure, to the limits of our ability, that there are no more Salvador Ramoses, isolated, alienated, cut off from meaningful community, immersed in lonely virtual worlds, and sinking unimpeded into the pit of their darkest thoughts and instincts.
A Glimmer of Light in the Midst of Darkness
Days before 9-year-old Ellie Garcia was gunned down in cold blood in Uvalde, she uploaded a short video to the social media platform TikTok. “Hey guys,” she said. “Just wanted to bring you up to date. Jesus, He died for us. So, when we die, we’ll be up there with him. I have three pictures of him in my room.”
Garcia’s father, Steven, shared the video publicly on Facebook after his daughter’s death. “She prayed out loud every night so we could pray with her,” he recounted, while sharing another photo of Ellie lying in bed, praying. “I remember that day we had just bought the lamp that is on and she wanted to sleep with it on … she gave us a hug and a kiss and went to pray.”
If there is any light to be found in what unfolded at Robb Elementary School, that light is to be found in the likes of Ellie and her family. Ellie, clearly, was brought up by a loving mother and father to love Christ, and to look forward to eternal life with Him in the world to come. It would be hard to find a starker contrast than that of Ellie, and Ramos: love and hate; light and dark; hope and despair.
And yet, when all is said and done, no matter how difficult we might find it to be, we must pray that a ray of the light carried in Ellie’s heart, the light of Christ’s love and forgiveness, of hope for a life with Him forever, somehow pierced the heart of Ramos before he met his own death amidst the carnage he had unleashed.
And we must pray that, as a society, we discover the way to pull others like Ramos back from the brink: to reach out and stop their descent into the literal hell in which Ramos must have lived in his final days. The iniquity of evil is a great mystery, and it is true that no matter what we do, it will always be with us, so long as human freedom exists. Ramos, ultimately, is responsible for his actions.
And yet, there is profound truth in the saying that “no man is an island.” Lives are not lived, and choices are not made in isolation. We are all embedded within a matrix of relationships and social values that inform our choices, for better or for worse. As such, we cannot excuse ourselves from the difficult, painful work of examining ourselves, asking ourselves what it is that we, individually and collectively as a society, have done, such that our families and communities have produced a stream of young men with murder and vengeance in their hearts.
We need, as Pope St. John Paul II so often said, to do our utmost to create a “civilization of love and life,” in which every human being knows that they are of intrinsic, invaluable worth, and receives the love that ensures that they never have the chance to become so estranged from their fellow men that they do what Ramos and far too many others have done.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.