We often call St. Joseph a stepfather to Jesus, but that isn’t entirely true. While he was a stepfather in biology, he was a true father to Jesus in every other way. Now, when we think about that for a moment, it seems rather odd. After all, if we open the Catechism of the Catholic Church up at article #2221 and start reading through the duties of parents, we immediately run into this, “The fecundity of conjugal love cannot be reduced solely to the procreation of children, but must extend to their moral education and their spiritual formation. ‘The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute.’”
Now, it’s easy to see how other step-parents can be true parents in every way but biology. As long as the parent is deeply involved in the moral education and spiritual formation of their adopted children, they are living the “fecundity of conjugal love”. That is, they are true parents. Every Christian parent understands what the CCC describes here: parenthood isn’t just about procreation. It’s about raising the child that has been conceived.
After all, we aren’t animals. Human beings don’t reproduce. We procreate. There’s an enormous difference between the two. Procreation means we take part in God’s divine act of creation, we participate in it as co-workers. We can do this because we are persons, called to image the Three Divine Persons.
Our ability to participate in the creation of persons is the highest form of creation, because it most closely images what happens within the Godhead. The Son and the Spirit are not created, but Son is begotten of the Father, and Spirit is breathed forth by the Father and the Son. That is, these two Persons of the Trinity find their origin in the Father. In a somewhat similar way, every human person finds his source and origin in his parents. Every created person is immortal, that is, while a created person has a beginning, he will have no end, he will exist beyond time itself. Procreation is participation in this eternally significant event.
But animals are not persons like men or angels or the Trinity, they are not in the image and likeness of God. They do not participate in the generation of persons. They do not procreate, they only reproduce.
Persons need to know about God so they can live out the communion with the divine Persons that they are called to. Angels are created with all the necessary knowledge already infused. Human beings are created without the necessary knowledge – we have to learn about God and be taught about God, we have to grow and mature, as a vine grows towards the sun. Thus, procreation creates a responsibility that simple reproduction does not.
A rabbit need not teach its young anything about God, for none of its young have an immortal soul as human beings do. They do not have an intellect or a will as persons do. But every human person has a soul, that is, every human person has a human intellect and a human will. That intellect and will need to grow and mature. The intellect must be fed with knowledge of God, so the will can choose Him. Thus, the act of procreation is an act that creates responsibility. By the fact that I have assisted in the creation of an immortal person, someone who is called by the Trinitarian Persons to live in intimate communion with Himself, I must teach that new immortal person about God, so that he knows Who he is made for, Who he is made to commune with. This is critical, because it is in this divine communion that the new, immortal person is given super-abundant life.
So, the fecundity of conjugal love, the life-giving capability of conjugal love, is not limited to biology, it necessarily has to include the spiritual as well. This is why Thomas Aquinas says parents are priests of the domestic Church, the family. A priest gives spiritual life through administering the sacraments, but a parent gives both biological life (through procreation) and spiritual life. Parents are the first heralds of the Gospel, and they are called to initiate their children into the mysteries of faith (CCC #2225).
This is why it seems odd to call Joseph a true parent. After all, Jesus is God. He possesses the divine intellect and the divine will. For all eternity before He wrapped Mary’s ovum around Himself and fertilized it, He knew He was God. As His Body grew from one cell to two cells to three cells to four, then eight, then sixteen, moving slowly down Mary’s fallopian tube, He knew He was God. As His embryonic body implanted in the lining of her womb, He knew He was God. During His birth, His life as a suckling babe through His entry into manhood, He always knew He was God. How could He not? He possessed the divine intellect.
So exactly what could Joseph teach God about Himself?
Keep in mind that Jesus not only took on a human body, He took on a complete human nature. That means He also took on a human soul: a human intellect and a human will. Now, Jesus is not, nor was He ever, a human person. Remember, we are persons because we are called into communion with God. He was already in communion with God before He entered Mary’s womb – He is the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. Thus, He was already a much more perfect Person than any human person could ever be, His communion with the Father is more perfect than any human person’s can be. So, although He possessed a human soul - human intellect and a human will - He is not a human person, He is always one of the Three Divine Persons. In Jesus’ Divine Person, two natures are united: the divine nature and human nature. That means Jesus possesses the one divine intellect and one divine will. It means He also possesses a human intellect and a human will. He has two intellects and two wills.
The divine intellect and divine will cannot be taught because there is nothing to teach Him. The divine intellect is the source of all knowledge, the divine will chose to bring all creation into existence. But, for human intellect and human will, it is a different story. Jesus’ human intellect needed to grow and develop. His human will needed to strengthen and mature. The capacities which are latent in every human being, and He was a human being, needed to come to their full power.
Now, God didn’t need Joseph in order to accomplish this growth and maturation. He could have done it completely on His own. But He humbled Himself, taking the form of a slave. So, in His divine humility, He permitted Joseph to do the work any parent would do in developing His human intellect. He permitted Joseph to help Him strengthen and mature His human will. This does not mean Jesus ever disobeyed His parents. Rather, in the very act of obeying every command Joseph or Mary gave Him, God’s human intellect and human will were trained.
Scriptures say that Christ learned obedience through suffering (Heb 5:8). Have you ever known how to do a thing, but held your tongue while your boss struggled to figure it out? Then you have a taste of what childhood was like for Jesus. He accepted this state of affairs joyfully. That is humility.
As a side note, we all need to keep this in mind when our priests and/or bishops do something impossibly silly. Humility is still a chief virtue. Now, there’s a fine line between commendable patience and damnable sloth when it comes to the spiritual works of mercy, especially works like admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful and bearing wrongs patiently. Good Catholics may well disagree on exactly where that line lies in various situations. But, we should always seek to make sure we are on the right side of the line.
So, what did Joseph teach his Son? He taught Him the Scriptures. He taught Him how to live as an orthodox Jew. He taught Him how to love God and love His neighbor. Indeed, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that many of Jesus’ habits of speech or habits of life found their origin in Joseph’s speech and life, for it would be an unusual son who did not imitate his father in at least some way. We know Jesus does only what He sees His Father in heaven do, but it is certainly a pious thought to believe He endowed Joseph with many of the qualities He wanted to live, so that anyone who looked upon Him could say, “But is this not the carpenter’s son?” Indeed, the Church’s tradition concerning Joseph seems to verify that Jesus lived Joseph’s example to a superlative degree. Is St. Joseph not “the Terror of Demons”, “Protector of the Universal Church” and “Patron of a Good Death?” Jesus is all of these things, but even better. Like father, like Son. Gentlemen, perhaps we should take note.