You can read the letter here. It encourages men to take up their responsibilities as Catholics, as members of society, and as husbands and fathers.
There is a paragraph about fathers as heads of their families; I do not believe I have seen any (living) diocesan bishop mention this aspect of the Church's teaching before. This is what he says.
There are those in our culture today, however, who do not want us to see fatherlessness as unnatural or lamentable. Do not be fooled by those voices wishing to erase all distinctions between mothers and fathers, ignoring the complementarity that is inherent in creation itself. Men, your presence and mission in the family is irreplaceable! Step up and lovingly, patiently take up your God-given role as protector, provider, and spiritual leader of your home. A father’s role as spiritual head of the family must never be understood or undertaken as domination over others, but only as a loving leadership and a gentle guidance for those in your care. Your fatherhood, my fatherhood, in its hidden, humble way, reflects imperfectly but surely the Fatherhood of God, the Father to those whom the Lord has given us to father.
I think that 'loving leadership and a gentle guidance' is inadequate as a description of the role; this is the only reference to it in the document, the word 'authority' does not appear anywhere, and the word 'obedience' only appears in relation to God. However, credit where it is due: this is an awful lot better than nothing, and 'nothing' is what we have been getting for a very long time.
There is a telling paragraph on the problem of men in Pope St John Paul II's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, on the laity, issued in 1988:
52. Many voices were raised in the Synod Hall expressing the fear that excessive insistence given to the status and role of women would lead to an unacceptable omission, that, in point, regarding men. In reality, various sectors in the Church must lament the absence or the scarcity of the presence of men, some of whom abdicate their proper Church responsibilities, allowing them to be fulfilled only by women. Such instances are participation in the liturgical prayer of the Church, education and, in particular, catechesis of their own sons and daughters and other children, presence at religious and cultural meetings, and collaboration in charitable and missionary initiatives.
The danger with Bishop Olmstead's letter, well-meaning as it is, is that the message coming over to men is simply 'man up!' This can very easily turn into a game of actually blaming men for the problems of society. The problem of fatherlessness, for example: isn't that, obviously, a problem caused by feckless men? This message is heard a good deal among Evangelical Protestants, and to an extent in the press and in popular culture. Why can't men just get on with the job of being hard working and dependable? Well, it must be a moral failing.
This gets us nowhere, any more than lambasting single mothers for their moral failings. The failings are real enough, certainly, but the important question is why so many people are failing in this particular way, when a couple of generations ago they did not, and what we can do, as a community (within the Church), and as a society overall, to address the situation. This is something which Bishop Olmstead does not address much more than men-bashing newspaper columnists.
It derives, however, from quite easily identifiable social changes which the Church ought to be opposing tooth and nail, but which we have come to accept. As I have blogged about in some detail before, men have no incentive to commit themselves to a family, to invest heavily in it, if three things are missing: the prospect of domestic happiness enjoyed by former generations of men; the prospect of appreciation and respect given to him as head of the household enjoyed by former generations of men; and the security of the investment, in the sense that, like former generations of men, it is very unlikely to be destroyed by divorce. If those things are missing, investing in a family ceases to be a sensible thing for a provident, conscientious, ambitious young man to do, and becomes a romantic gamble at best.
Lots of people will defend the social changes which have had this result, but we can't embrace these and simultaneously decry the disapearance of provident, concientious, and ambitious young husbands and fathers. You get what you pay for.
Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.