In the face of the attacks upon the sanctity of human life, of marriage and family life Catholic men are called upon value their Christian honor, and to consider inaction in the face of peril to be a blemish upon their person, a breach of their duty to protect the weak, and most of all, a failure to serve faithfully their Lord Jesus Christ, and His Queen Mother Mary. We can take courage from the example given to us by our holy and late pope, John Paul II. But admiration is not enough. Throughout history, evil times have given rise to great men. We must not be afraid to be heroes.
In the sixteenth century Christendom faced a threat to its very existence. St. Pius V called upon all the princes of Christendom to defend its borders from an impending invasion of the Muslim Turks. It was a time for heroism, but there were few heroes. It was time to rally under the banner of Christ the King and His Holy Mother, but only a remnant of Christian soldiers were prepared to fight. These were led by the twenty-four year old bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and half-brother to Philip II, King of Spain, by name Don John of Austria. He was among the few. He stood up and was counted. Don John was the human side of the victory of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571. He was the instrument used by Our Lady of Victory that makes us still remember that fateful event that took place over four-hundred years ago. Every year Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Holy Rosary (formerly the Feast of Our Lady of Victory) because of the victory at Lepanto.
It is an encouraging sign to see more and more Catholic men waking up to the fact that their job is to be the moral and spiritual leaders of their families and of society. Different movements around the country, under the patronage of St. Joseph and in the form chivalrous organizations, have cropped up within the Church to address a real need. In other words more and more Catholic men recognize that they do not do enough to live their faith and be witnesses to it, and that, consequently, they need to band together in a common cause to fix the problem.
But are they responding to a real need? Or is this just a reaction of male chauvinists to the ascendency of women in society? A curious phenomenon within the Church in the United States should help us to answer that question.
Have you ever noticed the relative proportion of men to women in most Catholic Church congregations, societies, and apostolic movements? Men are not only outnumbered by women, but their relative absence is quite remarkable. There are any number of reasons suggested by social scientists, and Catholic thinkers for this fact. But the one that speaks to the real differences between men and women is that so much of what is available on the Catholic menu is contemplative and charismatic, and so little of it is missionary, evangelical and directly involved in Catholic action.
Not that anything negative is to be assumed of the great contemplative tradition of the Church. After all scripture, tradition, and the patrimony of the saints rightly affirm the primacy of prayer over action, and of “being” (holiness) over “doing” (work, apostolic activity). The great saints of the Franciscan tradition, for example, starting with St. Francis himself and including recent saints like St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe and St. Pio of Pietrelcina, teach that the entire progress of an individual’s spiritual life and his effectiveness as an apostle, is entirely dependent on one’s union with God. In terms of consecration to the Immaculate, this means one’s union with Our Lady. This is a matter, above all else of prayer, asceticism and the sacramental life. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy to mark both the absence of the contemplative tradition among Protestants, and the greater balance in the proportion of men to women active in their congregations.
The problem, of course, is not that the contemplative life holds pride of place in the Catholic tradition, but that the relationship between prayer and action is so often misunderstood, and the real differences between men and women have been so minimized and disparaged. Feminists have repudiated gender differences, and by that very fact have capitulated to a world that is dominated by the masculine. The Church remains the last tenuous refuge of true femininity. At the same time, men have been told not to be patriarchs, not to be authority figures, and not to assume that women, children and families need to be protected. In a large and unfortunate way men, have meekly complied.
This analysis can be applied equally to the family, society and the Church. Perhaps in the Church this narrowing of understanding is most insidious, because the relationship between contemplative and active is explicit and critical. The primacy of prayer remains the correct Catholic intuition, but men have largely found no way in which to express that intuition, except by imitating women. Most men will have nothing to do with it.
It is clearly the place of woman in the Church to be the guardian of the primacy of the contemplative over the active, of persons over ideas, and of family over economy. And it is also true that men are drawn to prayer, and moral rectitude by the good example of women. But it is conversely true that men have a complementary role which is different than that of women, and which requires a kind of intellectual vigor and missionary drive that is proper to their identity as men. This is what is so often missing, and its absence is at the heart of the male dereliction of duty that has become so characteristic of the recent history of the family and the Church.
If it is politically incorrect to suggest that gender roles are based on anything more than a bigoted social convention, it is also critical to the salvaging of common sense to do so. Men have to be leaders. They must protect their families and the common good. They are the head of their families, and responsible for the social order. They cannot be true contemplatives unless their prayer drives them to stand in the breach and live up to their social responsibilities. Perhaps this is why Protestant congregations have a greater proportion of men involved in the faith. As much as they proclaim “Christ alone” they are far more active as His followers.
But very often Protestants have exerted their evangelical prowess at the expense of the contemplative life. The “muscular Christianity” of Charles Kingsley in 19th century England, was largely a reaction to what was perceived as the ascendency of an effeminate Catholic spirituality that included a celibate priesthood, the ideal of Our Lady’s virginity, and rigorous asceticism. Today, in the wake of the scandals of priestly sexual abuse, only too many Catholics are quick to agree with the likes of Kingsley. It all too easy to forget about the great masculine celibates like St. John de Brébeuf, St. Louis Grignon de Montfort, and the Franciscan proto martyrs, St. Berard and Companions.
Rightly understood, there has always been a virile and missionary quality to the priesthood and the exercise of its authority, but like everything else of male culture of late, it as has undergone an unfortunate emasculation. Celibacy itself is often tagged as the problem. Not so. In fact, quite the opposite. Sexual indiscipline in the context of an all male fraternity is self-indulgent and effeminate. If would be unfair and false in general to characterize the lives and work of priests in the country in that way. Most priests are working hard and faithfully in difficult circumstances. But let’s face it, the identity crisis that plagues men has also affected the priesthood. As unfair as the popular media is to the Church and especially to priests, something still needs to be done to restore the confidence of priests in their paternal and specifically masculine role. Without this Lay men have just another reason to feel marginalized.
Enter Marian chivalry. Any number of books, websites and organizations of one sort or another have cropped up over the last few years trying to address this problem in a Catholic way. In many of them various aspects of the tradition of Christian chivalry are encouraged or adopted. Usually the focus of attention is the restoration of marital and paternal responsibilty. Something along the same lines has happened within the Mission of the Immaculate Mediatrix, with, of course, a Marian twist. And it is this twist that we think makes all the difference.
How can this kind chivalry aid a restoration of masculine Catholic identity? And why ought it be particularly Marian? The answer to these questions will to be found in the next article in the Marian Chivalry section, entitled “Chivalry and Our Lady.”
An edited version of the article can be permanently found under the “Marian Chivalry” tab of this website.
Update: photo added.