I am reading Leon Podles’ The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity and am reflecting much on the mission of the Knights of Lepanto and of MaryVictrix. The book is now out of print, but can be found online for free here. Podles identifies some real problems in the Western Church, in the light of which it is not hard to understand why we have a crisis of homosexuality within the ranks of the Catholic clergy–the white elephant no one wants to talk about.
Podles investigates the causes of male absenteeism from Church and religious practices. He relates, for example, that studies have been done that show the more masculine a man is (how ever that is defined in the studies) the less likely he is to have any religious inclination. He notes in particular that the absence of males is a problem in Western Christianity and he traces the origins of this problem. In any case, I don’t think many would argue that in milieu of Western Christianity that men tend to be less religious, or religious mostly by way of the influence of women (mothers, girlfriends, wives).
I think his analysis is compelling in many respects. Here I would like to focus on the aspects of Marian devotion, celibacy and bridal spirituality and their relation to male identity.
Podles to some extent agrees that the Church has been feminized by means of the ideal of virginity, personified especially by the Blessed Virgin Mary and by bridal spirituality. The existence of an all male, celibate clergy seems to give credence to the idea that religious men are effeminate. In the introduction to his book, he relates how a seminary professor interpreted Marian devotion in such a way as to promote emasculation of his students:
At one Dominican seminary in the 1940s, a professor developed a following, which later matured into a small cult. He explained Catholic devotion to Mary in this way: Men have a more distant relationship with their fathers than with their mothers. They therefore have more trouble relating to a masculine God (the Father or Jesus) than to the reflection of maternal love in Mary. Devotion to Mary, on this view, should be stressed more than devotion to Christ. Despite the extraordinary theological implications of this line of thought, the professor obviously struck a nerve in his seminarian disciples: they were the sort of men who felt more comfortable with the feminine than with the masculine (xiv).
Having been educated in the seminary in the 80’s and 90’s there is not much if anything that would surprise me about the aberrations of priestly formation, but I am actually shocked that back in the 40’s Marian devotion was taught in such a twisted way. Even in more orthodox or traditional circles, I have never heard Marian devotion presented in this fashion. The closest thing to this that I have ever come across is in regard of the role of a mother to bring her children to the father. Mothers teach their children to love, respect and trust their father. Mary has this role in the family of the Church for both men and women. Clearly the seminary professor’s description of Marian devotion is a misunderstanding of a fundamental Christian truth: Mary is our Mother in the order of grace.
Even so, it is not hard to understand how exaggerations of the ascetical-contemplative tradition of the Church, reinforced by the ideal of virginity and devotion to the Blessed Virgin could and did facilitate a feminization of the Church as a kind of aberration of the Christian ideal. There is a real primacy of contemplative over active life in the Christian order, one that is exemplified by consecrated virginity and personified by the Blessed Virgin, but if men are simply trained to imitate the piety of women, then I agree the result will be some measure of emasculation.
Podles realizes that some kind of balance is necessary. It is no good to jettison bridal spirituality. After all, marriage is the primary type for the union of God and man. God is transcendence from which masculinity takes its meaning, and the Church is the Bride, as is each individual soul. There is no way to get away from these ideas. In his conclusion Podles writes that only when balance is achieved can the Church “appreciate and preach the metaphors of Son, Bride, spiritual warfare, and the friendship with God that are intrinsic to the Gospel” (208).
Unfortunately, in my opinion Podles relies too much on a merely psychological analysis of the tradition of Marian devotion. In a section entitled “Chivalric Devotion to Mary” he writes:
Male mystics and religious in the Middle Ages centered their spiritual life not on images of the feminine divine, but on Mary. The problems of regarding God as in some way feminine posed too many emotional and intellectual challenges. Nor did men feel all that comfortable adopting a feminine stance before God. Some had the intellectual and poetic abilities to do it, but most felt an intense male fear of homosexuality, especially of passive homosexuality, of being used like a woman. It was easier to venerate the divine in Mary. The eros implicit in medieval devotion led to this development. Women’s devotion to Christ was tinged with eros; that is why “women concentrate especially on the infant or adolescent Christ,” while “monks refer more frequently to the virgin Mary.” Veneration of the Mother of God has a long history in Christianity, but it took a very odd turn in the Middle Ages at the same time that bridal and maternal mysticism came to dominate the life of women in the Church (141).
Here Podles considers Marian devotion not so much from a doctrinal point of view or one based on the fact of revelation, but from the point of view of the psychological needs of the Christian. It seems that he finds Marian devotion to be suspect in se, a position which minimizes the datum of Sacred Scripture that God chose to be a child of a woman and to be subject to Her. I understand that he is investigating the origins of feminization of men within the Church, but if balance is to be obtained more needs to be said in defense of Marian devotion.
Interestingly, Podles also questions St. Maximilian Kolbe for his appellation for the Blessed Virgin, “quasi-incarnation of the Holy Spirit, being careful to acknowledge that while God, in one nature and three persons, is wholly transcendent and therefore masculine, a certain association of that which is feminine to the Holy Spirit is still legitimate (82). (An easy way to understand this is by appreciating the fact that the Holy Spirit is the fullness of the love of the Father and the Son and that order of love belong belongs to woman in a particular way. So while things feminine are a reflection of the Holy Spirit, that in no way justifies attributing to Him femininity.) Again, there is no way of escaping from the fundamental data of revelation. Balance must be achieved not be negation but by inclusion.
It is even more interesting to note that St. Maximilian who had such a tender devotion to the Immaculate and who was unabashed in the association of Mary with the Holy Spirit advocated for a more virile and militant kind of Catholicism, one that ultimately took him into the snare of the dragon where he did battle and was ultimately victorious. And like his Master who went before him, he died defending his bride and thus entered into his glory. St. Maximilian was neither an effeminate celibate nor a left wing feminist. At Auschwitz he showed himself to be a true knight of Christ and of the Immaculate.
Aside from his remarks about Marian mysticism in the Middle Ages Podles does not have much to say about chivalry, a fact that I find remarkable. It is true that chivalry underwent a transformation through the romanticism of its literature, and the exaggerations of the art of courtly love, but the origins of the code of chivalry had to do with the need to moderate the effects of the fighting spirit. Chivalry in the sense of the work of the mounted soldier was a military thing; in the sense of a code of ethics it was a monkish thing. Without the monkish side the military side was brutal and without the military side the monkish side became a soft and decadent sort of gentility. If balance is really what is necessary then it seems that what we need is a form of chivalry that is both militant and courteous.
The order of love does, in fact, belong in a particular way to women (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem 29), and it is womankind that tends to moderate the fighting spirit of men; it is also the contemplative intuition which is theirs that helps men to focus on what is ultimately important. But it is precisely most fundamental things that are worth fighting for. I remember growing up and watching Bob Hope at the USO performances overseas bringing a young starlet out onto the stage in front of thousands of whistling and hooting male soldiers and shouting “I just wanted to remind you of what you are fighting for.” We are always on the brink when we talk about such things. A woman can be the unchaste goal of suavity or thuggery, or she can represent all that is true good and beautiful, or she can be a soft, safe place to which a man retreats. If the transcendence of man represents the divine lover, the immanence of the woman represents the beloved. This is what men must fight for.
Chivalry has always run the risk of becoming a form of goddess worship, of a sentimental subordination of men to women, which in the literary genre of Dan Brown really is just a thinly veiled way of justifying male lust. Podles rightly identifies masculinity with the inclination toward conflict, what I call the fighting spirit. When it is directed in a supernatural way, that inclination takes the form of the bridegroom-father, who is ever willing and ready to lay down his life for his bride and his children. This, of course, is the example of Christ Himself (cf. Eph. 5), and it has nothing to do with sentimentalism, unchastity or subservience.
In fact, in fact Marian devotion bears this out. Mary is not only the Mother, She is also the Damsel in Distress at the foot of the Tree of Life, where the serpent threatens her very existence as the Bride of Christ. She is also the Warrior Queen, terrible as an army set in battle array (Cant. 6:10) who crushes the head of the serpent with Her Immaculate foot. Even the romanticized literature of chivalry understood this: Arthur with the Virgin on his shield and Gawain with Her on the inside of the shield facing him and the pentangle of virtue facing his enemies. Our Lady personifies in highest order all that is true, good and beautiful, all that is worth living for and dying for–all that Christ Himself lived and died for.
What then is to be done about the emasculation of Christian men? What is to be done about the epidemic of fatherlessness, both in the family and the Church? And what is to be done about the problem of the effeminate clergymen who run from conflict and comfort themselves in the numbing and poisonous sanctuary of a homosexual culture? Some say celibacy is the problem and priests should be allowed to marry. In this way the priesthood would attract more virile men. I think it is a mistake to equate celibacy with a lack of virility. Homosexuals are attracted to the priesthood because of the all male fraternity. I think what is really needed is to present the challenges of priestly life as the exercise of fatherhood, which of course it is. Priests need to fight for their family, and celibacy, asceticism and piety needs to be spoken of in that context.
In the Congregation for Catholic Education’s Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood (2008), the Church sees the necessary maturity necessary for a man to pursue the priesthood as the ability to face conflict:
A certain Christian and vocational maturity can be reached, including with the help of psychology, illumined and completed by the contribution of the anthropology of the Christian vocation and, therefore, of grace. Nevertheless, one cannot overlook the fact that such maturity will never be completely free of difficulties and tensions, which require interior discipline, a spirit of sacrifice, acceptance of struggle and of the Cross, and the entrusting of oneself to the irreplaceable assistance of grace (9).
Perhaps we should go a step further and say that the candidates for the priesthood should not only realize that their lives will never be free from conflict, but that they should be ready and eager for it, because without the fighting spirit they will be very poor fathers of souls and many will be lost on their account. In this regard devotion to Our Lady is not a hindrance but a help.