Masculinity, Mary and the Church


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.

Only in this way will we both preserve the ideal of consecrated celibacy and engage men with priestly vocations as true fathers.  God knows we have much work to do.

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.

4 thoughts on “Masculinity, Mary and the Church

  1. Pingback: Debriefing « Mary Victrix

  2. I had no idea about Fr. Maciel. I knew about the assault on some of the priests/seminarians that came out years ago. I didn’t know about fathering a daughter. (I don’t read the paper anymore and it shows.) I’m heartbroken. But, as my husband says, good men and women fall everyday. Priests need the sacraments, too. For years I have defended celibacy within the religious orders. I just hope we are not asking too much … if the majority of religious cannot hold to this, do we have an ideal that is too heavy? I agree with the ideal. I really do. But if the average priest cannot live up to this, they begin to hurt not only themselves, the woman who maybe loves him but is bribed into remaining silent for the rest of her life, the child who is probably fed a bag of lies, but also the Holy Church who loses her credibility. I cannot speak for priests and religious as to whether it’s fully realistic or not to live this life. Satan attacks where we are weakest. Maybe this is nothing new over the centuries but for the first time it is publicized.

    I realize God has always used very fallen men to do great works … I think of many of the most famous composers … very fallen and yet they created masterpieces. So, I guess I need to digest this one. We’re all human and I don’t judge these men. As I said earlier, my heart bleeds for them. They are clearly hurting and longing for something that they are not getting and thus become vulnerable. My prayers for our religious will increase.

  3. I was just speaking with my dear friend Bob C. yesterday on this very subject. I will have to read the book. Thanks for the link. We were talking about the Kingship of Christ and (what we believed to be at the root of) the crisis of faith in our own diocese (Rockville Centre, Long Island, NY).

    I had postulated to Bob that at the very root of the crisis (the issue of pedastry & faithlessnes in the clergy and in the family) is the loss of the living reality which is the double Sovereignty of Jesus & Mary. The effect of the “Spirit of the Council” caused many seminaries to ignore anything that was not written before the council. In our own seminary’s recording of it’s own history they boasted once in the press to no longer using textbooks to study theology at one point and instead relying on the latest articles in religious and secular publications.

    What attracts my family to your own movement there in CT is the very masculinity of the priests & brothers, young & old there. Also, the men who are there (the dad’s who come for the encampments) are not afraid to show a love for Our Lady and for Our Eucharistic King. So in your own back yard, you have a kind of example of authentic masculinity for the whole world to see. This is the antidote for the ills that plague many diocese across the Western world.

    Right now, we are seeing 2 things occur in history: 1.) The building of a super state which will control & subjugate the family in ways that are all encompassing and hostile to the person (further emasculating fatherhood and manhood) and, 2.) A real springtime in the Church borne out of ordinary people seeing the contrast between the ugly things that our culture’s lack of faith have wrought us and the eternal beauty that is part of anything & everything Catholic. I saw this awe reflected in the faces of the folks who were doing the program last night when I watched the ‘makeover’. Though no lengthy mention was made of the Friary or the effect that Marian Chivalry had (I did not expect ABC to be able to articulate that), I could see that the effect of something more than mere chivalry left an impression on the minds of the folks who were close to the Girards during that production. I saw it most especially in the eyes of the Volontown FD first responders!

    My point is that though there are many folks in many chanceries that would vehemently resist the beauty and replace it with banality, avoid the sacerdotal and replace that with the effeminate… in the end, beauty, masculinity, heroism will have to win out. It’s like water has to run down hill! But it may be too late for many souls.

    God the Lord ordered the universe in such a way that when we sin, we create chaos. When we abandon the natural law, nature comes back and bites us hard. Every sin has a universal dimension. That chaos eventually breeds social crisis which breeds unrest, violence and an opportunity for heroic virtue comes with that. In the world and in the Church… this process seems to repeat every 400 years or so.

    If we wish to be part of the bold restoration… we need to understand celibacy as part of the antidote when it is rooted in Marian Chivalry. But we also need to acknowledge and some how clean up the matter since it appears to be enabled in our own Catholic hierarchy. I think (unfortunately) the only way to rid ourselves of this is to starve them out (like you starve a cancer). I know many families where I come from who simply make sure they never put any money in certain ‘official’ coffers. They tithe, but they do so to orders or to EWTN or some movement which builds on the sacerdotal nature of His reign… not on sister “Mary Nazi” who wears her habit on her lapel and happens to run religious education for the whole diocese.

    It sounds harsh, but there does not seem to be any other way. The ideologues in the hierarchy are so busy ‘regulating things’ like Summorum Pontificum (for example) that they can not see the gradually emptying pews every Sunday. I say that anything I can do to hasten the end of that kind of blindness is good.

    Some of the things I must do for that are negative (like witholding funds), some are positive. Unfortunately, when one is in a war one must do negative and positive things. I try and stick to the positive unless directly threatened though.

    Ave Maria

  4. On second thought… instead of reading Podles, I’m going to reread MULIERIS DIGNITATEM.

    Fr.: Is it considered tacky to read one’s Palm Pilot in front of the Blessed Sacrament???

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