Gender Unbending

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 nevertheless critical to the salvaging of common sense to do so. Men are born to be leaders, and have a responsibility to protect their families and the common good. Catholic men are the moral and spiritual heads of their families, and accountable for maintaining social order according to the precepts of the Church. 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 produce far more “works” in the service of the Gospel than most Catholics.

But very often Protestant evangelicals and pentecostals 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 ascendancy 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 is 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. No wilting violets were these, but rather robust and forthright men who were loyal to their birthright and stood up courageously for what is right, true and proper.

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 has undergone an unfortunate emasculation. Celibacy itself is often tagged as the problem. Not so. In fact, the truth is 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 under difficult circumstances. But let’s face it, the identity crisis that plagues men in general 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. Only a priesthood which is both contemplative and missionary will attract virile young men to give their lives for Christ. We need contemplative celebates who are not afraid to lay down their lives for their sheep, fathers under Christ, who put their families first. Without the example and leadership given by truly masculine priests, lay men have just another reason to feel marginalized.