The proliferation of gender studies is enough to make even a 15-year-old boy sick of sex, but there is one subject that doesn’t need the reverse Midas touch of the classroom to make it tedious to most men: religion in general, and Christianity in particular. As a result of this male reaction, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is becoming more and more feminized. By feminization I mean the numerical dominance of women in church activities, and the predominance of feminine characteristics in church life. This feminization is accepted by clerics of all shades of orthodoxy and will not be reversed unless there is a conscious policy to do so. The long-range effects of this feminization will be an increased marginalization of the Church, the impoverishment of church life, and a coarsening of the tone of public society.
The feminization problem is disguised by the controversy over the ordination of women. The Roman Catholic clergy, which is less than one-tenth of one percent of the population of the Church, is exclusively male. This supposedly translates into male predominance, although the participants in church activities are mostly women. As Joseph Gremillion and Jim Castelli write in The Emerging Parish, the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life discovered that
• More than 85 percent of those involved in ministry to the poor, sick, grieving, and handicapped are women, and social justice and peace efforts draw heavily on women.
• More than 80 percent of CCD teachers and sponsors of the catechumenate are women.
• More than 80 percent of members of prayer groups are women.
• More than 75 percent of those who lead or take part in adult Bible study or religious discussions are women
• Almost 60 percent of those involved in youth and recreational ministries are women.
• 52 percent of parish council members are female.
• 58 percent of those identified as the most influential leaders in our 36-parish survey were women.
This study shows that Catholic life is conforming to mainline Protestant patterns, in which two-thirds of the congregation are women. When I attended a Lutheran Ascension Thursday service that featured Johann Sebastian Bach, there was an edifyingly large congregation. Yet apart from myself and one Catholic friend, there was only one other man in the congregation of about 300. The black churches take this to an extreme; of their congregations, up to 90 percent of members are women. All surveys show the same polarity: in Western societies, by all measures of practice and attitude, men are less religious than women. The levels of practice would be even lower if it were not for the influence of women on men. Father Tom Forrest, head of Evangelization 2000 in Rome, estimated in an intervention at the 1987 Synod of Bishops that about 80 percent of active Catholics worldwide are women, and of the 20 percent who are men, many if not most go to Church because of the cajoling of women. Whether in Latin or Northern European societies, whether in the Philippines, the United States, or France, religion is considered by men and women to be an activity more proper to the female than the male (though participation by men does vary widely between countries).
The religious man in Western Christian culture is somewhat of an anomaly; in fact, masculinity and religiousness (or religiosity, or piety; the lack of a suitable word itself is significant) are in many circles thought to be mutually exclusive. The favorable popular image of the clergy in the cinema is generally one of mealy-mouthed, insipid, ineffectual piety. (The unfavorable one is Elmer Gantry/Jimmy Swaggart hypocrisy). The difference in male and female attitudes to religion is so widely assumed as natural that there has been almost no attention paid to what is not really a self-explanatory phenomenon. One could not find the same pattern in pagan or Jewish societies.
While there are societies in which men are interested in religion because it gives access to spiritual power, there are reasons deep in human nature for the difficulty men have with Christianity. Men by nature are more aggressive and independent than women. They are more interested in altering the external world and lack the strong sense of connectedness to the rest of the world that motherhood gives to women. Moreover, women have a greater receptivity by nature, symbolized by their receptive role in sexuality, which carries over into a greater receptivity to signals in human relations and to a greater sensitivity to the spiritual world. It was Eve who listened to the serpent, and it was through women that the worship of alien gods was introduced into Israel. Whenever the writers of the Old Testament detected apostasy, their guiding principle was cherchez la femme.
Judaism is a patriarchal religion. In this, it was unique. John Miller in his Biblical Faith and Fathering [reviewed September 1990—Ed.] debunks the idea that Judaism simple adopted patriarchalism from surrounding cultures. God as Father, in whom infinite strength, wisdom, and love are united, was a divine revelation to Israel. To abandon it, as feminists and their sympathizers in the clergy desire, is to abandon the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to place oneself out of the circle of monotheistic religions that includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Christians have always been ambivalent toward their Jewish heritage. The refusal of almost all Jews to accept the Messiah and their persecution of Christians embittered the early Christian community. Many remarks by John and by Paul have to be understood in this context, or they will lead to the popular anti-Semitism that has blighted relations between the two groups ever since Christians got the upper hand. The Fathers and early councils were determined to break the ties between Christianity and the Jewish community and forbade Christians to observe Jewish feasts. The only Jewish saints celebrated in the Western Church are the Maccabees. The Eastern calendar includes commemorations of the prophets and patriarchs, and there are a few traces of this in the West such as in the church of San Moise in Venice. Of course, the Old Testament continued to be venerated by the early Church, and the moral teaching of the Old Testament formed the basis for Christian ethics. But the Jewish rituals and feasts that reinforced the role of the father in the family were abandoned and forbidden, and no Christian ones replaced them. There has long been a weak theological sense of the importance of the father-headed family; it was restated by the popes in modern times, but its centrality to Christian life has not been stressed, and Pope John Paul II neglects it in his teachings on the family.
The Church is essentially feminine in its nature. Ecclesia is a feminine noun, but that is not the only reason that the Church is always shown as a woman and not a man in art. The Church is Christ’s Body, because it is his Bride. The Church’s essential identity is a response to the Lord. Insofar as creation opens itself to the masculine energy of the Creator, insofar as it becomes feminine plastic matter before the active masculine form, it is the Church. Otherwise it is fallen creation, alienated from God. Mary is therefore the most perfect member of the Church, and much of what is said in the Old Testament about the created Wisdom of God is applied in the liturgy equally to Mary and to the Church. In art, the emphasis on the Pieta has an important theological point. Between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, the Church existed in one person, Mary. She always perfectly responded to the word. Insofar as the Church is faithful to God, it is Christ’s Bride and therefore His Body; if it is unfaithful through sin and apostasy, it becomes a whore, like Israel in the Old Testament.
Because the essential note of Christian identity is receptivity, women will always be in a more natural relationship to God than men. Women are more geared to receptivity by their nature; grace elevates this receptivity into the supernatural realm. Women represent what they are: creation. Men have a harder time. By their initiative and aggressiveness, they represent something they can never be: the Creator. How perilous positions of authority are, whether in the state or church. Humble docility is the proper attitude of a Christian. But some must be temporal rulers and leaders for the good of all.
Judaism not only gave men a firm position in religion and the family, it tended by Christ’s time to harden into an anti-woman attitude. This was the error of the Pharisees about the Law in general. Jewish men prayed three days daily to God that they were not made either a gentile, a slave, or a woman, because these groups did not have the privilege (and burden) of observing all the precepts of the Law. Christ abolished these distinctions: both Jew and gentile, slave and free, man and woman, were under the new law of the Holy Spirit, which did not abrogate but fulfilled the old written Law.
As Christianity spread throughout the Empire, one of its main effects was the correction of sexual irregularities. Abortion, homosexuality, adultery, and divorce all slowly gave way to the new ideal of faithful, fruitful, monogamous marriage that was the legacy of Israel to the world. As I sit at my dinner table surrounded by my children, I sometimes reflect that it is because of the faith of Father Abraham that those of us in Christian societies who have the privilege of being fathers of stable families enjoy this greatest blessing of the present creation.
The Secularist Connection
There may have been male-female differences in the level of participation of Christianity in the pre-modern world (St. Teresa of Avila said women are more naturally religious than men), but it is only in the modern world that the male begins to be radically removed from religion. Society has been secularized. In many Latin countries, there has been a vigorous and organized secularism, often in a freemasonic form, which seeks to remove Christianity from public life. The secularization of Church properties after the Napoleonic wars also eroded the Church as a force in society. In the United States, the Constitution began the process of the separation of church and state which has tended to transform religion into a purely private matter. The pattern in all these countries has been: public life — male; private life, home, religion — female.
Christianity even before the establishment under Constantine was not a “private” religion. It was the religion of a community with a definite order, with leaders, public funds, and standards of behavior. After Constantine, the pattern was carried over into the larger society. The clergy had joint secular and religious functions. In the East, the laity was theologically educated and took an interest in controversies. Religion throughout Christendom was very much a public matter; the Prince-Bishop was the epitome of this situation. Such men ran society well, and no one would accuse them of being weak or effeminate — least of all their mistresses. This arrangement was perhaps not perfect.
The growing privatization of religion made it a matter of predominantly feminine concern. In the Second Great Awakening, although the preachers were men, their followers were women. The pattern has been that the most religious members of society are single women; the least, single men. Because of this female constituency, evangelical Protestantism in America took on a feminine, emotional tone that was foreign to the older Calvinist style. Catholicism was also affected. The parish mission, a uniquely American institution, was a conscious imitation of the Protestant revival. In this milieu the Pentecostal revival took place at the turn of the century and has spread through one denomination after another.
A regard for the male-oriented Scriptures has prevented this revivalist religion from being totally feminized. The Scriptures clearly teach the importance of male leadership in the family and religious community. However, when the mainline churches lowered their views of scriptural authority, they also weakened a link to men. Catholics have always had a weak sense of Scripture, and few Catholics have any idea of the importance the Scriptures place on male leadership. The evangelical and fundamentalist churches that continue to have a high view of scriptural authority have balanced their emotional/feminine roots with a reverence for the teaching of the Scriptures on male roles.
The Matriarchal Church
The memberships of most Protestant and Catholic churches are predominantly female; this is especially true of the active members with whom the clergy have the most contact. This situation has helped to alienate the clergy from male ways. If a person deals with a group all the time, he will unconsciously model his behavior after that group. For example, a friend of mine went to see his son’s kindergarten teacher. He was annoyed by the manner the teacher was using with him, until he realized that she was treating him like a five-year-old and behaving a little like a five-year-old herself. Mothers who are isolated with their children tend to take on childish habits. The clergy, spending most of their time with women, do two things: they tend to pick up the mannerisms and modes of thought of women, and they tend to treat the few men they encounter like women. This is disastrous, especially when dealing with the working class.
Secondary sexual characteristics are far more pronounced among the working classes; only the upper-middle class tends to androgyny. There is a widespread suspicion, especially among blue-collar men, that the male clergy are all effeminate if not homosexual. When they see priests and ministers behaving like women, or even worse relating to them as if they were women, the suspicion is understandable. When I try to talk to priests about problems in the Church, they want to talk about my feelings, then thank me for “sharing my feelings” with them. I, like most men, do not want to share my feelings. I prefer to deal with facts. The clergy are uncomfortable with facts. Idealism, such as in Christian Science, is typically a female weakness. The ability to face unpleasant facts is the sign of an adult male. By contrast, Paul Fussell (author of Wartime and The Great War and Modern Memory), despite some signs of residual liberalism, is one of today’s most masculine of writers (like his models Swift and Pope) because of his refusal to euphemize reality.
This feminization has had two contrary results in the political attitudes of the clergy, although leftism is the result in both cases. In Latin America, I detect an understandable feeling among Catholic clerics that they don’t want to be marginalized, that religion has political implications, that it is unfitting for a man to ignore obvious injustices and to confine himself to conducting religious devotions for women. The way of armed revolution is tempting. Since their constituency, however, is still mostly female in the comunidades de base, the attempts of clerics to participate in a world of power that they do not understand is ineffectual and pathetic. In the United States, on the other hand, the clergy have adopted the feminine attitude to conflict resolution. Their first instinct when confronted with conflict is to try to smooth things over, and consequently they are hostile to any military efforts. Ordinary men have the opposite reaction. They dislike reflexive pacifism because they know that while reflexive militarism is also dangerous, calm, rational analysis is needed in dangerous situations and, in a hostile world, military action must sometimes be taken swiftly.
More profoundly, the lack of a male viewpoint, of cool analytic reason and a combative temperament, has opened Western Christianity to alien spiritual influences. “Spiritual” is the new buzzword here, and I like it even less than “the secular city.” There is the Holy Spirit, and then there are other spirits. Opening oneself to the “spiritual” without the clear guidance of authority can end in a far worse apostasy than secularism. Devil worship is worse than atheistic materialism. In this regard the spread of witchcraft in the Catholic Church is astonishing; in Brazil, orthodox Catholicism is succumbing to syncretistic, African-derived religions. A diffuse universalism and indifferentism has taken root in the affluent West; the general feeling is that “one religion is as good as another”; evangelization and missionary efforts have largely disappeared from the Catholic West.
Real World Consequences
When men are disconnected from Christianity and from the family, they suffer effects in this world as well as the next. Their lives are trivialized or brutalized. They become pleasure seekers or turn violent. Society suffers. The lack of a father has led to the criminality of an entire class in our cities. There is no father because the male who has begotten these children has no religion that enforces the elementary duties of human nature, that creates a superego that will enable him to overcome his impulses and to undertake the hard but infinitely satisfying work of supporting and raising a family. There is no religion because the churches of the inner city blacks are roughly 90 percent women. The black underclass is but an extreme example of what has happened throughout the West.
But there are worse things than disorganized black criminality. There is organized white criminality. The bleak ideologies that have tormented our century are for the moment on the wane under the forces of materialism. Trivialization has won over violence in Europe. But the religions of power have a continued appeal to the male. Islam is winning converts even in Christian countries, and unlike Christianity still believes in the goodness of procreation. Shortly, there will be more practicing Muslims than Catholics in France. An economic downturn might well cause men to give up materialism and football hooliganism for more satisfying forms of violence. Recall that the loss of a generation of fathers in World War I gave Germany a generation of young men who were bereft of father and of religion. Hitler supplied them with an ersatz form of both.
There are some preliminary reforms that could be applied to the problem. Women should recognize that men would happily leave church life to females and be careful to leave space in the church for men. The nonsense of altar girls and inclusive language should be ended. Father-son activities should be encouraged. Feminized liturgies with their emotionalism and chattiness should be replaced by powerful but austere rituals (which is the genius of the Roman liturgy in any case). Men love rituals and have developed a whole set of them for their clubs and organizations. The clergy can be consciously trained in masculine habits and in how to relate to men. Catholics should develop a real reverence for the full message of the Old Testament, and for its continuing importance in the life of the Church. Patriarchalism is a great gift of Judaism to the world, and should not be lost or neglected. The importance of the father in the family and in the religious life of the community cannot be stressed too much.
Another important remedy for feminization would be to stress to lay Catholics that their primary sphere of operation is in the world, not in a church building. The idea of transforming and claiming the world for Christ definitely appeals to men.
All of these reforms are necessary, but they do not go to the heart of the matter, which is the apostasy from the central message of the Gospel that is always the temptation of worldly Christians (and we all feel the pull of the world).
Christianity, as Chesterton never tired of repeating, is a battle. Chesterton, that most boyishly masculine of Catholic writers, saw something that has been missed by the professors of theology in our seminaries and universities. Christianity is a battle, a real war against the forces of evil. The doctrine of the prince of this world and his legions of evil spirits is not “pre-critical,” as the chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame would have us think. It is absolutely essential to the Gospel. Christ’s birth, work, and especially His death have no meaning if the world is not fallen and under the control of evil spirits. The work of the Son of God is impiously trivialized if we neglect to see that in His human nature, He “should strive again with Satan’s might/Should strive and should prevail.” The descent into Hell and the conquest of death and Hell, the Anastasis, was the central image of Byzantine art and is the theme of the entire paschal liturgy.
The meaning of created femininity is easy to see because the creation is feminine before its creator. But what is the meaning of created maleness? The hero is the ultimate pattern of maleness. He goes forth from ordinary life to confront the powers of evil, to battle with them, to be wounded and scarred by them, and only then to take his place as the King. In the past century this profound pattern has been clarified by literary historians, by anthropologists, and by psychologists. The popularity of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and of its derivative, Robert Bly’s Iron John [reviewed April 1991—Ed.], shows that our culture is awakening to the profound disturbance that the masculine pattern of development has suffered.
“Onward Christian Soldiers” was nearly deleted from the Methodist hymnal, and all talk of the “soldiers of Christ” has vanished from sermons, the confirmation ritual, and contemporary religious writing. Pacifism now extends to Satan himself. Spiritual warfare has been abandoned. Or, I should say, ignored. But pretending that a war isn’t going on won’t make the war go away. It merely guarantees defeat.
If the Gospel were proclaimed with the trumpet, as a call to enlist in a war — paganus meant civilian, one who didn’t enlist in the fight — men would respond. Ignatius did it in the Spiritual Exercises and recaptured much of Europe for Catholicism. Masculinity is not expressed through self-indulgent sexual intercourse or a display of possessions. The Romans, and most men at heart, regard these as somewhat effeminate.
Sacred violence is the ultimate meaning of masculinity. Matter was given polarity, the mammalian species created, the sexes differentiated, so that one day a Man might confront Evil, do battle, die, and rise again. We who are men can never do that; it is beyond us. But we can be like the ordinary lion in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, who when Asian referred to “us lions” said, “Did you hear what he said? Us lions. That means him and me. Us lions. That’s what I like about AsIan. No side, no standoffishness. Us lions. That meant him and me.” When the Son of God is heard to say through the Church “We men,” men will respond.