Ferguson Highlights the Neglect of Boys

A couple of years ago, a fellow professor at my school, not indicative of the quality of the education we provide, began her course by informing the students that if they were white, they should be ashamed of themselves, if they were male, they should be ashamed of themselves, and if they were American, they should be ashamed of themselves. To which one brave lad replied, “I’m all three, so where does that leave me?”

It never occurred to the professor that she too should be ashamed of herself, since all have sinned, and all have fallen short of the glory of God. She didn’t even feel what I’d like to call the qualms of reality, that quiver in the belly when we know we have failed. Perhaps we lacked the heart to put our good intentions into action. Perhaps our intentions were not so pure, or were mistaken from the beginning. Perhaps we ignored warnings we should have heeded. Perhaps we overlooked something human and needful.

Perhaps our charity was pride decked out with ribbons. Perhaps we pressed forward with our plans to gain an edge over our political enemies. Perhaps we cared more for our caring, or our pretense of caring, than for the people upon whom we bestowed or imposed our care. Perhaps we were right, but weak, or stubborn, or shortsighted, or prey to any of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Perhaps we gave all we had to the poor, and even gave our bodies up to be burned, but had not love. Perhaps we were nothing. Perhaps we were human.

It’s a fearful thing to face your conscience, that stern monitor. I don’t mean the film of the false conscience, that coats and suffocates the soul like a membrane of diphtheria. Its white is the weakling white of disease. I mean that steady and penetrating gaze, that persistent and merciless whisper. You can remove the Ten Commandments from every park and school and courtroom in the land, but you cannot remove them from reality and from the human soul, and the more you try to ignore them from without, the less clemency can you expect from their inexorable testimony within. I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me.

As I write today, I am noting a scene of colossal failure, the riots in a town in Missouri. As happens every day in our nation, a young black man died of gunshot wounds. More often than not the bullets come from a gun wielded by another young black man. This time they came from the gun of a white policeman. I was not there. I don’t know why the victim, who had just robbed a store, decided to charge the policeman after a short struggle for his gun and a sprint away, and I don’t know why the policeman fired more than once.

I do know, we all know, that more than seven of ten black children in America are born outside of the haven of marriage. That is only the most obvious mark of the failure. We then must consider divorces before and after, half-siblings, the series of males moving in and out of the boy’s life, the absence of men of probity in the neighborhood, the daily dose of squalor and savagery and stupidity from television, radio, and the internet, and the females—mother, teachers, nurses, social workers—in unstable authority to which the boy submits in surly acquiescence and against which the child-man rises in resentment and contempt.

You can say all you want, “Boys should be taught to respect women.” What a discovery! And what exactly in a life of shameless hedonism, such as the wealthy and the indigent in our country alike pursue, is worthy of respect? And who is to teach them? It isn’t culture that makes the boy a head taller than his mother. It isn’t politics that sets his adrenal system on a hair trigger. It isn’t education that thickens his bones and deepens his voice and hardens his muscles.

What I’ve said applies to all boys, of any race, and of any economic group; though whenever an elite with tremendous power is intransigent in its stupidity, the poor will suffer first and most. So I ask, forgetting about my colleague, her statism, and her institutional protection against hard reality, “What are the ten most prominent things that my Church, in America, has done for young men specifically, especially the poor, in the last forty years?”

Granting the exceptions provided by brave individuals here and there, I think the answer to that question is implied by the feminist idol to which our leaders have paid obeisance. The top ten are these:


There are a few things that warrant Honorable Mention: ditching schools for boys; turning Mass into a liturgical slumber party; paying more attention to professional women than to working class men; accepting no-fault divorce with nary a peep; and shrugging with a wink and a smirk when evil boy-lovers sought their victims. They’re only boys, after all.

Now, please, my leaders, don’t mistake me. I have plenty of sins of my own to atone for, and don’t wish to suggest that yours cast any greater a stench towards heaven. But let’s face facts. Everything we have done to boys, especially those coming from the working class and the now perduring underclass, has been a colossal failure. We’ve been fooled into forgetting that they have bodies and a nature, and that we can no more help them become men by ignoring their boyishness than we can glean figs from thistles or build cathedrals on sand.

My colleague can go complaisantly along from foolishness to foolishness, because she has substituted a political program, one that is up-to-date and therefore already moldy and obsolescent, for the truth of the faith. That is what politics is for, in our day. It is the substitute for faith. If you can say you “support” the items on a list of political desiderata, a “support” that is mostly notional, involving not much more than words—hardly ever wrestling with the stubborn human realities of sin—then you are “justified,” you are “saved.” You are like the pagans of old, who believed that they could stand in good favor with the gods if they enacted the right rituals. They needn’t worry about their personal cruelty, hardheartedness, debauchery, or avarice. They needn’t fear what Newman called those giants, the pride and passion of the human heart.

But we, my leaders, preach Christ, and Him crucified. We cannot be content with this failure.

So we must clear our heads and begin again. It won’t be the first time in the history of the Church that she has had to clear her head and begin again.

The world is willfully confused about boys—whether they even exist, and if they do exist, whether we’d be better off without them. We are not allowed to be so. The world can pretend that they are only girls with sharper angles. But there are a few things we are supposed to remember about the world. The world is old, and stupid. And Jesus Christ has overcome the world.

I’m not going to ply you with plans, my leaders. The first thing I beg you to do for boys growing up without fathers is to notice that they exist, and to have a heart for their confusions and despair. The first thing I beg you to do for boys who will not be going to college is to notice that they exist, and to have a heart for the families they must find a way to support, with work that is necessary for the more comfortable among us and that will be done or can be done only by such men. Perhaps our seminary courses in pastoral care can be replaced by a year of sawing planks, nailing shingles, laying pipes, and painting bridges?

Those in political authority whose policies have riddled the family like termites will not feel shame or even shame’s salutary predecessor, embarrassment. They answer to a convenient god. We answer to the Crucified.

Anthony Esolen


Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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