In this column, I will do something a little bit unprecedented. I specifically wish to address my female readers, and to issue a challenge. Can we make a special resolution to be good to the men and boys in our lives?
I know that this is often a big ask. Modern men can be exceedingly ungracious towards women, so it’s difficult to be gracious to them. Frankly, men these days aren’t everything they should be. Then again, neither are women. One hates to state the obvious, but relations between the sexes are not healthy in our time.
There is a kind of hardness between us. Both men and women largely feel that the other has let them down. Sadly, in many respects, both are right.
“Who started this?” is the wrong question. It’s unanswerable, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Men and women need each other, so we both need to try to get up to snuff. The saddest result of our increasingly fractious sex war is that young people seem to have inherited the dysfunction, and consequently, they are lonelier and less loved than any generation in recent history.
Someone needs to extend an olive branch. Ladies, let’s try. Reflect on whether there is a boy or man in your life towards whom you harbor a less-than-reasonable resentment. Consider whether there might be a way to let that soften.
I started reflecting on this topic last year after writing a piece in support of the traditional practice of letting boys (and not girls) serve at the altar. In this piece I argued that boys and men more reliably have the right instincts with respect to liturgy, so it’s good for the Church to leave the business to them. As a secondary concern, I think that altar service is particularly good for boys. It encourages priestly vocations, but it’s also a particularly good place for fostering the faith in young men.
The response to this latter claim was particularly astonishing. Many readers expressed deep offense at my suggestion that we should take special pains to instill the faith in boys. A few readers bitterly suggested that I might have a hidden agenda behind my argument: as the mother of four sons, I was trying to build a boy-friendly Church.
Now, wouldn’t that be terrible? What kind of monster allows maternal feeling to seduce her into wanting what’s best for boys?
I appreciate of course that the altar-service issue is complicated by the fact that, in reserving the role for boys, we must necessarily deny girls the same opportunities. To that I will just reply briefly that I regard altar service as an especially appropriate for boys, but I am entirely in favor of clubs and organizations catering to the needs of girls. They needn’t restrict themselves to praying the Rosary and laundering altar linens. Read the Doctors of the Church! Explore the natural world! Go to plays and museums! Who is preventing this? I also support the participation of girls in paraliturgical events, such as Marian processions. Of course women and girls should be energetic contributors to the life of the parish.
That doesn’t change the fact that boys, especially now, need particular attention. A society cannot thrive while denigrating manhood, and our culture is specially toxic to the moral development of men. What needs to be understood (and has been by most other societies) is that men, more than women, tend to gravitate to extremes. Virtuous men can be builders, leaders, and protectors of the innocent. They can develop a nobility and resourcefulness that makes staggering temporal challenges seem manageable. Vicious men, by contrast, become predators and parasites. The most predatory individuals in a declining society are usually disproportionately men.
Much is at stake in the development of boys. Even a few good men can be an incredible force for good, while failed men can be fearsome. We ignore the interim years to our very great peril.
Specifically within the Church, boys and men are drifting away from Mass in large numbers. This is terrible news. Obviously it’s bad for the men themselves, but also for their families. Sociological studies indicate that paternal religiosity is hugely significant to the life of the family. When men go to church, their marriages are happier, and their children far more likely to retain the faith. If a boy grows up expecting that Mass will generally be full of women, he is himself far less likely to develop a love of the faith. Paternal guidance is especially critical to teaching boys to see worship as admirable and manly.
If boys are not raised with a robust religiosity, that darkens the future for girls as well. Many women today remain single simply because they are unable to find a good man. Lost boys also represent lost vocations to the priesthood. Given the state of the Church today, we should be desperately brainstorming ways to help boys develop into worthy Catholic men. Instead, many see the defense of boys as nefarious and seek a “hidden agenda.”
What concretely can women do to show support for men? First, they can train themselves not to see every male-oriented accomplishment or opportunity as a sign of patriarchal tyranny or “male privilege.” At times, it is reasonable for women to petition for inclusion in traditionally male activities. We should keep in mind, though, that it’s healthy and normal for boys and men to enjoy spending time with their own sex. Male company is important for a boy’s moral development, and the desire for it shouldn’t be taken as a sign of misogyny or sexism. Women and girls also enjoy single-sex gatherings at times, and very few find that offensive.
Try to be patient with characteristically male faults. For instance, men sometimes do need encouragement from their wives or mothers to be clearer communicators. At the same time, we should remember that there are some topics that are far more uncomfortable for them that for us. Respect those differences, and don’t press unless it’s genuinely important.
Women also get frustrated with the characteristic male reluctance to ask for help or acknowledge neediness. It’s fairly common for women to have a sense of our men’s emotional and spiritual needs, which they themselves may lack. Tending to those can be a beautiful, quiet act of love. But it can also create real resentment when we feel unnoticed or unappreciated. Most wives have had the embittering experience of spending a day tending to a husband’s needs (sorting his sock drawer, cleaning his recreation room, cooking a meal he likes) only to have him explode in anger over an uncoiled garden hose. These are the little grievances that can accumulate and spoil domestic tranquility.
Instead of stewing in resentment, try to open opportunities for men to show their gallantry. Young boys, in my experience, love to be chivalrous, especially to their mothers. Men tend to feel that their honor is restored when they are able to bestow a favor that they know is appreciated. Often, though, we have to set the stage a little, arranging opportunities for them to serve us, and allowing ourselves to be impressed. I find it excruciating to watch a woman scolding a man for offering her a small courtesy. (“I can hold that door for myself, thanks!”) Accepting a favor graciously is one of the easiest (and pleasantest!) things a lady can do to encourage good relations between the sexes.
Women excel at long-suffering patience, but we can also harbor grudges for impressively lengthy periods, and we sometimes take a strange, malicious satisfaction in convincing ourselves that we are genuinely victimized. If you find yourself falling into that passive-aggressive behavior, reflect on whether you might be a bigger person by helping him to be a bigger person.
Most importantly of all, we can help our boys and men by wanting them to be boys and men. Appreciate masculinity. Let go of the implicit fear that boys, if permitted to be men, will become tyrants. Trust them instead to turn their energies to good. I find that many women (even mothers!) have a strange fear of boyishness, and seek to suppress many of the qualities that I find most endearing in boys. They discourage the rambunctiousness, frown on competitive play, and sternly advise their sons that their imaginative fantasies are not in accord with reality. Please, resist these impulses! These are the tender shoots from which true manly virtues can grow, and viewed in this light, they can be some of the most precious moments of motherhood.
Men are at their best when they know that the women who love them are counting on them to come through. Let’s make sure that our husbands, sons, brothers and priests all know that they have good reason to be their very best.
Editor’s note: The image of altar boys playing was painted by Paul Charles Chocarne Moreau.