As G.K. Chesterton (more on him later) said, “Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel.” With that in mind, I would take (some) issue with Mr. Rob Marco’s recent article “Why Your Catholic Men’s Group Will Eventually Fold.” I would go further. I would say that, in a way, it should eventually fold.
I do not mean to denigrate or disparage men’s groups. Their mission is admirable, and they have helped many. Yet a cure can temporarily relieve a problem while in the end mask it and make it worse. Morphine relieves pain, but it can hide the real harm and create more.
A men’s group for formation and friendship seems to me to try to combine two things that have traditionally been kept separate. They seem to reflect the modern tendency to do synthetically what ought to, or perhaps what only can, be done naturally. It points to a deeper issue in the Church beyond “men’s groups,” which is the idea that any problem or need necessitates an organized or “official” response, rather than a personal or organic one.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The fault lies in seeing aspects of the Faith, and often the Faith itself, as a program or agenda. Yes, the Faith is something we do, but we do it because it is who we are. It should be something as organic as growing vegetables; instead, we make it as artificial as grocery shopping. (Make your list, check off the item, and move on to the next one; cite a problem, form a committee, write a paper, and move on to the next crisis.)
We need formation: instruction on doctrine and direction on living our spiritual life. The doctrinal instruction should be done by someone who has studied, knows, and is willing to uphold the Church’s teachings. Ideally, much should come from the pulpit. Those qualified could also give talks or courses. For the individual, there is no shortage of sound books or courses on every topic of Church teaching for those who want them. (Those who don’t won’t accept them whether they come from the pulpit or are given in any group.) This is how doctrinal formation has traditionally been done.
Doing this in a small group not specifically intended for such a purpose, especially one advertised as trying to form friendships, risks alienating people more than helping. If someone misrepresents or contradicts Church teaching, who sets him straight, especially if he is the “group leader”? You also risk the fallout from “I came here for fellowship and you’re shoving a bunch of rules down my throat.” For many, friendship or “fellowship” means acceptance regardless of how you are living. To combine it at the start with how you should be living is a dangerous cocktail.
The same arguments apply to living the spiritual life. Again, there is no shortage of good books. Again, these should be promoted from the pulpit and set out in every parish vestibule. Those who want them can get them and with far less personal risk than “opening up” to strangers.
Also, the spiritual life is an intensely personal one. As St. Francis de Sales points out in his classic Introduction to the Devout Life, it is different for each person. While there are certain “norms” (prayer, the sacraments, spiritual reading, and spiritual direction), the attempt to regularize or regiment these can be problematic, even harmful. Some groups can help—e.g., third orders, prelatures such as Opus Dei, and some of the groups that Mr. Marco cites; but the Church has always recognized that, precisely because of the demands of work and family that Mr. Marco talks about, personal freedom is necessary. Also, a group can foster the notion that certain regimens “should” be done. In my experience, “should” can be a dangerous word in the spiritual life.
Public group prayer of the spontaneous sort is also tricky (at best), which is why the Church has always been hesitant about it, adhering to liturgically approved formulas. Even in “small groups” the prayer is public. There can be a not-so-subtle pressure to say something (the “should” factor again). The intentions themselves can be questionable, causing embarrassment or worse. In the days when the priest would “open up” the prayer of the faithful at Mass to allow the congregation to voice their personal intentions, I remember one person asking that the Church “finally recognize the dignity of women.”
The accountability that Mr. Marco rightly calls for has traditionally been handled by spiritual direction from a qualified person, and, again, ideally a priest. The confessional is not only the ultimate accounting house but also the most discrete. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like talking about my sins and failings to a group of guys who a.) I may not know that well, or b.) may tell them to their wives (who are in a “women’s group” with my wife), or c.) I’m going to be having beers with later, or d.) all of the above.
The difficulty as I see it with certain “groups” or “programs” is two-fold: they can either devolve into “venting machines” or become an inferred qualifier. The “venting machines,” either on a personal or official level (cf. the Synod on Synodality), can become self-perpetuating means either for promoting agendas or not wanting to take personal responsibility. (Certain groups have a particular focus, e.g., bereavement, or substance abuse; these, though, are not what is at issue.)
By “inferred qualifier,” I mean the idea that because we do certain things, we are a certain type of person. This hasn’t helped the Church; in fact, I think it has hurt her. We may do good things for the Church, but that doesn’t necessarily make us good, i.e., personally holy and fruitful Catholics.
On the corporate level, the bishops are about to spend approximately fourteen million dollars for the “Eucharistic revival,” but my guess is that unless there is a concomitant level of discipline and responsibility by the bishops toward the Eucharist, in a few years we won’t be much better off. I am not here arguing against being a Eucharistic minister, a lector, a member of a sodality, a Knight of Columbus, or a member of any group or ministry, but these do not by themselves, make one a good Catholic, i.e., a personally holy and fruitful one.
To belong is not the same as to be; to be involved is not the same as to be. Too often we (and I include myself) can do these things to feel a member of the Church, but are we? We’ve never had more people “involved” in the Church, but it’s arguable to say we are better for it. At the risk of being too blunt, we, as a Church, seem always to need some program, committee, council, or some such thing as a way of getting around the traditional means of becoming a better Catholic—the nitty-gritty, dirty, boring, painstaking way of the pulpit, the confessional, and personal responsibility.
As for friendship, as a card-carrying member of the tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking, whiskey-drinking (I don’t wear bow-ties), Chesterton-reading Club, I have to say, what’s stopping you? Since when do you need a group to be a friend? Just be a friend—to anyone; yes, to your fellow parishioner, but also to your co-worker, your neighbor, the clerk at the grocery store, the people who clean your office, and the guys who pick up your garbage. Talk to them, listen to them, get to know them. You will find common interests: sports, food, hobbies, problems at work, problems at home. It ought to be the most natural thing in the world.
Yes, it would be wonderful if that friendship had its roots in the Catholic Faith. But we can’t make that the starting point. This is true even with other devout Catholics. What do you do? Get together with the wives and kids and discuss the Summa? As St. Philip Neri said, “We are fishers of men; not hunters. We put out the line—and wait.” Sooner or later, if God wants it (and He eventually does), the question comes up, “So how do you handle it?” There’s your opening, if you have the guts to take it. (And another problem with “men’s groups” is that they can become the Catholic version of “safe spaces.”)
We don’t need to push the Faith, but we can’t be shy about it. Often, the best way to grow in your faith is to share it; you are forced to learn and find answers. If others don’t like the answers, well, you’re not there to make them feel comfortable; but a good friend, on any level, is sincere.
When we look at the models for lay Catholics—people such as Thomas More, Elisabeth Leseur, Louis and Zelie Martin, and, yes, G.K. Chesterton—we see personal holiness based on traditional means and friendship to all. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.