The Evolution of Catholic Masculinity: 15 Questions for Dr. Aqualus Gordon

Aqualus M. “Kway” Gordon is a psychologist specializing in masculinity who serves as assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, MO. He is the author of The Manthropologist Blog, which explores the interactions of culture, psychology and gender among men. He also hosts the Man-to-Man Podcast.

Dr. Gordon grew up as a member of Little Flower Parish and graduated from McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala. He received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin before completing a Clinical Fellowship at the University of New Hampshire, where he specialized in clinical work with male populations. He earned his B.A. in psychology from Wabash College, an all-male liberal arts school in Indiana.

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On May 20, I interviewed Dr. Gordon by email about his faith and work.

Your blog is called “The Manthropologist.” Where did you get the word “manthropologist” and how does it describe you?

Just being a little too clever, I think. The original idea for the blog was to explore masculinity from a socio-cultural perspective. Although, I have ended up writing about a multitude of topics, some of which aren’t necessarily specific to men and masculinity. In any case, I thought man+anthropologist had a nice ring to it, and there we have it.  

What is “masculinity” and how have our understandings of it evolved in recent years?

That’s a big question. What most people think of when they hear “masculinity” really consists of two similar but different things. The first are those traits in an individual that seem to be directly related to biological maleness. The second are those physical, social and psychological characteristics that we expect to find in males. 

This is the distinction between “gender” and “gender roles.” “Gender” refers to the phenotypic expressions of maleness and femaleness. These include physical differences (e.g., height, weight), hormonal differences (e.g. the ratio of testosterone and estrogen in the body), and psychological/behavioral differences – such as the tendency for women to be more nurturing and relational, and the tendency for men to be more competitive and independent. So one of the things that “masculinity” refers to are those physical and psychological characteristics that are more often found in men than in women, like being tall, broad-shouldered, having a deep voice, being independent, aggressive, etc.

But our understanding of masculinity also tends to include gender roles, which are the established social expectations within a culture, based on sex. While gender is relatively static across time and culture, gender roles vary widely from culture to culture and from one period of time to the next. Current masculine roles in the United States include men wearing pants, wearing short hair, being the breadwinner and being emotionless.     

For a long time, gender studies in various academic disciplines were popularly equated with feminism, but masculinity is now a growing field of interest. What inspired you to get involved in this area? 

Honestly, it’s tough to say. Some combination of personal and intellectual interest led me here. You could call it God.

I grew up in a family with a lot of formidable men (and women) in my life. In addition to my dad, I have ten uncles—both my parents have five brothers each.  At times it was intimidating, but having these men around prompted my wondering about what it means to be a man—a question I have found that many men ask themselves at one point or another.

When I was 17 I came out to my parents, something I had been struggling with for some time in adolescence. Of course, I wondered what being gay meant about “being a man,” and my masculinity.  Everything I had heard or seen suggested that one canceled out the other.

During my second year in college the chair of the psychology department and her husband (Drs. Bankhart) offered a special topics course on men and masculinity for upperclassmen. I was a sophomore, so I was allowed to take the course only after petitioning the department. If I had to point to any one thing that got me interested in this topic from an academic perspective, it would have to be that course. It was certainly the place where my interest in this topic first gained an intellectual foothold.

This past year at the university where I now teach I was able to offer a very similar course, "The Status of Men," as a special topic. It was a great experience being able to challenge a new generation of students to consider what maleness and masculinity mean for them.    

You currently teach psychology at the University of Central Missouri. How does masculinity come up in your classes?

In my introductory courses I challenge my students to consider how culture and identity intersect with the varied areas of psychology (social, personality, cognitive, biochemical). These discussions commonly touch on (and in some cases directly speak to) the roles that gender and masculinity play in our lives. 

In my more advanced courses, in which we discuss pathological and abnormal psychologies, masculinity tends to come up when considering how mental disorders express themselves differently with respect to gender. For example, while most women and some men express their depression via “typical” symptoms, such as sadness, loss of interest, changes in appetite and sleep, men’s depression symptoms may include anger, risk taking, drug/alcohol use, or throwing themselves into work or school. In the United States we have certainly seen the damaging effects of not properly understanding how masculinity affects mental health, which has led to the ignoring and criminalizing of many young men, whom we might otherwise offer help. One thing that has stuck out to me over the years and something that I try to impress upon my students is the realization that hurt people hurt people. This is particularly true of men when gender roles restrict their emotional expression to anger and acts of violence.

As our society becomes more self-aware of masculinity, we seem to recognize different expressions of it in various cultures and religions. In your view, what’s distinctive about masculinity from the Catholic perspective?

As Catholics in the United States we are privileged to have many of the values, traditions and ideologies woven into the fabric of the national culture. So in many ways what it means to be a good Catholic man is similar to what it means to be a good American man. However, something I see as a unique framework of masculinity held up by the church is an indirect veneration of singlehood. Of course, priests, nuns and brothers are models of this, but they also serve as role models in a broader context to devoting oneself to vocation, family or other generative pursuits.

Catholicism is also set apart by encouraging its practitioners to pay homage to the feminine, in the forms of the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin. In my view this helps define the masculine by acknowledging the importance of its counterpart.

From Jesus to many of the saints and our clergy, Catholicism is a religion steeped in masculine role models, often depicted in striking iconography. In your own view, who are some positive role models of Catholic masculinity and why?

As you say, there are many. One of my personal favorites is Moses, who I believe represents one of the first patrons of social justice. A man who gave up his own wealth because he could not bear to watch the abuse of his people. He later returns to free them, and although he was at points without resolve, he ultimately found the faith to lean into his courage. 

And of course, Jesus, who embodied what I believe to be high virtues of masculinity: compassion, sacrifice and leadership. He is an example of how we should treat one another—both our neighbors and our adversaries. His tools of intervention were words, love and a willingness to stand up and die for what He believed in.      

Based on your experience of human behavior, what are some negative expressions of Catholic masculinity that you’ve seen?

Catholic masculinity doesn’t stand out to me as having any negative aspects that are particular to it. Though certainly this is my bias, as some might point to Catholicism’s stance on women in the priesthood; but I would say that’s more an issue of politics and tradition than a negative expression of masculinity. I will say that I believe it’s important for girls and women to see other women in positions of leadership in any organization representing a diverse group of people. 

To your question, I find that all belief systems can lull its practitioners to a place of righteous closemindedness.  This ultimately leads to close-hearted-ness, which impedes our ability to be compassionate towards each another and leads us on a path to resentment and indifference to those around us. 

How does Catholicism influence your approach to masculinity?

These days, I’d consider myself more of a secular Catholic. Having been raised in the church, I have a certain fondness and appreciation for its traditions, which help articulate my spirituality. 

On the whole my spirituality, including my Catholic identity, leads me to see masculinity and masculine roles as integral parts of our humanity. Incomplete in-and-of itself, masculinity is balanced by its other half, femininity. This is true for the individual and the whole of society, in which the two complementary and counterbalancing forces push and pull one another, thereby keeping the entire system in harmony. Some Eastern traditions have depicted this interplay as the yin-yang symbol.

Realizing the necessity of both the masculine and the feminine highlights the problem of attempting to exist in a way that strictly gives service to one of these. All of us, male and female, have a masculine and a feminine “side.” One part tends to be more prominent, but even the toughest guys have a nurturing sidethough it may not show up as comforting words but instead as fighting to protect those they love.

Although there’s a lot of debate about the source of differences between men and women, there seem to be variances in the way they experience faith and God, with some spiritual writers even suggesting women are more naturally “spiritual” and men are more naturally “religious.” From your perspective, what’s distinctive about the way American men tend to approach religion?

One of my graduate students is a young Muslim woman from Pakistan; one of her primary areas of interest is difference between spirituality and religiosity. Within the social sciences spirituality refers to an individual’s personal relationship to God, the spiritual, and/or the mystical; whereas, religiosity points to one’s adherence to the practices, traditions, and community of a particular religion. Using those definitions, my student has found the opposite to usually be true: Men report being more spiritual than religious in their practice, and women report being more religious than spiritual. 

Religion can be particularly tough for men—our ways of being in the world tend to be more carnal than women’s. So it can be tough for men to reconcile their sexual, competitive and independent natures with the piety that many religions uphold as their ideal—especially during adolescence and young adulthood. This may lead some men to seek their own spiritual path or to forgo religion and spirituality altogether.      

Many Catholics and even non-believers have a positive impression of Pope Francis as a healthy role model who is able to “be himself” while living in the spotlight. In your view, what’s so appealing about the way this pope expresses his masculinity?

I think it is his untethered expression of compassion. I find Pope Francis to be a great example of the balance I was speaking to earlier. He is a wonderful embodiment of a generative masculinity. More than any other pope in my lifetime, Pope Francis uses the power of his position to model the values of love and understanding.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about masculinity today, what would it be?

I’m not sure I’d have anything in particular to tell him. I’d be more interested in having a conversation with him on the topics of gender and sexuality broadly. I’d be interested to know how he views these things from his position and what, if any, changes he expects to see in the near and far future for the church.

How has your own experience of masculinity evolved during your life?

Absolutely—most fundamentally by understanding that there are many versions and expressions of masculinity and masculine roles, each of which has its value and none of which are better or worse than another.

How do you pray?

I meditate, and I sing. Oddly enough, I do both primarily in the shower.

What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?

Another tough question: There are many that appeal to me. But the compassion of the familiar passage from Matthew 5:38-42 stands out to me at this point in my life: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away."

Any final thoughts?

This has been great. Thank you for the opportunity. If interested, readers can find me online at http://aqual.us and on Twitter @aqualus .  

Be well.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
1 year 3 months ago
Sean: Gordon makes the statement that: "And of course, Jesus, who embodied what I believe to be high virtues of masculinity: compassion, sacrifice and leadership." I don't think you should have allowed that to pass without a question. The implication is that, if these are virtues of masculinity, they are not virtues of femininity. Obviously that is wrong. Alternatively, they are virtues of both -- which Gordon or you should have stated. Because then Jesus ceases to be a masculine role model, but a role model for all persons. That raises a second question. Your question posited that Jesus is/was a male role model. Could you explain how that is so? Simply that he was male and did what he did? Is there any way that what he did was "masculine"? Any way he is/was less a role model for women? Your article raises some interesting questions. But given the present (and historic) situation with the church and women, the incessant polemics against radical feminism, gender ideology, etc. (terms that are never defined), and of course the ever present insistence on complementarity, you are leaving a lot of questions unanswered. But thanks.
Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year 3 months ago

Thank you for reading. I don't believe Dr. Gordon's assertion of masculine virtues necessarily denies their presence in a feminine context. Nor do I believe he intended it that way. For example, to say "I like Catholicism" doesn't necessarily mean "I dislike Judaism" unless one specifies the latter. But we can agree to disagree about whether I asked him the best possible questions. God bless.

Crystal Watson
1 year 3 months ago
I too am uncomfortable with the whole idea of defining and lauding "masculine" and "feminine" virtues .... that whole complementarian idea that men and women are more different than the same. Why not pay attention to what we have in common as people instead. This is the kind of thinking that keeps women in their "feminine genius" place instead of seeing men and women as equals.

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