Brett Kavanaugh and toxic masculinity: lessons from another all-male Jesuit high school

In this Sept. 6, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)In this Sept. 6, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

For those of us who lead or are associated with all-male Jesuit secondary schools in the United States, the saga of Brett Kavanaugh has been a roller coaster ride. His nomination to the Supreme Court was a high point; Judge Kavanaugh was expected to join Neil Gorsuch as one of two justices who graduated from the same all-male Jesuit high school, Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Md.

“The motto of my Jesuit high school was ‘men for others,’” Mr. Kavanaugh said when his nomination was announced on July 9. “I have tried to live that creed.”

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From that high, we have descended considerably, as Judge Kavanaugh now stands accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford. That this alleged crime took place while he was a student at a Jesuit high school makes us uncomfortable if not embarrassed and horrified. Understandably, questions remain about the allegation, which Mr. Kavanaugh has denied. Yet our feelings about the nomination and our perspective about it can’t help but change in light of these revelations.

I have been privileged to witness the mission of all-male Jesuit education as a powerful and transforming force.

I am the president of Fordham Prep, a 177-year-old all-male Jesuit secondary school in the Bronx, N.Y., with nearly 1,000 current students and almost 12,000 living alumni. I have seen our students and graduates at their best and, unfortunately, at their worst. Still, I have been privileged to witness the mission of all-male Jesuit education—to develop men for others, who dedicate their lives to God’s greater glory—as a powerful and transforming force. I believe this force can challenge the prevailing cultural forces that pressure young men to adopt values that reflect a vastly different posture toward the more vulnerable members of our society and those who are different than themselves.

Each spring, members of our freshman class participate in a retreat, the final step in their formal initiation as Fordham Prep students. On the last night of the retreat, I celebrate a Mass that begins at 9 p.m. and usually does not end until after 10:30 p.m. It is such a long celebration because at the time of the homily I invite members of the class to come forward and share with everyone—approximately 250 of their classmates, faculty mentors and upper-class retreat leaders—a memory, image, relationship or story in which they find God’s presence. This invitation is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality, which teaches us to seek and find God in all things.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the term “toxic masculinity” has entered the popular lexicon.

For our freshmen, this is frequently an exhilarating concept. Up to this point in their lives, they may have experienced their faith as confined to formal prayers or within a church building, a religion class or some other explicitly religious ritual. The insight that God draws near to them in their ordinary experience—that God’s grace is as close to them as their parents’ love, their friends’ acceptance, their growing confidence in learning a new skill or discovering a new talent—is attractive, even as it may be new and exotic.

During the time allotted for the homily, I listen. I listen as the freshmen come up, one by one, and speak briefly about encountering God’s presence. In some cases, they tell their stories with tentative trepidation and vulnerability. They are frequently humorous and self-deprecating. Most often, they are eloquent, inspiring and moving as they talk to their classmates about finding God in the close bonds of family upon the death of a relative; or in the gratitude and love they have for their mothers or fathers; in the joy of a sibling returning home after military service; in the courage of a parent who left her home country to immigrate to the United States; in their triumph in overcoming a personal challenge; in their wonder in finding God in sickness or healing or in an encounter with the beauty of nature.

God’s Spirit helps our students see and know the dignity that resides within each person.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the term “toxic masculinity” has entered the popular lexicon. Toxic masculinity, we are told, springs from a society that inculcates young men with a “bro mentality,” leaving them devoid of empathy, sensitivity and compassion and leading them—especially when they are together—to objectify and disrespect girls and women. Some have seen—rightly or wrongly—traces of this toxic mentality in Judge Kavanaugh’s quip in a 2015 speech that “What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.”

I leave to the experts whether toxic masculinity or a “bro culture” is pervasive and at the root cause of young men’s disregard for the dignity of others. But I can tell you that the freshman retreat experience gives our students a powerful opportunity to experience and model virtues and values directly opposed to this phenomenon. As they listen to each other, I believe they grow in their capacity to enter into another’s pain and joy. In taking the risk to share their stories, they articulate their deepest emotions and identify their most cherished values. God’s Spirit truly animates the whole church. And, I believe, God’s Spirit helps our students see and know the dignity that resides within each person. What a powerful way to inoculate young men against the poison of toxic masculinity.

What happens at the freshman retreat, does not stay at freshman retreat. Our students’ vulnerability and openness to others with backgrounds and experiences vastly different from their own is something we administrators and teachers see every day in the classroom. And what happens during their four years at Fordham Prep, should not stay at Fordham Prep. That, in fact, is the whole point.

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Peter Blau
9 months 3 weeks ago

While I appreciate Fr. Devron's pride in his school's Freshman Retreat, I do sense smugness of the kind coming from all quarters in the Kavanaugh discussion. Essentially; "SOMEONE ELSE'S school, tradition or social group has a problem, but thank heavens, we do not."

People who promote public schools point fingers at "elite" private schools, those who didn't play football look down upon those who did, and now we're to believe Fordham rather than Georgetown Prep has found thea way to "inoculate young men against the poison of toxic masculinity."

Well, let me tell you something: no school and no social group in society is immune from bad behavior and no one has a vaccine to prevent it.

The truth of it is that certain situations give their own opportunities for problems to occur: the all-male, unmarried priesthood, leading to the opportunity for pedophile sex abuse, to give one example, and the enormous freedom enjoyed by urban, affluent teenagers to socialize without adult supervision, to give another example.

Mary Boyle
9 months 3 weeks ago

There are currently 1000 students, but only 12,000 living alumni? What's happening to all the graduates of Fordham Prep?

Barry Fitzpatrick
9 months 3 weeks ago

Outstanding piece, Fr. Devron, just supremely well done. I'd like to repeat a suggestion I made a while back. Is it possible for the Jesuit Secondary Education Association to undertake a program of formative faith-based programs in their schools to address the issues raised by toxic masculinity ( I might add toxic white privileged masculinity)? There is no system of Catholic schools as much a healthy part of our culture as those represented by the JSEA, and such a program that would span all four years of high school would build upon already existing programs such as the ones Fr Devron mentioned. There could even be a partnering with Jesuit colleges in terms of introducing formative ventures into the campus ministry programs at the schools. Devron could not be more correct when he says that these programs should not stay in freshman year or stay in Fordham Prep. They need to be the kind that speak to the gut and formatively change a young person's world view for the better, bending that view in the direction of Jesus in the Gospels with the tremendous assistance of Ignatius and his tradition. I am sure Fr. Devron would agree, the Fordham Prep or the Georgetown Prep of the 1980s is NOT the Prep of today, nor should it be. It would be sad to say that, and it would mean a school community has not grown or developed. The JSEA is uniquely situated to make a huge contribution, building on its already priceless tradition, to a future where toxic masculinity has no place.

Eileen Jackson
9 months 3 weeks ago

I am a women, older than Dr. Ford, a graduate of an all girls catholic high school that socialized with boys from Loyola I can assure you that no retreat or appreciation for those who are different bled into the relationship between the boys and girls. Nor did it innoculate the boys from the attractions of rebellious dips into "boys will be boys" behaviour. I know you wish this weren't true, but it is part of the story that I wish all Jesuit educators would acknowledge given the number of their graduates working in the DC area.. It is well know that many men in power, despite their love and connection with God abuse women. Women it seems are not part of your set of "others" w are deserving of your students compassion. I am more concerned by Kavanaugh's willingness to follow Trump's advice, his known lying even before this hearing occurred and his behavior in his own testimony. As a student of Jesuits myself I know he knew more about creating a logical argument than his performance showed. Toxic masculinity is real and I'm afraid it is alive in jesuit educated men who reject the notion of white male priviledge. Men who believe they have the God given right to dictate to women how they should manage their lives, and their bodies.

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