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Jim McDermottMay 08, 2019

On a bright morning in Melbourne last December, Patricia Faulkner, A.O., chair of the board of Jesuit Social Services in Australia, stood before a room filled with press and members of the community and shared a simple message: “Men and boys need help.”

Since 1977, J.S.S. has been working for social change in Australia through a combination of delivering services to marginalized groups, like refugees and prisoners, and in-depth research and advocacy on their behalf. As part of the agency’s 40th anniversary, Julie Edwards, the group’s chief executive officer, asked the organization to “sniff the wind,” as she put it, to reflect on what they were seeing on the ground and consider what new efforts might be needed today.

“And what people kept coming back to,” says Michael Livingstone, executive director of The Men’s Project, which came out of that year of discernment, “was that the issues of boys and men persist. They’re overwhelmingly the people we see in our criminal justice programs and the perpetrators of family violence; they’re also a higher percentage for other issues around mental health, risk-taking and drinking.”

As former deputy commissioner of a state commission looking into family violence, Ms. Faulkner was intimately familiar with these problems and also the broader human web within which they exist. “It’s not just a matter of an individual,” she told the group. “Society has to change.”

From the #MeToo movement to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, from remembering the kindness of the children’s television pioneer Mr. Rogers to examining the leadership of Pope Francis, the last year has witnessed the rise of an extraordinary international conversation around gender and power even as it has inspired an at-times vituperative pushback from some.

In this watershed moment, when it is so clear that thinking about men and masculinity is evolving, where is the church? And how can it help?

The Problem of Christian Masculinity

The Catholic Church in the United States has long promoted notions of Catholic masculinity and offered groups and movements for men. Recent decades have also seen the rise of an entire industry of Christian men’s self-help books, with titles like Act Like Men: 40 Days to Biblical Manhood, Manual to Manhood and Catholic Manhood Today. Many are bestsellers. John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart (2001) remains No. 1 on Amazon’s list of titles about Christian men’s issues 17 years after its publication.

From the #MeToo movement to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, from remembering the kindness of the children’s television pioneer Mr. Rogers to examining the leadership of Pope Francis, the last year has witnessed the rise of an extraordinary international conversation around gender and power even as it has inspired an at-times vituperative pushback from some.

In this watershed moment, when it is so clear that thinking about men and masculinity is evolving, where is the church? And how can it help?

These books tend to follow a similar course. They begin with a declaration of the problem: “Men are in deep trouble with sin” (Act Like Men). Society is in crisis: “The conditions we find ourselves in have put us on a steady decline as a culture” (Catholic Manhood Now). And recovery depends upon a return to a “genuine masculinity” (Catholic Manhood Now), to being a “quality man” (Act Like Men).

What generally follows is a mixture of straight talk and encouragement. “When we lay aside our selfishness out of commitment, we arrive at a place called contentment or joy,” writes Raylan Alleman in Catholic Manhood Now.

“If there is anything ‘Olympic’ about us, it’s our ability to lie to ourselves,” says James MacDonald in Act Like Men.

These writers typically speak with familiarity; these are their struggles too. “I have never met the dude who didn’t at some level want to be a quality man,” Mr. MacDonald says. “But for some reason in the pressure of the moment, we often cave in to behavior we despise.”

“Deep in a man’s heart are some fundamental questions that simply cannot be answered at the kitchen table,” writes Mr. Eldredge. “Who am I? What am I made of? What am I destined for?”

But within these quests for goodness a shocking degree of misogyny can lurk. The first subsection of the first chapter of Act Like Men is entitled: “Act Like a Man Means Don’t Act Like a Woman.”

Men are there to protect their women, Mr. MacDonald explains, and to oversee the family.

“We lead our families and instruct and advise our wives and children of what they are to do,” Mr. Alleman confirms.

“‘Where are all the real men?’ is regular fare for talk shows and new books,” Mr. Eldredge writes. “You asked them to be women, I want to say.”

If you want to know how the diminishment of women continues, look no further.

Spirituality books may genuinely try to help men, but they can function as Trojan horses, inserting cultural, political or social agendas that are neither pastorally helpful nor consistent with the tenets of Christianity. 

Notions of “the genuine Christian man” are likewise riddled with stereotype and anxiety. Men are good with their hands; sports lovers; outdoorsy. Mr. Eldredge claims they have an “innate love of maps.”

And they are “real men”: “What would happen if we had effeminate or juvenile men in charge of national defense or police protection?” Mr. Alleman wonders. “These are the roles filled by genuinely masculine men.”

“We all know the guy who gets a pedicure and frosts his tips, but most men think that guy is wacky and only talk to him when forced,” writes Mr. MacDonald.

Even as these books may genuinely try to help men, they can function as Trojan horses, inserting cultural, political or social agendas that are neither pastorally helpful nor consistent with the tenets of Christianity. Such problematic themes are so prevalent, not only in the literature but within Christian and Catholic men’s movements, it suggests that using masculinity or some notion of “the Catholic man” as a starting point for reflection could be a serious and potentially dangerous error.

Walking Toward a God of Love

About a half hour outside the Twin Cities in Minnesota, a retreat house tucked away in woods overlooking a pretty lake has charted a very different course. The Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House has run “preached retreats” for men for 70 years. It seems like an idea out of another era of the church, but at a time when retreat centers around the country are struggling to stay solvent, Demontreville welcomes 70 men every weekend; 3,000 men a year. Many have been coming for decades; some are the third or fourth generation of their family to attend.

Patrick McCorkell, S.J., director of the retreat house, believes some elements of Demontreville appeal specifically to men. “I think men deal better when there’s a predictable structure and a certain discipline to it,” he says. The retreats, which begin on Thursday night and go until Sunday dinner, involve four or five talks a day, meals on a set schedule, strongly maintained expectations about silence and no computers or phones.

The retreat director Paul Lickteig, S.J., wonders if the amount that is asked of the men is not itself part of the attraction. “It almost seems like a spiritual feat,” he says, of doing the retreat. “You end up sitting there for eight hours of your weekend listening to someone talk to you, and they’re asking you to get to some spiritual depth. It’s an invitation, but I think there’s also something in the challenge of it.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a spiritual marathon, but it’s certainly a 10K.”

“A good retreat begins with knowing that you are the beloved son of God and helps you find that. It doesn’t start with saying, ‘You’re pretty bad and we’re going to help put a clamp on that.’”

But the essence of the retreat house’s effectiveness, says Father McCorkell, is its attention to spiritual fundamentals. Demontreville takes seriously the notion of being a retreat: “We have a place that’s physically separate from all of the commotion of everyday life.” Even the most simple gestures matter. “We put as many cars as we can in the garage, so they’re out of sight,” Father McCorkell says.

“We say, ‘Let’s create an atmosphere of silence, but more than silence, solitude.’ You come here and there isn’t going to be anybody telling you who you’re supposed to be. We want you to be able to sit with yourself and listen to God tell you who you are.”

These retreats also include a strong emphasis on stability. “You get the same room every year, the same menu in the dining room,” says Father McCorkell. “The furniture is always in the same place. The guys even tend to sit at the same place in the chapel. It creates an environment that’s in some manner timeless. It creates a sense of security, and you tap into your own history of retreats just automatically.”

“The rigidity of it all becomes a connector to the past,” says Father Lickteig.

Chris Francis, 53, has been going to Demontreville for 30 years. “I’d just gotten out of high school and my dad said, ‘It’s time for you to come and check this out.’

“I had no idea what a silent retreat was all about,” he says. “And it was not what I was expecting; it was a lot more enjoyable. I loved the structure.”

Central to the retreats are the 14 talks given by the retreat director. And those talks, Father McCorkell notes, “are not about being men, but about being human.”

“There is a sense that we’re all on the journey. I happen to be up here giving the talks because I have slightly different training and experience, but the fact of the matter is we’re all on the same journey.”

“Jesus is not going to change you. He’s going to reveal you to yourself.”

Mr. Francis agrees. The best retreat directors, he says, have shared the wisdom that “everybody makes mistakes, and you need to put that behind you and go forward, try to do a better job tomorrow. They’ve given me compassion, [the reminder] to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

The Catholic writer and editor Tom McGrath, vice president for product development at Chicago’s Loyola Press, has been involved with men’s retreats and spirituality and written about them for decades. “A good retreat,” he says, “begins with knowing that you are the beloved son of God and helps you find that. It doesn’t start with saying, ‘You’re pretty bad and we’re going to help put a clamp on that,’ or ‘Jesus is going to change you.’

“Jesus is not going to change you,” he says. “He’s going to reveal you to yourself.

“It’s not about taming the guy because he shouldn’t be left to his own devices too long,” Mr. McGrath says. “It’s really saying inside of you there is this really great man. It’s about transformation.”

Father McCorkell agrees. Demontreville’s preaching, he says, “comes down to the director communicating a lived love for the Lord. That makes it attractive and possible for the retreatant to do the same.”

Of Dying, Rising and Community

Meanwhile, other prominent voices in the church work to create Catholic spiritual experiences that are both specifically for men and resist the entitlement and misogyny of others’ agendas. Richard Rohr, O.F.M., has spent decades developing, teaching and leading rites of initiation for men, helping them to face both their willfulness and their fragility so that they may know new freedom and life in Christ.

“The whole notion of initiation,” he explains, “was to critique the male power journey. The discovery of culture after culture is that if the young male doesn’t make the journey of powerlessness, [he], and therefore the middle-aged male and the older male, will always abuse power.”

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He finds support for that insight in Scripture. “You go back to Jesus’ initiation rites for his Twelve; he’s always trying to get them to come down and they always want to go up. It’s all about power. If you take his own initiation rite in the desert, the three temptations in my opinion are all temptations of the misuse of power.”

Of course, the journey into humility and trust is hardly limited to men, a point Father Rohr acknowledges. “The Paschal mystery, that’s true across the board. That’s the shape of Christ, the shape of reality.”

Mr. McGrath, who has gone through Father Rohr’s “rites of passage” retreat, agrees: “Every man and every woman is going to face these times of descent in their life when they’re knocked off their horse, or they have an illness or lose a job or a relationship or a family member.” The rites of initiation retreat, he explains, offers a “dying before dying,” a place in which we can experience that essential fragility of our life and also “experience the redemption—God rushing in.”

But Father Rohr resists the notion that gender should be discounted. “Symbols, stories, archetypes are entrance points,” he explains. “There are different stories and symbols that open the male soul, the male psyche, than open the female.”

He sees in the church oftentimes a lack of serious attention to what speaks to men. “Just take liturgy,” he suggests. “The whole liturgical style is too verbal for most men, is too priest-centered and also too feminine, ironically, in the sense that we try to make it so pretty with our vestments, with our colors and candles and incense and all the things we Catholics use.

“I’m not saying they all need to be thrown out, but it’s pretty apparent to me this whole symbol system does not engage the typical male. He’s bored by it.”

“I think men want and crave ritual,” says Mr. McGrath. “They want ritual that speaks to their guts. And what do we give them at Mass? It’s like the teacher in Peanuts: ‘Wah wah wah.’” He thinks the fact that many men spend their weekends watching sports instead is no coincidence. “Watching a football game, I’m offered a noble vision of life and challenges that echo the challenges that I face at work. The fight that’s going on in a football game, the strategy, that’s real to me.”

Andrew Hennessy, O.F.M.Conv., understands the problem in terms of community. “There isn’t as much social space for guys,” he says. “You don’t have the Elks Club or Knights of Columbus as much anymore.”

“I think men want and crave ritual that speaks to their guts. And what do we give them at Mass? It’s like the teacher in Peanuts: ‘Wah wah wah.’”

And the Catholic men’s groups filling the gap today do not always seem to be thinking about the men themselves. He recalls one such parish group: “The whole thing was: ‘We’ll have a monthly meeting, an hour of adoration and confessions.’ It was flat, nothing creative about it at all, just kind of ‘Men, let’s get together and do this stuff that Catholics keep saying that we should do.’”

Mr. Francis agrees. The Demontreville retreat is effective, he says, because it provides a space for men to share in “nonverbal camaraderie.”

“You’ll have 71 guys sitting there in silence [between sessions], someone’s taking notes and somebody’s reading Bible verses and someone’s really in tune with one of the readings. It’s a very unique opportunity.

“I don’t think you’re going to find another place that has nonverbal bonding like that. It’s not going to happen at your local Mass, your local church.”

In his work with young adults in southern Indiana, Friar Hennessy has organized unusual events like taking a group to an axe-throwing range in nearby Louisville or running an afternoon of wiffle ball, in each instance followed by some sort of experience of prayer and conversation. “A friar who works in H.R. once told me the thing that brings men together is working together and playing together,” Friar Hennessy explains. “I think for guys you need to have enough activity, so people can get comfortable. If you ask guys to be real too fast, you won’t get much.

“I don’t think you sell the faith to people,” says Friar Hennessy. “I always try to tell myself, I’m not going to pretend that I’m interested in someone’s salvation unless I’m interested in them as a person first.”

Masculinity Built on Tenderness and Friendship

One other topic that comes up frequently in discussions about the church and men is modeling. So often the church promotes priests and bishops as examples for other men to emulate. And yet consider a typical Sunday Mass, says Father Rohr: “We priests dressing up in sometimes elaborate clothing; it differentiates us from every man in the room. [It says]: ‘I am special; I am a unique man.’”

Such differentiation not only separates priests from other men, it diminishes their effectiveness as role models. Margaret Guider, O.S.F., associate professor of missiology and chair of the ecclesiastical faculty at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, says the priesthood “becomes kind of the exemplar of a virtuous masculinity that other men can’t really embody or embrace. ‘I could never be like Father so and so; he’s such a great guy.’”

Meanwhile, she notes, “we can’t seem to get traction in the mainstream press with the kind of Catholic men informed by Catholic social teaching, by a commitment to the Gospel and a sense of collaboration.”

Historically, the church has long wrapped itself in images of male assertiveness and power, laying the groundwork for many of the issues we now confront. “In recent centuries, the pope has been both symbol and cipher for an authoritarian ruler,” wrote Paul Elie in The New York Times last year. “As Western governments became more expressive of the will of the governed, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has been seen, by contrast, as a figure vested in bulletproof pre-modern absolutes, immune to electoral or popular pressures, accountable to God alone.”

Pope Francis, says Mr. Elie, offers the church a fresh alternative. “Francis has acted on his conviction that Catholic faith is less about the use of power to shape the social order—the stuff of present strongmen and past popes—than about straightforward efforts of kindness and generosity.” He is “the anti-strongman,” who resists “the ‘Rome has spoken’ approach of his predecessors.”

Mr. McGrath likewise sees in the pope a model of a man who has faced his own dark side and allowed himself to be transformed. “If you’ve been on top all along, what are you going to say? ‘Toe the line.’ But if you’ve been to the bottom, in the mud and the ashes, then you’re going to know the mercy of God.”

When it came to the consistory that elected Francis, Sister Guider muses, “I think it wasn’t that we wanted a new kind of pope, but we wanted a new kind of man as pope. We were looking for another way of being man and priest.” In particular, she says, “we put a primacy on being a man in the sense of being a friend, being somebody worthy of trust.”

Amid the larger social conversation about toxic masculinity, Sister Guider wonders if the church could not promote conversation around this more “tender” or “virtuous” masculinity. “What kind of reflections can the church offer on friendship,” she asks, “on brotherhood, on what it means to be a neighbor and a companion with others. If you scratch the surface, in every man’s life you’ll find those relationships, maybe not lived perfectly, but experiences they can hang onto.

“Those relationships are there in the infrastructure of a virtuous masculinity.”

Mr. Francis sees that experience of friendship come to life on retreat. “You’re focused on the guy next to you; he’s a guy like you and you’re going through this together.

“There’s a bonding that goes on...that makes the group believe and become better men.”

Many who work with men in the church want it to provide spaces where men can be honest even about the messiest parts of their lives. In that sharing lies the key both to men’s own transformations and a healthier society for all.

The Men’s Project conducted by Jesuit Social Services gives women, men and children a chance to share their experiences and struggles in relationship, so they can learn from and help one another. And Julie Edwards wonders if it might be a model for church and society too.

“Any system that doesn’t have equality in terms of governance,” says Ms. Edwards, “is missing out on the insights, the wisdom, the intelligence and the gifts that could be exercised.

“And we know in these sorts of systems that the more gendered roles are, the more violence often there is, too. You don’t see your own privilege because you’re experiencing the world through a completely different lens.”

Many who work with men in the church want it to provide spaces where men can also be honest even about the messiest parts of their lives. In that sharing lies the key both to men’s own transformations and a healthier society for all, they say.

“What do we do in a culture where there’s no place for men to work with those aspects of ourselves we have not integrated yet?” wonders Father Lickteig. “It seems like the one option available to us is to ratchet things down; watch your behavior. If you’re religious it means you’re all buttoned up.”

“The church can help us see our lives in the most noble terms of all,” says Mr. McGrath. “But we have to get real.”

He proposes one further model for the church to consider—Greg Boyle, S.J., founder of Homeboy Industries, an antigang initiative in Los Angeles. “That guy gets so real,” Mr. McGrath says, “that he gets guys who have been taught their whole lives to be tough to share their real life. Their sadness, pain and anger—all that stuff can come in. He doesn’t say, ‘Keep that outside.’

“And I know Jesus didn’t either.”

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Brien Doyle
5 years 2 months ago

Spirituality? ...!
Maybe that is the problem!
Spirits? Ghosts? Imaginary gods?

We no longer live in the bronze age - This is the 21st century!!!

There are no gods.....

Christopher Minch
5 years 2 months ago

Brien—I just ran into this quote this interesting quote today in another comment section:
"The world of poetry, mythology, and religion represents the world as a man would like to have it, while science represents the world as he gradually comes to discover it." - Joseph Wood Krutch. I would recommend you look into the works by Joseph Campbell, I think he was an anthropologist but taught at the college level comparative mythology and religions. I don't think he was especially spiritual or belonged to a religion. His book "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" was a best seller and his interviews in the PBS series with Bill Moyers was also very enlightening. No matter if you do or don't look into these resources, really good luck to you!

arthur mccaffrey
5 years 2 months ago

"lurking mysogyny", "toxic masculinity"--one way a very old institution like RCC could help the modern male is to cut thru the contemporary PC crap and preach to men about the eternal verities and the real meaningful and complimentary differences between men and women. Gender is not invented but given in biology, and we need to celebrate difference rather than wilful homogeneity. I much prefer the notion of "virtuous masculinity" expressed here, which speaks to the intrinsic, essential values that men bring to the world and relationships. The best people to talk to about men and why they love them are women. Sadly, ths is a tough era in which to be a man, since masculinity per se seems to be under attack, and white men in particular are getting roughed up in the media for 'white privilege' and 'white supremacy'--as a boy it is hard enough finding out or growing into who you are supposed to be without being attacked for your very essence. So it would be nice if RCC would re-invent its traditional teaching about the uniquenss of each and every one of us instead of faulting us for not conforming to the latest faddish convention about what a man should be. "To thine own self be true" is still a meaningful goal, whether we hear it on a psychiatrist's couch, or from the pulpit, or inside a loving family. Carl Jung said that inside every animus there is an anima, (and VV), and the goal in life is to integrate these male and female characteristics so as to become a fully integrated person (a lifetime's work). To answer the question, " how can RCC help men with their spirituality?", the answer surely lies, not in making men conform to contemporary superficial pressures to change into somebody else's conception of how men should behave, but rather to help them with this lifelong task of constructing an integrated self. The average Sunday sermon does not even address such issues, so there is a rich field of scripture and theology still to be plowed there.

Nora Bolcon
5 years 2 months ago

Let's see can the authors of misogyny in the modern world be the best people to fix men spiritually? No!

Because they still are accepting even according to this idiotic article that women need different things than men and they do not.

In fact, it is this constant pushing of sexism, by the church, whenever men feel unhappiness, by helping men understand their problem is that being around women and feminists thwarts their spirituality, somehow, so they need male exclusive groups to make them more manly and equitable with women. This is something Jesus never taught but he did teach men and women the same lessons, had them follow him the same ways, and at the same time together.

The Catholic hierarchy is continually pushing these male exclusive men's groups on its people because they want to get young males away from women to push priestly vocations with macho terminology and not have to deal with women while they do. Don't you know women are the enemy to men? They expect men to be weak and cause men to be unhappy and unnaturally unsatisfied? Bull! These teachings that men should want different things than women or need to be taught differently is a big fat lie!

Also all these gender exclusive groups are all supportive of misogyny and stereotyping and oppressing women. They also aren't popular with young men or women who have learned the lessons Jesus actually did teach (sadly they often had to learn them outside of church) to love all people and treat all people the same as you want to be treated, and this way of thinking and living will bring you happiness, for both men and women in life and also bring you closer to God.

Consider the all male groups like knights of Columbus who refuse to allow women to join the knights and their primary charity is collecting money to use on promoting the criminalizing of abortion. They don't care this would actually cause both abortion and maternal death rates to increase in our country according to all global comparisons and research, they just want the right to control and jail women. They concern themselves with being allowed special privileges during various important liturgies like confirmations despite whether anyone else wants them to march around with feathers flapping in the air or not.

Then let's take a look at the Masons who use the fact that many of the members come from high ranking white wealthy families to keep power in our country and in the western world remaining both white and masculine by making their friendships within work and business from connections within these gender exclusive groups. This puts women at a huge disadvantage in the business world and that is why they won't change the rules to allow women in.

Then look at all these fraternities, they too have women left out of important vehicles for life changing financial and political importance while being often the places where date rape occurs most often and where men first learn to ramp each other up around misogynistic goals.

Alan Johnstone
5 years 2 months ago

We are to look on the created world and glean some idea of the nature and character of the creator.
Male and female he created them - one species of two sexes which was a finished task, completed, no biological evolution has taken place since that event. Zero.
Put Noah in a business suit after a shave and a haircut and nobody would notice him walking through Times Square.
Fred Flintstone is FICTION, 2001 was made by a militant atheist and not only fiction but scientific nonsense.
So, we have stallions and mares; bulls and cows, rams and ewes; boars and sows; dogs and bitches and even peacocks and peahens.
Sex differences, multiple behavioural differences besides size and conformation differences in all the above.
It is an ignorant, immature, inexperienced and risky thing for a young human to act towards any of the above as if they were the same. Why, even my next door neighbour who has raised cattle his whole life can walk with a mob of his cows and one dog and get them from paddock to paddock in peace but he gets on horseback and takes two dogs to move just one of his bulls.
Two very different sexes, gender is a word belonging to the study of languages such as French (La France, Le Japon).

The anatomy of the male brain and the anatomy of the female brain in both humans and mammals are different. The hormone levels and hormone producing organs differ enormously.

Sex is not a social construct, it is a biological constant.

Disobedience to God is reported as having happened by each of Adam and Eve and so they were both separated from their initial destiny and suffered unpleasant and different consequences.

The Ten Commandments are not addressed differently to the two sexes - obedience to God is an equal opportunity prospect and the consequence or reward is sex neutral. Heaven or Hell.

So Jews and Christians will appropriately persist in being counter-cultural in the 21st century in matters of accepting differences in roles, instincts and preferences and do so without shame or reservation.

Randal Agostini
5 years 2 months ago

The Church can help in many ways, but the most important is to be relevant. In the gospel of today Jesus says “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Jesus fully understood our humanity. If we cannot understand God through his spirituality, then understand Him through his works. This urges our Priests to be Pastors - to meet us where we are and to encourage us to be active in ministry, in those areas where we can be fulfilled in our humanity. We have entered dangerous times for our sanctification and most of the problem is caused from our natural and easy access to secular lives. We must now recognize the necessity to change ourselves and our lives and to accomplish this we should resort to the behavior of the original Christians - living within but separate from society. We must invigorate Catholicism with an environment of Faith and to accomplish this we have to start with ourselves and with our children and grandchildren. We literally have to circle the wagons and regroup our parishes into communities of Faith, within which we can once more become the light of the world. This is a challenge worthy of men, working with one another for our families and community, for the benefit of society as a whole.

John Butler
5 years 2 months ago

Wonderful article.

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