The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 1:39:02

Renewing masculinity without forgetting the gains of feminism

Katie van Schaijik, Jan 27, 2016

Five things to love about this inspiring video promoting a renewal of Catholic manhood put out recently by the diocese of Phoenix (besides the slate of admirable men of faith it features):

1) The focus on sacrifice and self-giving

2) The focus on fatherhood

3) The focus on self-control

4) The focus on prayer and sacraments

5) The focus on friendship and mutual support among men

These emphases make it stand well above most of the "renewing Christian manhood" materials I've come across in recent years.

But still, as a woman and a personalist, I have a couple of quibbles. 

1) Even fleeting mention of the need for men to understand their "role" makes me break out in hives. It's too reminiscent of the disastrous, de-personalizing, externalist and functionalist teachings on marriage that have done so much damage in the Christian counter-culture of the last half century. Masculinity isn't a role; it isn't an office; it's a mode of personal existence. And personal existence is mainly about interiority, agency, and individuality, not function. (Focus on identity is much better than role, as long as care is taken not to conflate the two.)

2) The refrain that men are called to be "leaders" is problematic, too, in light of the personalist developments of our day. It tends to suggest (how could it not?) that women are meant to be followers. We're not. As I read post-conciliar teaching on marriage, the Church has deliberately assimilated some key feminist truth (i.e. recognized it as implicitly given in her changeless doctrines): men are not being called to lead their wives, but to love and honor them. The relationship between husband and wife is, according to the Church, in all its aspects, complementary, not hierarchical.

I know you can't say everything in a short promotional video. But, especially when it comes to communicating deep moral and religious truth, it's really important that what is said is free of bad tendencies. 

Here's a short list of personalist items I wish everyone who approaches this deep and delicate set of issues would keep well in mind:

1. Feminism is not all bad. It developed in response to real injustices; it has achieved real goods. (See John Paul II's Letter to Women.) Those goods should be consciously appropriated and carefully cherished.

2. Any talk about the crisis of masculinity being due to the "feminization" of culture is horribly insulting to women. (Thankfully, there was no such talk in this video.) True femininity, like true masculinity, is an unmixed good. And John Paul II was explicit in calling for women to have more, not less, influence in culture and society, correcting a long-standing imbalance. He is explicit in saying that while great progress has been made, the real work of feminism is not yet complete.

3. The relation between the sexes should never be treated as a competition or a zero sum game, as if increasing the influence of women entails decreasing due appreciation for men. We may have to abandon outmoded ideas of what masculinity and femininity mean, but that's something different. True femininity enhances masculinity; to be pro-woman is to be pro-man, and vice versa.

4. When it comes to love, other-receiving is as essential as self-giving. (If we don't realize this, we will tend, consciously or not, to de-value femininity, and to mis-conceive love.)

5. Individuals are never reducible to social roles, and neither are sexes. (For example, I have personally witnessed Christian teachers explaining that fathers should not change diapers, because it will create "role confusion" in the household. In many places in the Christian counter-culture, couples are taught that women shouldn't work outside the home, and that husbands (not wives) should handle the family finances. I know stories of husbands being instructed not to listen to their wives, because their wives were being "rebellious." I could point to Catholic men teaching even today that wives are responsible to obey their husbands "on pain of sin." This kind of teaching is false and deeply damaging to men and women both.

Part of reason for the sexual confusion we are dealing with today is positive. I mean, when "new" truth emerges, it tends to be accompanied by social and cultural disruption. (Think of Socrates in Athens or Christianity in Ancient Rome. Think of a baby born into a once orderly household.) That disruption isn't remedied by a rejection of the new truth. Rather, it is remedied by gradual assimilation and adjustment—by an ever-deepening appreciation of the good of what's new, and a willingness to sacrifice for it.