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The Feminized Church

November 27, 2016 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

Terry Mattingly writes a blog site called On Religion (tmatt.net). His column on October 18 is worth your time. It is titled, “Why So Many Men Think Church Is for Women.” Mattingly is not a Catholic, but he explores a phenomenon many Roman Catholics have noted in recent decades, but hesitate to discuss in public for fear of insulting the many good women active in the Church.
What phenomenon? Well, I know there are admirable exceptions that many readers of this column may point to, but isn’t it true that you don’t find many young men who play sports, work on cars, and hunt and fish, active in our parishes any longer? That is my experience, at any rate, where altar servers tend to be girls, as are members of parish youth groups. I can’t read the minds of the young men who shy away from Catholic parish life, but I think it safe to say that they now see it as…well, soft, too overtly pious, not a “guy-thing.” The priest sex scandals have increased this perception.
It was not always this way. When I was a teenager in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s (I would wager it was the same for Catholic boys in most urban areas of the country), the “cool guys” in town were altar boys, members of CYO athletic teams, and the Boy Scout troop affiliated with the parish — as well as regulars at a parish gym called the Lyceum, where weightlifting and boxing were the order of the day. Those days are over. It is this phenomenon that Mattingly explores.
He begins by pointing out that the active participation of young men in parish life may be a singular phenomenon of the years after World War II; that parish life was not always thus.
Mattingly notes that in the Middle Ages a “Dominican priest observed that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts while few men do.” Also that “Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: ‘During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!’ Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men ‘never attend church’ at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.”
So it could be that the “feminized” Church that Mattingly has noticed is actually a return to a historic norm. In Mattingly’s words, Nowadays, “everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful.”
That last line will strike many as a cheap shot. But I see an element of truth in it. The priests of my boyhood were “macho” guys. There was a reason Hollywood often chose Spencer Tracy or Pat O’Brien to portray them back in the 1940s and 1950s. Many modern priests are admirable men, but wouldn’t you be more disposed to choose someone like Jude Law or Tobey Maguire to play them, rather than Spencer Tracy?
Mattingly contends a feminization is evident in other areas of parish life:
“Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services….There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending.”
To what does Mattingly attribute the change? He refers to a lecture by Leon Podles, the author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. Podles contends that “in the Christian West faith has increasingly focused on emotions and feelings, as opposed to action, service, and sacrifice….My theory is: men distance themselves from church because they think church, and maybe Christianity in general, is feminine, and they want to be masculine and don’t want to be feminine.”
Are Mattingly and Podles correct? Well, they are right about the decline of young men in Catholic parish life. That is just a fact. The question is whether they are correct about the cause. This strikes me as a classic case of the chicken and the egg: Have men drifted away from parish life because it has become “feminized”? Or has parish life become feminized because men have abandoned parish life? I think the latter is the more convincing argument.
The parishes of my youth were characterized by Holy Name Societies, chapters of the Knights of Columbus, Boy Scout troops, and CYO athletic teams, because the men returning from service in World War II involved themselves eagerly in their sons’ lives as Catholics. They and the priests of that era probably never heard the term “male role models,” but they understood what it meant to give a good example to the boys of the parish. Would the modern Church Podles and Mattingly describe as “feminized” be that way if modern fathers were equally determined to keep the Church a focal point of their sons’ lives?
Imagine what our modern Catholic parishes would be like if Catholic men devoted as much time to parish youth groups as they do to the local baseball and hockey “traveling teams.” There is no reason why the CYO had to become a moribund youth group, as it is nowadays in so much of the country. Men can’t complain about a “feminized” Catholicism if they relinquish the role in the Church that their fathers played.
That said, there are some things that Catholic women should keep in mind. It is all well and good to take pride in seeing girls serving Mass, but we should not overlook how unlikely it will be for young men to join parish groups that come across as too “girlish.” There are different ways to be pious. Young men who are drawn to scenes of knights kneeling for a blessing, soldiers in prayer on the battlefield, missionaries driving jeeps through the jungle, film portrayals of Fr. Flanagan getting out the boxing gloves for unruly residents of Boys Town, are not likely to want to fold their hands with upturned eyes like a woman saint on a holy card. Or to be eager to engage in “touchy-feely interactions” in group activities designed to “get them over their hang-ups” about interpersonal relationships.
(I didn’t make up this last activity. I have been in a couple of classroom exercises in graduate school courses in education directed to precisely that end. I am not exaggerating for emphasis.)
“In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” Soft and emotional expressions of piety are not the only forms of piety. It is not what we would expect from St. Peter, for example. I sometimes get the impression that women active in the Church nowadays don’t understand that. There is nothing wrong with femininity. Most men are more than fond of it in all its manifestations. But masculinity should not be depicted as some primitive psychological disorder that needs to be overcome to make the world more Christian. Not if you want men to be active in the Church.

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