Wanted: A return to mature masculinity
There’s growing confusion, anger and debate around a simple question: What does it mean to be a man? Our society seems to be suffering immensely from sexual abuse and violence, and the overwhelming perpetrators are men. Much attention, for example, is surrounding the #MeToo movement and the problem of mass shootings, both of which involve crimes committed by males. This broadens the question to: Are men a problem, or is there a problem with men?
The American Psychological Association seems to think masculinity itself is the problem when it linked “traditional masculinity” with “aggression and violence” in its new “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” Some balked at the document, while others cheered it. The New York Times ran a column about the APA guidelines, and its headline sums up how this is all part of a bigger issue: “The Fight Over Men is Shaping Our Political Future.”
The debate spilled into advertisers — notably when Gillette ran an ad that sparked controversy with its apparent affirmation of the concept of “toxic masculinity,” insinuating that the problem is with men themselves. Egard Watches released a sort of “response” commercial, which seemed to be trying to say, “We know there are problems with men, but we see the good side of you.” It, too, went viral online.
As Catholics in the 21st century, especially in light of this past year, we cannot pretend the problem surrounding the question of masculinity has no bearing on the Church. The Church is feeling the loss of true masculinity deeply right now. The clergy and episcopal sexual abuse scandal is not only painful because some Catholics sinned grievously — all men and women sin — but our heart aches from the abuse we have suffered under our fathers. Coupled with the crisis of faith among Catholic men and boys, we are suffering both from abuse by men and a loss of men. When it comes to men, the Church has not been a strong voice of truth lately. And this is one of the saddest parts of the debate, because the Church has the answer to the questions the world is asking: Jesus Christ.
When it comes to the question of toxic masculinity, it’s important to remember that the Church affirms that the true nature of a thing is good because God created it that way. God created us male and female, and, therefore, to be masculine (or feminine for that matter) is essentially good. Sin and error are what distort what is good into what is evil. The strength and desires of masculinity are not inherently toxic, but they can become so. Like food, what is good can become spoiled when exposed to certain conditions.
It’s also important to note that when God gives his grace to man, especially through the ministry of the Church, that grace builds upon and perfects his created nature. We may become “new men” in Christ, but we are still men. This means we must affirm that the inherent strength and even perhaps aggression of men is part of their nature — but these attributes are meant for the building up and protecting of life, not for its destruction. The first man’s strength was meant to tend a garden, not wage war. Because the root vir actually means “man,” the very word “virtue” can be translated as “manly.” To be virtuous is to be a man. This is why we need more manliness, more masculinity, not less.
The larger issue, and the real crisis, is that our culture doesn’t know how to draw boys into mature masculinity, and their innocent boyishness grows into a pitiable insecurity and self-focus that hurts our entire society.
Traditionally, in all cultures and all societies, there were rites of passage for boys, cultural practices overseen by men that guided boys into manhood. For the most part, maturity in males does not just happen naturally. It is a function of a healthy culture to help the transition occur. Unfortunately, we have lost the wisdom of these practices.
But we can recover them.
We can gain insight from the universal and historical practices of a male rite of passage, wherein a boy is provided a way to leave his boyhood behind, be introduced to the strength and potential of his masculinity (after all, a boy has never been a man before), and be integrated into the fraternal world of men, where these lessons are strengthened and renewed. But both sides of a rite of passage are missing right now. Not only do we keep extending adolescence (even well into college), but we also face a plague of loneliness, where there is no brotherhood of men to enter into. You can’t leave boyhood behind and enter manhood without other men to welcome you in.
The call to mature masculinity is both natural and spiritual. In God, we are sons called to think like men and not children (see 1 Cor 14:20), to “grow up” to salvation (1 Pt 2:2), and to attain the “perfect manhood” of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:14). As Catholics, strengthening our fraternal bonds and being intentional with inviting boys into mature Catholic manhood is essential to counteract the spoiling of masculinity.
St. Paul famously wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). We have lost our cultural rites of passage, and we have not replaced them. The problem, then, is not whether masculinity is bad. It’s not. The problem is found, rather, in why we are producing so few real men.
Jason Craig is the author of “Leaving Boyhood Behind” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2019) and co-founder of Fraternus, a mentoring apostolate for boys.