How masculine should a priest be?

It is sometimes claimed that giving roles to women in the Church causes priestly vocations to dry up. In  recent years, we find church institutions ordaining women or allowing them roles in the liturgy. Conservatives find this “feminisation” disturbing, since they claim that women draw attention to themselves in a way that “masculine” men don’t. In the history of the Church, women have had no liturgical role except singing in a place where they are not seen by the congregation.

One of the major tenets of the Anglican Catholic Church, to which I belong as a priest, is opposition to the ordination of women in common with the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. This question is not negotiable, since, in the words of Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994):

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

This is our position for the theological and sacramental reasons given by all the apostolic Churches. I too will not debate this judgement. I don’t approve of women serving in the sanctuary, but I do allow women to read the Epistle at Mass from their place. I see nothing wrong with that.

I think the real issue is how priests relate to women and how the traditional opposition of men and women can be overcome, that very opposition that usually creates difficulties in marriage. Conservatives affirm that men have to become more manly, masculine and muscular – hypermasculine. That seems to me as bad as a man taking up knitting and taking orders from his wife or the dominant dykes in the parish!

The effusive, emotion-drenched atmosphere of contemporary Christianity is like a gauntlet thrown down before him, a challenge to his elemental, irrefutable identity as a man.

Eek! Something I picked up from a Facebook entry somewhere. Then emotion, and empathy itself, are to be considered as weaknesses. This is where I part company with the conservatives. Our world is increasingly governed, not by femininity, but by lack of empathy and moral conscience, in the extreme by psychopathy. To be a real man, you have to be strong, callous, pitiless and dominant. Hypermasculinity is a phenomenon that involves a stereotype of male behaviour, an emphasis on aggression, sexuality and physical strength. It has been scientifically studied since the 1980’s.

The “macho” image has assimilated some of the characteristics of psychopathy, namely a lack of empathy or treating women as sexual objects, being excited by danger and the belief that violence is manly. The stereotypes are often seen in excessive muscle building and the use of artificial hormone and steroids, tattoos and neo-fascist ideologies. Is this the style we want for priests? Obviously, there is a via media somewhere.

Is hypermasculinity a physical or hormonal problem? I can only suggest consulting hypermasculinity and scientific research to which the article refers. I suspect it is more cultural and psychological, a question of self-image in response to a person’s childhood and early experiences. The hormone most responsible for degrees of masculinity is testosterone. It makes your voice break, enables you to perform sexually, gives you muscle and body hair, and often makes you go bald. Many men are perfectly normal physically, yet have all their head hair, a light beard, little body hair and have tenor rather than bass voices. All that being said, I am more concerned with attitudes.

The most disturbing characteristic of hypermasculinity is lack of empathy or moral conscience, the things that make a good soldier or policeman. There is also a degree of stoicism and endurance under hardship and stress. That can be valuable, but contempt for women or wanting to treat them as sexual objects is inexcusable. English public school has been the seedbed of hardening boys up through sport and lack of comfort. It used to be said that the British Empire was built by flogging boys with the rattan cane. I was lucky to find in 1972 that my school has been radically reformed, especially in questions of fagging and the authority of monitors (upper sixth form pupils). When I went to St Peter’s, fagging took the form of performing certain set tasks for the sixth-formers in their absence. Thus, we washed pots, polished shoes and swept out studies, and that is as far as it went – nothing like Tom Brown’s Schooldays!  In England, things have rather gone to the other extreme and the conservatives are complaining.

Another character is competition rather than connection between persons. That is the prime characteristic of sports and modern business. Winner take all without any compassion or consideration for the loser. Empathy and compassion are for women, as some say. The cause of many failed marriages is this inability to synthesise rather than confront. Hypermasculinity is seen in films, on TV, in the media and advertising. The degree of it in video games is frightening. The imbalance in modern popular culture between hypermasculine men and feminism is frightening. It is said that there is now pressure on women to wear their hair short, but it is difficult to say whether it is simply a fashion trend or symbolic of submission to corporate systems that seek to denigrate personality or character.

Many seminarians and priests I met in the traditionalist places where I went had been in the army, the Scouts and, in my case, boarding school. They were not all “hyper-butch” but had refined their training into a more rounded personality. I don’t see aggressive or competitively-minded men in the priesthood, not if we take the Gospel message to heart – the Beatitudes, empathy, compassion and pity, self-sacrifice. We have to have character to get through the system and have resilience to deal with adversity, deal with hypocrisy and double standards without confronting authorities with these tendencies. We do need to “man up” in many ways, but we also need to develop our feminine side of empathy and care. That is something that only comes with suffering.

I sometimes see references to lace albs and “dandyism” in relation to priests and their masculinity. My alma mater was the Institute of Christ the King in Italy with Msgr Gilles Wach, who is well known in the traditionalist world. “Camp as a row of tents”, some would unkindly call him. The article to which I have linked here affirms that Fr Wach has never received the title of a prelate from Rome, nor does Rome refer to his priests as canons. Since leaving the Institute as a deacon in 1995, I have learned many things from that experience. I like simple things like plain albs and the kind of churches we have in England, the ones that were restored in the early twentieth century in the spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement. I find “over the top” baroque aesthetics tiresome. Are Fr Wach and my old confrères effeminate? Woman-like? My wife certainly is not impressed with such men! There were many seminarians and priests who were much more themselves and “normal” men. They and I ate together in refectory, worked together around the seminary and normal routine community services, going to classes and especially having a good conversation during free time. Lace can be worn by unaffected men, and my belief that it does not cause men to become “camp”. Perhaps Fr Wach’s problem is that he was ordained too young (22 years with special dispensations).

What kind of priests do we need? We above all need mature and human persons with an altruistic and spiritual view in life. I don’t think there are many men with such a degree of personal development under about thirty years old. There is a problem with the method of formation, emphasising corporate conformity rather than the formation of talent and personality. Turning products out of moulds and production lines makes it much easier to hide defects and perversions of personality. The Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Communion for that matter, needed to reform their methods of training clergy. What is needed is genuine personality and empathy, and then a spiritual view of life, and then the “technical” stuff of theology, practical liturgy and pastoralia. It is only that maturity that prevents a man from burning out.

The real question is the way bishops deploy priests in a system that was designed in the nineteenth century and which is for all intents and purposes dead. In France, you take the number of parishes and divide it by the number of priests, then give each priest that number of parishes. Perhaps there is some intelligent adjustment in places. The personal relationship between the bishop and his priests and the priest and his people has been destroyed and replaced by bureaucracy. With the dearth of priests and death of the parishes, palliative care consists of recruiting lay people to do some of the work of priests, and few men are interested. The result is the use of middle-class retired women, often from the teaching profession. The usual result is bad relations and the priest burning out. I see no long term hope in Europe.

In the end, it isn’t about being masculine, but finding a way to be a balanced person with Christian qualities, “beating the system” or working independently from it as we Continuing Anglicans do, like many traditionalist priests. The average laity find it difficult to relate to such an idea. Between priests and laity, the “offer” and the “demand” do not correspond. Laity are priestless and many priests, myself for example, have no pastoral ministry. There is still some good “matching up” in America and south of the Equator.

We seem always to return to the same subject. The dinosaur is dying or dead and needs to be cleared away for new life to flourish. Catholicism needs a reboot and the psychopathic elements need to be purged out, just as with society at large. There seems to be no human solution other than establishing communities (monastic, intentional, you name it) such as I have discussed before and taking one’s distance. If masculinity means being a mature and developed person, I’m all for it, but if it is the caricature of the psychopath – forget it!

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9 Responses to How masculine should a priest be?

  1. raitchi2 says:

    During my university studies (I’m a USA-er), I went on a vocations visit to a seminary, it was a more Neo-conservative seminary that enforced the ‘No gays allowed’ policy. I don’t know if all seminaries are like this or if it was just a by-product of having to worry about other thinking you’re gay (and therefore need to be expelled), but I found that we were involved in over the top external displays of manliness. When we arrived we had a BBQ (even though it was Friday, but those rules are technically not in force any more), this was followed by beers, manly whiskey, and cigars or pipes (if that was your fancy). The next morning the group went a baseball game (even though there was the first trad. ceremony in the national cathedral in town since pre V-2). Break time was spent socializing over games of pool. I was half wondering if we were going to go shoot a deer at some point.

    All the hypermasculinity turned me off to pursuing a vocation in the RCC’s clergy, because I could deal with the celibacy aspects of the life, I couldn’t deal with all the dick-wagging and hyper-manliness BS.

    • Sounds terrible! I thought American conservatives were teetotallers and non-smokers! It’s surprising they don’t have workouts between the offices in chapel and a good brawl after Compline. They should try gun-slinging, and that would get rid of half of them. Oh well…

    • Dale says:

      A very good friend of mine, now slightly elderly, went to seminary in the days when they still had minor seminary, which he recalled as quite normal. He then went to one of the major seminaries in the American Midwest. The first evening there included drinks and dancing…but there weren’t any women. Couples then broke off and went in pairs to their rooms.

      Given the two extremes, personally I would have preferred the seminary visit experience of raitchic.

      • ed pacht says:

        Is either of these seminaries providing an environment to produce priests such as the Lord provides for His people? Given the two extremes, personally I would have preferred to do without. Better an undereducated priest than a well educated priest whose formation was as damaging as either of these examples. There are advantages to a seminary system, but these illustrate that there are also pitfalls.

      • Any system is liable to be manipulated and used by the bad eggs of any kind. I would advocate, as a general rule, candidates for ordination studying at a university and then given lodgings near a parish church where the person would get practical training from the priest. There are parishes and parishes. The Continuing Anglican parish tends to be a locked building, open on Sunday mornings and the priest living a long drive away. He would be in contact with the people in the parish and ordinary people in the world.

        Alternatively, the priesthood could be open to retired men only, on a good pension, and with the leisure to do all the reading and voluntary work. However, I would find a Church without young priests something rather bleak – and boring.

  2. Jim of Olym says:

    Well, they could field a rugby team or two. that would separate the ‘men’ from the ‘boys’.!
    “Hypermasculinity is a phenomenon that involves a stereotype of male behaviour, an emphasis on aggression, sexuality and physical strength.” Strange, but you see this stereotype in gay culture as well.

  3. M says:

    An a teenager several of us thought we were called to be monastics. We sent the older brother of one of us, who was himself an Ordinand around to visit the monasteries (you remember the famous ones in England). He came back and told us that unless we were prepared to be homosexual to forget it – apparently one or two of them were quite explicit. None of us were, so we didn’t.
    Fr Michael

  4. David says:

    Just read Leon Podle’s ‘The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity’. Excellent book.

    It is impossible to deny that the shape the RCC took after the Counter-Reformation and Baroque eras was one far more feminine than the Medieval Church.

    On the other hand, Hypermasculinity is an extreme reaction to this feminization which underlines one or two masculine traits and then exagerrates and twists them. Fascism and obsessive idolization of sports are two such examples.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This puts me in mind of a footnote in T.H.White’s 1954 Bestiary translation, where he quotes an account of “a fascinating experiment recently performed in America by Dr Dove and described by Willt Ley in The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn. In this experiment the two normal horn buds of a young calf were grafted together and were transplanted to the centre of the forehead, where they grew into a single and straight horn. Even more interesting than this was the result of the operation on the character of the bull, He grew to be stronger than the normal two-horned bulls, so that he natrually took over the leadership of the herd; at the same time, sure of his power, he became unusually gentle and mild, thus displaying the great strength and gentle nature of the legendary unicorn.”

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