“The Church needs a better theology of women.”
So spoke Pope Francis last August on his way back from Rio.
The media, of course, agreed. But me? My first thought upon hearing the remark was, “Um, the Church already has a darned good theology of women.”
My second thought, however, was, “What the Church really needs is a better theology of men.”
I had the same thought months earlier, when I was working on the spiritual parenthood chapter in These Beautiful Bones.
You see, when it came to explaining spiritual motherhood and the feminine genius, resources abounded: apostolic letters and papal letters, scholarly books and popular books, Bible studies and blog posts, basically everything my little heart could desire.
But when it came to men? To spiritual fatherhood and the masculine genius? There, I was scraping bottom.
That was a problem for me. But, as Father David Meconi, SJ, has pointed out, that lack of a strong, clearly articulated theology of masculinity is a much bigger problem for both the Church and the world.
In his Homiletics and Pastoral Review essay, Meconi asks:
How would the men of our parishes and in our pews be different today if John Paul had written the encyclical, say, On The Dignity of Man—Viri Dignitatem? How would men today be more able to live out their own unique discipleship and role in both the world, and in the Church, if we were able to articulate how men embody the Christian vocation to holiness in exclusive and particular ways?
In the essay, Meconi goes on to detail some of the reasons men need that articulation. Most have to do with an American culture that infantilizes men with video games, reduces them to their appetites through pornography, mocks chastity, discourages commitment, sexualizes friendship, feminizes emotion, drugs boisterous little boys, and portrays TV dads as lovable but incompetent boobs.
The sociologist Charles Murray has a name for the men that culture produces. He calls them “feckless men”—men who won’t marry, can’t hold down a job, and refuse to make any meaningful contribution to society.
Unfortunately, as the data shows, the men who fit that description are legion. Masculinity is in crisis. Men are a mess. And they need more help from the Church than they’re getting.
Before men starting calling me names, let me insert the necessary caveats. I am not saying all men are a mess and all women are magnificent. Lots of men are absolutely splendid and huge swaths of the female population are their own worst enemy.
The difference is that when women realize we’re in crisis, we have more Church resources to help us figure out the truth and start living that truth in concrete, practical ways.
Men don’t have that. Not to the same extent. Men have to look harder and longer, and what they’ll eventually find isn’t as clearly spelled out as what women will find.
The good news is that people are starting to recognize that. Theologians like Father Meconi and counselors like David Plow are writing about it. So are essayists like Antony Esolen, psychiatrists like Rick Fitzgibbons, and sports legends like Danny Abramowicz. Men’s conferences are growing. Awesome organizations like Wilderness Outreach now exist.
Then, there’s the theology of the body.
A Father’s Witness
In the Theology of the Body, John Paul II tells us that, “The mystery of femininity manifests and reveals itself in its full depth through motherhood…[W]hat also reveals itself is the mystery of the man’s masculinity, that is the generative and paternal meaning of his body” (21:2).
In other words, motherhood and fatherhood are a form of revelation. So, just as motherhood reveals the truth about the feminine genius, so too does fatherhood reveal the truth about the masculine genius—who man is and how he uniquely images God.
In a world of feckless men and failed fathers, that may not sound entirely helpful. We all know plenty of fathers who don’t reveal anything other than their own pitiful, wounded, unevangelized hearts.
Regardless, we still have the body, a body that John Paul II describes as “generative,” meaning that men start the process of creating new life (21:2).
For men, fathering a child is an outward act, something directed away from their bodies. That outward focus marks everything about the man’s fatherhood, from his reproductive organs, which are on the outside of his body, to his physical strength, which helps him protect and provide for his family. It even marks the way men most often hold their babies—facing outward—and play with their babies—teaching them to use toys in non-traditional ways and giving them more time than mothers to work out problems on their own.
In fatherhood, strength is ordered to service, power to protection, and love to letting go.
In These Beautiful Bones I give a list of what that ordering looks like in practice. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version:
1. Good fathers Guard The Bride. They care for and honor the women who bear their children. They don’t cheat. They don’t treat their wives like objects, and they don’t let others treat them like objects either. Rather they recognize, as John Paul II wrote, that God “assigns the dignity of every woman as a task to every man” (100:6).
2. Good fathers also Defend the Defenseless, protecting their little ones from the cruelty of the world.
3. They Challenge Their Children, pushing them to work longer, try harder, and stick things out when the going gets tough.
4. They Do the Hard Things, running out for medicine in the middle of the night when the baby has a fever, going down to the basement to do battle when mice infest the house, or going off to war when greater battles loom.
5. They Invite Other Men Alongside Them, welcoming friends, neighbors, co-workers, and brothers into their own family’s lives.
6. Most importantly, they Lead Others to Christ, seeing their most fundamental job as getting their wife and children to Heaven
Every Man’s Call
Those are the foundational tasks of fathering. But they aren’t tasks just for the home.
The Church teaches that while most men are called to be fathers in body, all men are called to be fathers in spirit. All men are called to be spiritual fathers—in the workplace, the schools, the gym, the public square, and the churches.
That is to say…
…All men should be protectors of women, respecting them, honoring them, and never using them.
….All men should be defenders of the defenseless, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves—the unborn, the sick, the elderly, the poor, the weak.
….All men should challenge the men and women who surround them—their siblings, friends, co-workers, and employees—to do the right thing or the hard thing. They should push people forward, encouraging them and helping them to be better than they are.
…All men should themselves do the hard things—face their fears, stand up for what’s right, walk away from sin, confess their weaknesses, honor their promises, marry the girl, take the risk, forgive the prodigal, or answer God’s call.
…All men should invite other men alongside them, modeling for other men what many of their own fathers didn’t—how to love their wife, play with their children, pray as a family, or just plumb a sink.
…And last but not least, all men should lead others to Heaven, proclaiming Christ through word and deed every moment, of every day.
That’s what it means to be a man. That’s the masculine genius. Or, at least it’s a start. I’ll leave it to the theologians to work out the details. But in laymen’s terms, that’s what women, children, and the world need from men. We need them to be fathers. We need them to love us and all those who cross their path with a father’s love.
Or better yet, with the Father’s love.
*This is the fourth post in a series about the ideas discussed in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body. Other posts include: “What the Pope Taught Me About Food, Sex, and God” , “What Makes a Body Beautiful,” “Want to Express Yourself?” and “101 Reasons to Give Thanks for the Body.”