Cardinal Burke and the Masculine Genius

Cardinal Raymond Burke, the popular and much admired American prelate, gave an interview recently about what he views as a crisis facing men in the Church.  Burke locates the origins of the crisis in 1960s radical feminism, the influence of which induced the Church to downplay masculinity and the unique role and vocation of men.  As a result of this, fewer men today are attracted to the priesthood or indeed to religious practice. Burke provocatively describes the Church has having become “very feminized.” He also speaks at length about what masculinity means and what is needed to foster it.  Most interestingly, he centers on the role played by a “masculine” emphasis in the liturgy.

The interview provides much food for thought; it has certainly given rise to a firestorm of controversy.  For my part I am with Burke, although with a slight reservation: I feel he could have drawn a distinction between “feminized” and “effeminate,” two quite different concepts.  Femininity is the state and quality proper to being a woman; effeminacy denotes a deterioration of the masculine qualities in a man, a sort of downfall into something less than a man.  Perhaps “de-masculinized” is more like it.  Infantilization, even.  Another point to be emphasized is that the qualities proper to masculinity and femininity are not rigid and monolithic; there is subtlety in their composition and how they interrelate. Serious women appreciate qualities such as rigor and discipline, for example.  And a crude machismo is not authentic masculinity but a parody of it.

Happily, growing up I was spared the experience of the kind of “corny” or trite liturgies which Burke indicts; the Masses celebrated at the parish in which I was raised always had a high degree of gravitas and sacrificial character.  But it’s easy for me to relate what Burke is saying about the loss of masculinity to the culture at large.  If, as Burke says, three key masculine qualities are selflessness, chivalry and discipline, our era shows a much more conspicuous tendency toward hedonism, self-absorption, and unseriousness.  These qualities show themselves in very simple things.  Look at the extent to which we are totally absorbed by electronic distractions (the texting never stops!), or the overemphasis on feelings and the death of rational moral argument.  Or the growth in pornography use.  It’s not manly to be addicted to pleasure and amusements, to be undisciplined or incontinent, to throw reason out the window and wallow in emotion.  Narcissism and vanity are unmanly.  Deemphasizing responsibility for sin (which Burke also associates with the post-1960s period in the Church) and failing to stand against moral evils are also unmanly characteristics.  Over time unmanly habits become encrusted around one; they show themselves in dress, speech, deportment, and even facial expression.  And because masculinity exists in relationship with femininity, unmanly habits will also affect the way men relate to women.

Burke says that to restore the image of men we need to have a strong modeling of masculinity from priests.  One of the things I love about our Christian faith is the specificity of it, the fact that nothing is generic.  Jesus was not an androgynous being but a true man; and the Catholic priest, who acts in Christ’s name, must also be a model of a man.  The Mass is a manly act, a ritual of self-sacrificial love, responsibility, fatherhood.  As Burke says, men (and women, too!) respond to rigor, discipline and devotion, and these are cultivated in the reverent celebration of the Mass.

Human beings have a propensity to want to flatten out the richness and variety of the world as God created it – the specific givenness of it.  God gives us a polyphonic symphony and we try to reduce it to a drum beat.  The attempt to obliterate distinctions between men and women is a part of this.  It has become unfashionable to talk about manliness or womanliness because our culture has tried to make us believe that such concepts are outmoded, that men and women are exactly the same.  If, on the contrary, the complementarity of male and female is part of the world as God conceived it, then we must encourage this interplay; and a good place to start is to restore masculinity to its rightful place.

(For a Catholic view on authentic feminism, see my colleague Alejandro Teran-Somohano’s recent piece.)

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