By Joseph Shaw
Cardinal Burke recently gave a rather controversial interview on the crisis of men in Church. The lack of men in most Catholic churches in the West is there for all to see; looking at those most involved in parish life—readers, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Altar servers—the lack of menfolk is even more striking. The general problem of lapsation and apathy has clearly hit men hard—or, even harder—than it has hit women.
This phenomenon, though undeniable, has attracted very little official attention from Church authorities. Part of the preparation for the 2015 Synod was an embarrassingly amateurish video put out by the Pontifical Council for the Laity seeking input for the Synod’s deliberations.
From men? No, from women. Even as men become an endangered species in our congregations, the focus remains on the experiences of women and how the Church can reach out to them.
While the Catholic Church may seem to need to make up some lost ground on the female front because the clergy is all male, those denominations with female clergy don’t appear to have any more interest in men’s concerns.
On the contrary, for liberal Episcopalians/Anglicans the ministerial calling could soon be a female occupation, like nursing or secretarial work once was, and the feminisation of church structures will be complete and irreversible.
So what makes men uncomfortable with the Church? Does it matter? And can anything be done about it?
A good rule of thumb is that the more liberal a congregation or denomination, the fewer men are interested. Men are perfectly comfortable with Islam, which actually attracts more men than women. Hinduism, Orthodox Judaism, and Eastern Orthodoxy also seem to have no problem attracting and retaining men.
It isn’t religion per se which men don’t like; when surveys in Europe and America show that women are ‘more religious’ than men this reflects the failure of mainstream Christianity to engage men — not an unavoidable male distrust of religion. Within Catholicism, anyone wanting to see a congregation with a roughly balanced gender ratio needs to get themselves to a Traditional Mass.
Like or it not, men respond more readily to a religion which is demanding, which presents them with the objective and transcendent, and to a liturgy which ordered and reverent. They find it easier to relate to a religion which is serious, and grown up. This contrasts with emotional, spontaneous, wordy, and community-focused liturgy, catechesis, and churchmanship in general.
These may seem rather vague concepts, but it isn’t hard to see them in real life. Is Islam a demanding religion, or a soft option? Is Orthodox Judaism all about the worship of a transcendent God, or all about expressing one’s emotions? Is the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox characterised by reverence and awe, or spontaneity?
We know the answers. We should not be surprised when the Traditional Catholic liturgy, with its emphasis on order and reverence, or Traditional Catholic spirituality, with its emphasis on self-discipline and penance, and its external and physical acts of devotion like pilgrimages, seems attractive to men, who have been told as young Catholics that being a good person is about holding hands, and joining in emotional spontaneous prayers.
A lot of men would rather gash themselves with knives (perhaps in honour of Shiva the Destroyer?) than tell a group of strangers about their deepest hopes and fears. That doesn’t make men irreligious, and it shouldn’t make them bad Catholics.
It isn’t hard to see what can be done about the situation: there are obvious ways to make the liturgy — and the way that the Church manifests itself to Catholics in general — less uncomfortable to men. This can be done without making it any less comfortable to women. The Traditional Mass offers a familiar model.
But at this point a common response one encounters is that, if men don’t like what progressive theologians and liturgists have done to the Church — often with the specific goal of undermining notions of objective truth, the transcendent, and anything smacking of ‘patriarchy’ — then it is men who are to blame.
According this view, men—and women too—who lapse because the liturgy is unbearable, and the teaching devoid of substance, should get a grip, because after all the Church is the Ark of Salvation and lapsing is a sin.
Why Aren’t Men ‘Included’?
The strange thing is that the same people who say this will go on to say that the Church should make itself more acceptable to feminists by removing ‘non-inclusive’ language from the Bible. Similarly, the Church should make itself more ‘acceptable’ to native Australian shamans by permitting their smoke-ceremony at a Papal Mass. (Editor’s Note: This occurred during Pope Benedict’s visit to Australia in 2008.)
Finally, is it important? Who cares if more men lapse than women?
It matters, in fact, not only because of the souls of the men involved, but because a community without men is without fathers. Simply put, Catholic family life is impeded without the involvement of the father. Indeed, studies have shown that children, of both sexes, are more influenced by the religious attitudes of their fathers than of their mothers. This may best be explained by the father representing, to children, the grown-up world, and the mother the domestic domain. If religion is not part of the adult world, children who want to become adults will tend to leave it behind.
Catholicism is, in fact, a religion for grown-ups. For the sake of all of us, we need a serious, grown-up liturgy and approach to teaching.
Joseph Shaw teaches philosophy at Oxford University. He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and blogs regularly