The internet abounds with caricatures of masculinity (of course within the bounds of Christian decency): the late nineteenth century handlebar moustache, city dress, belonging to the right club (having come from the right background), sports, having served in the Armed Forces, being game for a fight, all the way to the Übermensch of Nietzsche and the old Nazi ideology. Manliness is opposed to femininity or having characteristics in common with women.
The notion of masculinity is cultural and has taken different forms in history and parts of the world. Manliness is embodied in the myths of the old Greek gods and heros, Jupiter, Hercules, Alexander the Great, and survives in more recent military figures like General Montgomery and Charles de Gaulle. Other archetypes of masculinity would be described in his relationships with women, typically dominance tempered by chivalry and the spirit of the gentleman – simply respect for other persons, be they men or women. The notion of courtship was developed in the Middle Ages, and the man would be defined by his virtues, courage and generosity.
In the early twentieth century, men were associated with the image of the man working in industry, doing hard physical labour. Women are supposed to admire the virile and muscular body of a man whose body is an indication of will and self-discipline. Our behaviour as humans is not exempt from the animal instinct of dominance in the pack, as in the case of most mammals, especially the higher species like dogs, cats and primates. The real man is the alpha… Is he?
Obviously, the man most of us conservative Catholics and Anglicans would see as being suitable for the priesthood is normally constituted as a human being of the male sex. Crudely put, he has a penis and a pair of balls – and they work! Genetically, he has a Y chromosome and an X chromosome. More than one of each, and he / she will be genetically abnormal, suffering from Kleinfelter’s Syndrome, for example. A normal man has the right hormones flowing through his body, but perhaps in differing quantities.
After a man’s physical integrity come the social expectations. Boys and young men are expected to be interested in sports and develop a competitive spirit, which later extends into business and politics. To what extent do we have to be machos, alphas, images of little Hercules, or whatever? Do we all have to be good rugby players?
I do think the concept of masculinity has become exaggerated and distorted. I enjoyed boyish games as a lad – climbing trees, building dens, fishing, making things – but I hated competitiveness and fighting for the highest rank. I also loved (and still love) art, beautiful works of architecture, music, singing in choirs, making vestments, cooking and many of the finer things of life. I am aware of the danger of making a caricature of manliness to promote violence, immoral competition, physical and psychological harm to women and a despising attitude in regard to “weaker” men and women.
What about the “fine” men who are artists, musicians, men who work in trades traditionally associated with women such as sewing, cooking and interior decoration and design? Traditionally, we tend to consider such men as homosexuals and effeminate, and therefore not real men. We often read articles about how the world and the Church are becoming “feminised”, leading to the replacement of men in the clergy by homosexual men and “butch” women. We should be careful to be fine in our distinctions.
I prefer the medieval notion of manliness (other than the image of the knight who would lop your head off with less compunction than swatting a fly!), that of virtue and morality. We can be heterosexual and moral men without the body of Hercules, and may even be concerned for the aesthetic aspects of church culture and the liturgy. Perhaps men are more concerned for the liturgy than many women I have come across.
I do think we should avoid the caricatures, which in certain cultures and times led to Nazism and outright cruelty. The ideal man is not the psychopath who kills without compunction or remorse, a sort of James Bond or Bruce Willis figure. Most men have never killed under any circumstances, and would suffer remorse if they had to. I see very little Christian virtue in admiring guns, fast cars, women as sex objects and so forth. Is it virtuous to take risks? Perhaps, in some circumstances. Prudence is also a virtue, and avoiding a risk shows concern for our loved ones. We don’t have to drive dangerously or have a car bigger than what we actually need in order to be a real man! Some men think it is unmanly to consult a medical doctor too lightly – to our own peril on account of that undiagnosed heart condition or developing tumour.
I would be inclined to see manliness in our relationship with women, other men and the world. I have nothing against the “macho” type, but I will not consider the artist or the quiet contemplative man as any less a man. What often is irritating is to find men playing the caricatured role of women – especially in the form of cliques and unhealthy relationships, which might be an indication of sinful homosexuality, but not always.
We often find courage and stoicism as masculine virtues, but I see no less of those virtues in the many women who resisted the Nazis during the war and often gave their lives in atrocious suffering for King and Country. Faith is also a masculine virtue, but it is also a feminine one.
For me, the most important virtue for the priesthood is not so much “being a real man”, but being altruistic, having empathy for other people, being unambitious and lacking the thirst for sex, power and money. Men without virtue can be seen as wimps, but lack of courage and conviction is unbecoming of women too. Being a gentleman is being a person of virtue, kindness, consideration for others, but women can be that too.
Only men can be priests – for the reasons given by Tradition and the Church’s teaching, and not for the reasons of being good rugby players, or looking down their noses at art and beauty. What I admire in a good priest is not a caricature of masculinity but the combination of faith, hope, charity and the moral virtues – someone who makes Jesus Christ present among us. I ask your prayers that I may be given the strength to practice such virtues myself and be worthy of that wonderful gift I have received in the priesthood.
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