I grew up in the sort of Catholic circles where "being a man" was, and still is, a really big deal. This entailed all sorts of things, and many of them were salutary on the whole. Others, of course, were not. Since the early days of father and son manhood retreats, I've seen several other instances of manhood-focused customs and discourse—and of course the steady stream of popular books on the subject.
As a former Texas high school football player and collegiate rugby player (and coach), jock culture still strikes me as being one the most nuanced instances of manhood. It deserves most of its stereotypes, but has more exceptions and finer details that many may find surprising.
I especially remember priests that were really big into manhood and "being a man." They seemed to exude the sort of butt-kicking persona that I eventually began to read as personal insecurity. By my college years, I always suspected that Fr. Badass, giving his talk about being a real man in today's world of wussies, was really projecting, saying something psychoanalytic rather than pastoral.
Then there is the "masculinity studies" approach, which is more of a gender feminist critique of a rather unsophisticated caricature of the construction of Western (and, oftentimes, non-Western) male sexuality, for which the two aforementioned groups, and popular culture at large, supply ample material.
A lot of the manhood stuff, then and now, had less to do with being a man and more to do with not being a gay man. There were the always-awkward vocations retreat talks where Fr. Macho would talk about how much he still likes to look at women, as if to prove a point. Then we'd play touch football.
When it comes to homosexuality, let me be clear: I've read Foucault's History of Sexuality (and First Things’ recent discovery of poststructuralism) and agree with the obvious fact that both hetero- and homo-sexualities are a fairly recent and evolving convention, with disciplinary functions often on display in this sort of manhood talk. Foucault’s perspective on sexuality has some surprising consistency with the philosophical work of John Paul II, however frequently that work is exploited for contrary purposes.
I've also read the Greeks and learned about the Ancients, whose conceptions and practices of manhood were often deeply homoerotic. Homoeroticism is, I think, one of the significant cultural traits of the West, and perhaps of the human story in general. Add to this the fact that I have many gay friends who are not politic or predictable about their identity, and frequently reject the (often hyper-sexualized) terms of the discussion that would seem to weigh in their favor, and I find myself deeply allergic to the “don’t be a gay (or girlie) man” implication in certain strands of manhood talk.
If you patronize or practice the fine arts, and even if you don’t, you will find it hard to not admire and cherish the remarkable taste, sass, and verve of a gay southern man. If you like to be treated like a human being, warts and all, there are fewer things more consoling than the humor and embrace of an older lesbian woman. If you don't know these sorts of people, and how wonderful and precious they are, you should. Not to flies in the face of history and reason, with an anti-intellectual flare especially unbecoming of Roman Catholics; it also offends charity to imply or project that “being a man” fundamentally excludes the feminine or effeminate. Most of all, it does violence to what it is to be a person.
Needless to say, and most of all in Catholic circles, I've read and heard thousands of sentences that say something like the following: "There is a crisis among men today; men are not men anymore." People say this in reaction to almost everything: church attendance, college admissions, social issues, vocations, the decline of the family, and more. Just a few days ago, Michael Voris’ show, The Vortex (a low budget Catholic imitation of The O’Reilly Factor) recorded a stunningly well-done rehearsal of this overall position.
I don't doubt that some of the problems are in a sense very real and that some of the data makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. But it does not remotely begin to follow that because more men are incarcerated today than women, or church attendance is low among males of all ages, or whatever else one might mention regarding fatherhood or anything else, that any of this is caused because of a sudden and unprecedented decline in a mythic notion of modern manhood.
It is at least equally plausible that manhood itself, of this unrefined sort, has played some part in the “Larry the Cable Guy” and “Joe the Plumber” Americana that has become so toxically attractive in the United States. There is no denying the unwitting progression from the “real man” of Voris and Fr. Badass to the uncultured and boorish caricature of popular culture.
And when, exactly, was there a golden age of manhood? As I recall from Augustine’s Confessions, Monica cut a very familiar figure of a lady who went to church while her husband and wayward son did not.
The fact is that "manhood" has become a seductive moniker, even ironically so. It pastes an intuitive solution onto a range of problems, with interpretive flexibility. Manhood, being a real man, has become a marketing cure-all: it washes surfaces and can enrich uranium. Write about manhood and people will buy and read. (Why else do you think I am writing about it?)
The problem with the manhood business is not only that it is a business; the biggest problem is its self-defeating lack of self-reflection. Is there really some eternal normative or axiomatic quality about being a man beyond what is descriptively obvious? In fact, this clumsy notion of essential manhood is “manly” in all the ways that men are sometimes stereotyped, from the locker room to Everybody Loves Raymond: it is, to put it in an ironically blunt way, stupid.
Women can be hard to find throughout the canon of the historical record, so it is at least imaginable why notions of womanhood often fall prey to gross oversimplification and abuse. But men are literally everywhere in human history and offer countless counter-memories, inversions, exception, and digressions. I don't buy the sex/gender binary distinction in toto, but I am also not willing to reduce things into an equally infantile dialectic between two fantasies of masculinity and femininity.
God created Adam and Eve, yes, but he didn't program them into ahistorical robots.
The human person is a vast and toothy creature, with enough complexity and contradiction to keep the most advanced super computer fully at bay. Our history has been short by comparison to other forms of life, but quite long when compared to our favorite analog: ourselves. We've invented and reinvented each other across time and place and are likely to have forgotten more than we remember. None of this scares me as a man, a Catholic, or a human person, nor should it scare you—and I am getting sick and tired of hearing why it should.
The manly manhood alternatives out there are sometimes well intended, albeit metaphysically naïve, and can be effective in positive ways, teaching lessons that create and preserve culture. Fashion and style, for instance, has a strikingly aesthetic notion of physical manhood, reminiscent of the Greeks. But too often the tail wags the dog and, before you know it, "being a man" starts its loopy, and often comical, self-parody parade. I relish the irony, sometimes; but that gets old, too.
Yes, I want to become a better father, son, husband, and friend, to man and woman alike, as the man that I am, but I'm not sure that I need to watch Braveheart on repeat to do it or keep up with the latest motivational self-help being sold as an antidote. I sometimes wonder if being a “real man” is simply a matter of reading and retreating a lot about it. I certainly don’t need to watch Michael Voris or read Matt Walsh as they wax at head-nodding fans, feeding them as one might feed ducks in a park, showing their strongest and most visible virtues: smug certainty and preachy self-confidence.
Jesus was a man, of this there is no doubt, but I am not so sure that he was all that much more stoic or resilient (or other "manly" qualities) than his mother was. A critic might reply that he was, after all, the Son of God. But it is at least a philosophical mistake to equate the manliness of Christ’s humanity with his divinity. If Christ “humbled himself to take on our humanity” then it follows to see the masculinity of Jesus of Nazareth as different in quality than the glory of his divine being and personhood. In other words, while the divinity of Christ and his masculine humanity is a whole and irreducible mystery, it seems that any essential burden lies with his divinity.
Truth be told, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were pretty weird individually and as a (holy) family, long before we think of them as men or a woman. For instance, a woman in the style of Mary at the Annunciation is today called an unwed pregnant teenager—a social construction if there ever was one. I doubt you could cut a blueprint for masculinity, femininity, or anything else too hard and fast, from the saints. That is in part precisely why they are such inspirations: sanctity is enigmatic. It is also deeply personal.
When the imitation is easy and cheap, the source is often found to be lacking. When it is hard and elusive, and takes a lifetime to emulate, then you can trust that there might be something there worthwhile to begin with. Jesus doesn't need to have muscles and a six-pack to be our Savior. He can take the form of bread and wine.
I think it's worthwhile to do whatever you can to live a real life, to be holy, to pursue beauty and love. That manhood has something to do with this I have little doubt, but let's also be humane enough to be slightly rational about it and not sound and act like morons in the process of being and becoming (wo)men. Men and women, I think, should imitate the best qualities of anything that deserves it, without condition or pretense, and rejoice that grace perfects nature.
Join as a member now and get a free copy of The Essential Ethika Politika.
Plus, help make EP accessible for thousands of readers every day. And receive inbox updates, get access to members-only content, and interact with other EP readers and authors!
One fine body…