Gethsemane and Catholic Masculinity
Catholic and traditional masculinity aren’t the same
Women’s roles today are very different than a half century ago. And men are asked to accommodate these changes while fulfilling their traditional role of protecting and providing. Yet, we are also told that traditional masculinity is harmful.
We shouldn’t forget what traditional values get right, though. But this doesn’t mean that all traditional values should be preserved. Some traditional values are sexist. Nor should we confuse Christian values and traditional values, though there is some overlap. As St. Paul articulates in Titus 2:2, 6-7,
Older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance. …Urge the younger men, similarly, to control themselves, showing yourself as a model of good deeds in every respect, with integrity in your teaching, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be criticized.
The Knights of Columbus also have an excellent video series on Catholic manhood (meant for group discussion) called Into the Breach, based on Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead’s book Manual for Men. And there’s the example of the saints, from the countercultural asceticism and compassion of St. Francis, the toughness and bravery of St. Ignatius of Loyola, to St. Augustine’s struggles with lust, disciplined through the grace of God.
Post-sexual revolution America, however, amplifies men’s desires. But devastating revelations of sexual assault and domestic violence highlight the failings of a frat boy attitude, which assigns status based on how many women a man has slept with, how much he can drink in one sitting, and which thinks pornography is harmless.
Yet, values such as modesty and sexual restraint were mocked as repressive in the decades following the 1960s. And while feminists promote vulnerability as an antidote to “toxic masculinity,” feminism is not a comprehensive perspective on sex and gender—it’s distinctly one-sided.
Besides, the reality that women can get pregnant and men can't makes women more vulnerable and men more expendable. Men are expected to risk their lives for women more so than the reverse. And despite men being 9 out of 10 workplace deaths, 4 out of 5 murder victims and suicides, over two-thirds of homeless people, half of missing persons, and over a quarter of severe domestic abuse victims (1 in 4 women, 1 in 9 men), we either ignore these issues or focus on how they affect women.
Because biology incentivizes responsibility for women more than it does for men, there’s a greater need for society to promote male responsibility. That’s why men are expected to prove themselves in ways that women are not. But that responsibility must come with a purpose beyond men’s utility to women.
Further, for a man to maintain respect, vulnerability must be balanced with strength. Gethsemane is a good illustration. Facing crucifixion, Jesus doesn’t hide what He’s going through. His vulnerability is crystal clear. His fear is obvious. He is literally sweating blood. But He’s focused on His mission. His prayer is, “not my will, but yours be done.”
Gethsemane also shows us how not to be a man. The apostles are not focused on their mission. They keep falling asleep. And despite Peter’s insistence that he would never deny Christ (and his machismo as he attacks a Roman servant), he quickly caves to fear and three times denies knowing Jesus. Christ’s male disciples abandon Him while the women remain at His side.
This leads me to sometimes painful self-reflection. As an atheist, I denied Christ. A year ago, I began attending Mass again after a 25-year absence, not knowing where I was going with it. But I waited three months to tell my wife what I was doing because I was afraid of her disapproval. Yet, Christ-like masculinity calls for courage rather than cowardice.
Of course, this also serves as a reminder that, as Bishop Olmstead puts it, Jesus Christ as “the Word made flesh…[is] the perfection of masculinity”—the ultimate example of what masculinity can and should be—and what I must strive for.
But today we struggle with mixed messages about manhood. We can’t ignore the multifaceted challenges boys and men face, however, because these deeply impact society. In Of Boys and Men, Richard Reeves details how boys are floundering, and how both conservative and progressive ideologies are failing them. Boys fall behind starting in kindergarten, are a minority of college graduates, are decreasing their participation in the workforce and avoiding marriage, not to mention the upward trend in out of wedlock births.
In a “girls rule, boys drool” world, young men today are often at a loss to name anything positive about masculinity. Some turn to misogynistic internet influencers.
Family breakdown is a key problem. In The Boy Crisis, Warren Farrell and John Gray describe the essential role fathers play, particularly in families where mom and dad are married. They note that prisoners and mass shooters overwhelmingly come from father deprived homes.
They are not disparaging single mothers. But if boys increasingly fall behind, how effective will they be as the next generation of fathers and citizens?
Boys and young men need older male mentors present in their lives to guide them through. To do that, we older guys must first work on our relationship with God, as this is the foundation of our relationships with everyone else.
I can’t say I am a model for this. I am a work in progress. To paraphrase The Catholic Man Show, a male not doing penance, not disciplined, is a boy not a man. After all, love of God and neighbor requires self-denial. And this calls for servant leadership, which Jesus exemplifies as authority exercised through sacrifice.