Book Review: “The Church Impotent”

christ-the-warrior-chapel-ravenna-italy-6th-century

Christus Victor–Christ as a soldier, from the Bishop’s Palace at Ravenna, 6th century AD

Many years ago, when I was beginning the process of RCIA (this is the program that those who wished to be baptized as adults in the modern Catholic Church normally go through), I recall remarking to the lady who was directing the program that I looked forward to going to the mass because I desired to take part in a solemn worship service.  I recall her not saying anything in reply, something I now find significant: either she knew what awaited me in the Church (whose liturgies, mostly, are not so solemn anymore), or she simply didn’t approve of the answer.  I think it was the former, but can’t be sure at this point.

This memory came to me as I read a book I have heard much about, but never read until recently:  The Church Impotent: the Feminization of Christianity by Leon Podles.  The book is both a reflection upon and speculation on the origins of the “gender gap” in modern Western Christianity–the disparity in levels of religious worship and belief between women (who make up the majority of Western Christians in the pews, and have for many centuries) and men (who practice much less).

I admit that I didn’t have the highest expectation for the book; Mr. Podles is not, as far as I am aware, an academic historian or sociologist of any kind, and the only other work of his I am aware of was on the sexual abuse crisis (if memory serves, Podles himself was abused by a priest).  What is more, I knew he was a traditionalist Catholic, and perhaps I feared that it was some sort of angry screed against women.  But that is far from the case:  as far as I can tell, it is a well researched and clearly reasoned argument for the nature and causes of the “man crisis” in the Catholic Church and even Western Christianity.  (It is NOT a book that will please anyone enamored of feminism or the social construction of gender.  If the assumption that biology determines our gender is offensive to you, you will hate this book.)

What is that argument?  That men and women are different, and that since around 1200 or so, the Western Church has become one which caters to needs of the latter at the expense of the former.  He claims that this was not the case in the early Church; the early Church tended to think of the Christian life in masculine terms (a war against demonic powers; Christ’s death and resurrection makes all human beings “sons of God” in the bible, he notes, not “sons and daughters”).  Drawing on developmental psychology, he roots his idea of masculinity in biology:  all humans start out biologically as women, and only later develop the organs to become male later on.  Similarly, men need to separate themselves from the feminine influence of their mothers at a certain age to establish their identity. Men therefore, are characterized by separation, women by communion, relationship, union with others. (He rejects the Aristotlean idea that men are active and women passive, an idea I have always found rather dubious and not consonant with my own experience.)

After setting out his theory of masculinity, he then attributes the feminization of the Church to several key changes in Western religion:  the growth of “bridal mysticism” in the works of saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the rise of scholasticism, and the expansion of female monasticism.  Taken together, these had the effect of making the model of a Christian life a much more feminine one that it had been in the ancient Church.  The difference, according to Podles, lies in that where the Church Fathers had referred the Church as a corporate body as the “Bride of Christ,” these medieval mystics transferred this idea to the individual believer, thus alienating men who have a hard time seeing God in what are essentially romantic terms.  Scholasticism, he asserts, separated intellectual life from religious life, and so cut off the arena of the intellect (one that was almost wholly masculine, and predicated upon the struggle of the disputatio) from the Church in the long run.  Christians bodies (not merely Catholic ones) made attempts in the subsequent centuries to reverse this trend of feminization, but all ultimately failed.  (He makes the intriguing suggestion that the Reformation can be seen as a sort of masculine revolt against the highly emotional, and very feminine piety of the late medieval Church, a suggestion I find highly plausible.)

Cut off from the Church, Podles argues that men wind up turning their masculine characteristics into various “cults” (my term, not his) designed to satisfy those instincts in often violent and dangerous ways that can become nihilistic.  Likewise, the piety of the Church becomes too individualistic, too erotic, and too universalistic (everybody gets a prize!).  Podles identifies three areas where the Church could do better in integrating a healthy masculine identity back into the Church:  initiation, struggle, and fraternal love.

In general, I think Podles is on the right track, especially in his chronology.  But I have doubts about some of the particulars of his argument.  The Crusades and the ideal of chivalry they inspired were partially a means of giving a place to the masculine pursuits of war within the Christian world, by yoking them to the protection of pilgrims, widows, etc.  That’s why the military orders were founded.  The goal of the more secular ideal of chivalry–courtly love, with its exaltation of the noble lady–was similar in this regard, in that it was meant to take the rough edge off of male treatment of women (think of the Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer, which begins with the rape of a young maiden by a knight).  Podles hardly mentions any of this, however.  He is surely right to note the novelty of Bridal Mysticism (Kenneth Clarke seemed to think the exuberant cult of the Virgin after 1100 must have had eastern origins), but I am not convinced it was sufficient to cause the changes he is describing.  I am also skeptical of the link he draws between scholasticism and the growing feminization of spirituality; it is one of the least argued and poorly sourced of his arguments, nor does he make clear what logical connection if any exists between them.  And the growth in female monasticism could just as easily be the effect of such feminization, as a cause of it.  As for his assessment of masculinity becoming an ersatz religion when divorced from Christianity, he is on firmer ground.

I think his book might have benefited from a more thorough economic analysis, as opposed to the theological and cultural framework he brings to bear on the question.  One of the great changes in medieval society in the 12th century was the revival of civic life–of the creation of whole classes (merchants, bankers, lawyers) who made their living outside of farming, fighting or other masculine pursuits.  (The money these classes brought into the European economy probably wound up funding scholastics as well.)  Their influence on Christian life must have been considerable, and something opposed to the violence of the feudal classes (violence is bad for business).  It is no accident that the first manuals for how to act as a “gentleman” appear in the 12th century, and it is in the cities where much of the “courtly love” ethic will find its most fervent expression.  This must have caused tension with men who thought all this was unmanly, but those new men were more educated, and likely to have more influence on opinion and belief.  Just think of Martin Luther, who came from a mining family, but chose to be a priest and professor; Lyndal Roper has made clear what a masculine atmosphere this was, and his rebellion against the Church can be seen as his asserting his masculinity in a much more feminized environment of the Church.

Moreover, during the Industrial Revolution, the working classes largely abandoned religion (he mentions this but does not emphasize it enough in my opinion), perhaps because working class men were turned off by the more feminized atmosphere of bourgeois religion (working class cultures tend to be heavily masculine, for obvious reasons).  Notably, there was a perceived “crisis” of masculinity in late 19th century America, when new “white collar” classes emerged, and men felt they were no longer masculine enough working in doors at a desk all day.  It may be that one reason why Eastern versions of Christianity have more success in retaining men because they descend from cultures that were and generally still are less economically sophisticated than Western societies (it may also be the case that these cultures were also simply more patriarchal than Western society, but it doesn’t have to be either or).

I believe Podles is correct to focus on the areas of initiation, struggle and fraternal love as places where the Church could integrate men more fully into the life of the Church.  I am not sure how these can be integrated back into the life of most Catholic parishes, at least in America.  The most obvious way to involve male initiation into the Church would be to restrict service at the altar to boys, something would not likely be possible in many places outside of Latin mass communities.  As for struggle, that might be even more difficult. The main example he gives of this in the book is the Penitentes, the all male religious organizations that sprang up in New Mexico in the 18th and 19th centuries in the absence of priests.  They indeed gave a prominent role to men, but then that was in response to a lack of priests; furthermore, they eventually developed such extreme ascetic practices (flagellation, carrying heavy crosses in processions) that the bishops of New Mexico censured and eventually broke them of their peculiarly masculine aspects.  A tendency to violence is a major theme here–so much of modern society is oriented toward eliminating it before it even begins, and so much male bonding takes places during activities that border on it.  Which makes establishing such “fraternal love” as he speaks of very difficult.

In a longer perspective, it is tempting to see the feminization of the Church as arising from the combination of economic changes with the medieval Church and society’s efforts to curb the violence of men–particularly against women.  Depending on how you look at it, you can easily see this project as having been a success.  On the other hand, you could just as plausibly see the reduction of personal violence by men as a negative result of their domestication by the forces of proto-capitalist and later capitalist societies, to which the Church then adapted its theology and practice.  If so, we would seem to be at the end of a long, long historical process–or at least that is where one hopes we are now. There might be cause for hope in such reflections regarding the grave gender imbalance the Church faces.  The Church began (or contributed to) this process by allying with a minority in the medieval period (merchants, etc.) to curb the excesses of the dominant class (male aristocrats).  Perhaps it can do so again, although identifying that minority in this age might be much more of a challenge than it was in the 12th century.

Beyond this, Podles is surely right to remind us that there are clear masculine elements in the Christian faith, going back to sacred Scripture and Tradition, to which we can return–we are, as he rightly points out, all of us sons of God, even women, because we have been baptized into the Son of God himself.  And we are all called to the paradigmatically masculine spiritual warfare which the Son of God waged on our behalf while He walked the earth.

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~ by Alypius on May 2, 2018.

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