On Addressing the Dignity of Man and Masculinity

Editorial for September 2013

How would men today be more able to live out their own unique discipleship and role in both the world, and in the Church, if we were able to articulate how men embody the Christian vocation to holiness in exclusive and particular ways?

Holy Father Francis’ opening World Youth Day,  and his first trip back to his beloved South America, were truly victories for Christ and his Church.  The trick the popular media oftentimes tries to pull, in the face of such successes as this, is to avoid reflecting and reporting on the actual events, and instead grabbing one or two peripheral (and hopefully incendiary) events or comments. (We see this every January 22, when major networks and papers refuse to report on the thousands upon thousands who march in protest against abortion every year in our nation’s capitol.)   That is why most of the news stories coming out of World Youth Day did not focus on the millions who came to pray with the Church universal at Mass on Copacabana beach, or on the many conversions to Christ experienced by the young people (evident in their own blogs and Facebook pages), but rather news reports concentrated on Pope Francis’ answers to two “loaded” questions on his return flight.

One question had to do with his understanding of women’s vocations in the Church today, to which he responded that “we don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church. We talk about whether they can do this or that—can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, or can a woman be president of Caritas—but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.”  This is the context and the call during which Pope Francis also offered how: “A church without women would be like the apostolic college without Mary. The Madonna is more important than the apostles, and the church herself is feminine, the spouse of Christ and a mother.”  The Holy Father thus sees a need to develop a particular theology of women that goes beyond the wearisome and worldly question of women’s ordination—of what women can “do”—and to bring this conversation into something more foundational, more fruitful—of what woman “is” (for a beautiful analysis of this exchange, see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/08/05/2079/).

The other topic that the media keeps focusing on is Pope Francis’ response to their questions concerning gay men. Newspapers, especially across Europe, figured that he was the first Pontiff to have ever used the term “gay,” and sensationalized this as ground-breaking. Many see this as the initial acceptance every marginalized group yearns for, the public acknowledgement of who they are.  Fair enough.  What is certainly more newsworthy, however, is Pope Francis’ example of not reducing a human person to his or her sexual orientation and, in that truth, the Pope’s refusal to judge others based simply on such an attraction: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

We are all made in God’s image and likeness, and therein lies our dignity; while integrity, and the fulfillment of that divine similitude, says the Catholic Tradition, lies in one’s coming to Christ in “good will.”  Pope Francis is to be lauded for his honoring this very holy search of every human heart and refusing to reduce others to their sexual orientation (again, for an insightful commentary on this, see: http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/pope-francis-in-context/?_r=0).

While it may not seem so obvious at first glance, our daily papers are filled with related news items having to do with the ontology of gender and the meaning of manhood.  The rapes recently reported—from incidents of rape by members of our Armed Forces throughout the world, to the high school rape in Steubenville, and the four Vanderbilt University students charged with  rape—have received most of the headlines. But the misuse of male strength and fallen sexuality occurs every minute of the day and night. New York City’s need to “stop-and-frisk” those who look as if they are threats to others is itself a commentary on the public presence of young males.  And the ballyhoo over our favorite athletes’ reliance upon performance enhancing drugs, all point to a culture not only unable to raise true men, but to a society that is even unable to offer consistent teaching and examples of what a man should be.

Provocative and important as Pope Francis’ comments are about the need for a theology of women, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and his effusive recognition of “the feminine genius” certainly began that conversation. But what have recent popes and magisterial teachings done to address the nature of man and masculinity?  How would the men of our parishes and in our pews be different today if John Paul had written the encyclical, say, On The Dignity of Man—Viri Dignitatem?  How would men today be more able to live out their own unique discipleship and role in both the world, and in the Church, if we were able to articulate how men embody the Christian vocation to holiness in exclusive and particular ways?

Our Lord Jesus Christ gave every human person the supreme example of charity in the Paschal Mystery.  He did not wait for us to love him in return, nor did he put any conditions on his gift of self.  He prepared us so that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).  While this is ultimately a universal act of love meant for all Christian disciples to imitate, there seems something particularly manly about laying down one’s life in the protection, defense, and good of another.

If Mary is the perfect woman, she must, therefore, provide the supreme example of femininity: loving others through the care and maternal gaze only a woman can give. She lays down her life through her pierced and reflective heart. Yet, if Jesus Christ is the perfect man (vir), he provides the ultimate example of virility: by loving through serving, by showing power through protection and strength, through a freely-embraced weakness and vulnerability.

America, especially, has a way of infantilizing men. For example, the video game industry offers a man his own world in which he has total command, but where there is nothing really at stake.  It is all dazzle and no danger.  Pornography internalizes this deadly numbness even more: here is the thrill of titillation without the risk of intimacy. Too, I have often wondered if the recent barrage of comic book hero movies also reveals a desire for men to revisit their childhood fancies and disappear into a world of nostalgia, back to a day they too could fly, and save cities.  The only problem is that none of these things are real. Men today are not going to find their truest selves before a computer screen, or passively rooting for others to come to the rescue.

The Church, on the other hand, calls all men to imitate Christ.  We see in such figures as St. Joseph, and John the Baptist, various ways for a man to live out his oftentimes silent but chivalrous care of others.  In Christ, such solicitude is available today in the routine of going to work to provide for others, in enduring the oftentimes daily dullness of routine in Christian joy and patient sacrifice.  In Christ, all men are called to be priests—interceding for their families and communities, praying daily, continuously studying the Faith, saying the Rosary, getting to Mass and Adoration throughout the week as often as possible.

I am so grateful that I see this in many of my married friends (and I certainly see this in the new crop of diocesan seminarians, religious brothers, and scholastics).  In fact, the other morning at a parish here in Saint Louis, I was asked to fill in for the pastor who happened to be away.  Much to my joy, there were twice as many men praying in dawn’s early light than there were women.  There in the early sun, these men seemed to be guarding Jesus while others slumbered. They had laid their briefcases down long enough to pray with open hands, had turned off their phones long enough to begin their day hearing the voice of God. While it is normal to see many dedicated women at morning Mass throughout parishes in every country, this novelty brought a surprise and a smile to my face.

We are all called to live the Christ-life.  Men in their own unique way are called to do this precisely as men.  No pope may have yet reflected deeply on what this might mean, but Jesus surely gives us the supreme model: in Christ’s washing of his Apostles’ feet he gives men an example of service, in his feeding his family with his own Body and Blood he gives us an example of providing, and in his Crucifixion he gives us an example of true charity.

September is the month of the Holy Cross.  Here, men are called to live out their faith.  Love Jesus with abandon, and see in each moment of your life your call to love others, and to intercede for them, and to care for them.  Very practically speaking, learn the Morning Offering and begin each day by “offering up” your families and your work, your stresses and your joys (http://www.apostleshipofprayer.org/morningofferingprayers.html).


David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.


  1. Oh goodness, Fr, you know you’re opening a can of worms here , don’t you? Since Pope Francis’ return flight from Rio, I’ve argued in favor of his suggestion of a more developed ‘theology of women’ exactly for the reason you give at the end of this editorial: I.e., women are always there. We’re always at Mass, like you said. We’re always ironing altar linens, sitting on parish councils, teaching PRE in addition to working dull daily jobs, supervising homework & taking care of our parents etc.

    I know you know all this & that it’s not possible that you mean any disrespect for women in the Church. My point is that, because we’re always there, we end up being like the refrigerator….something you expect to do it’s job & you don’t really notice till it doesn’t. In light of the undervaluing of women’s contribution in the ’50s (& before), I have to honestly question whether JPII was ‘effusive’ in speaking of femininity. The Roaring ’60s didn’t happen in a vacuum & I often wonder if the culture of a solid family & the infrastructure of Catholic schools/hospitals etc run by nuns would have been so easily swept overboard if men had been a little more ‘effusive’ or at least appreciative prior to the 1968.

    That said, I agree that in 2013 men have been marginalized to the place that they either seem to be afraid to open their mouths or, when they do, it’s vitriolic. The comments posted after Pia’s article on this topic in last week’s NCRegister illustrate the point that some Catholic men seem very afraid that, when we start speaking about a theology of women, we’re talking about Gloria Steinamesque feminism. No one, I’m sure least of all the Pope, wants more of Womyn Priestesses’ diatribes. And, yes, the women I know at least, delight in Mary as our Model & Mother. But how do we live that out in daily life? We’re not nuns, we’re not saints, we’re not martyrs….just women who (mostly) love God, our families & our parishes and, honestly, have few concrete models (in the laity, at least) which to go by. That may be one reason JPII also called for more married saints.

    So, after reading your editorial, I guess I have to wonder if this is an “either/or” situation. What if, in developing a stronger ‘theology of men’, authentic femininity was helped & fostered? What if, in developing a stronger ‘theology of women’, authentic masculinity was helped & fostered? I’m not the theologian here, as you know, so I’m just thinking out loud :-) God bless!

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Do we expect news media to do anything different than they do? How does an organization make money on the news? Not by delving into the deeper meaning of a story for sure.

    I liked Glenna’s response. What if, instead of looking down on what happens in “the secular world”, Catholics really dialogued with those who do not know Christ? What if we meekly opened up to learn from those in the secular world considered so dangerous for Catholics? Francis, Bishop of Rome, encouraged such dialogue last week in his audience with Japanese students in Italy.

  3. Avatar Micha Elyi says:

    We don’t have a deep theology of men in the Church.

    This might explain why an article titled “On Addressing the Dignity of Man and Masculinity” mentions women at least nine times then mentions “gay men” all before any focus on men qua men.

  4. Avatar james keating says:

    I would have liked to have read and studied an encyclical on masculinity and on men by JPII as well, but upon further reflection I believe he WAS such an encyclical. He was by far the most masculine of popes in the modern era, a man marked by courage, self donation, endurance, intellect and compassion.

  5. Fr. Robert E. Markovitch Fr. Robert E. Markovitch says:

    Can we keep the sled going forward here?

    Fr. Meconi has opened a much-needed conversation here. Let’s keep making it fruitful.

    The goal here is, it seems, the “exclusive and particular masculine vocation.”

    The quickest response is that the attempt to understand the “exclusive and particular masculine vocation” perhaps cannot be separated from the question of the feminine one.

    The second response is that we can learn from the world, or perhaps, better termed, the entire creation.

    The third response is that the status of the question is so rudimentary that it is expressed in a via negativa, then errors/failures/opposites mentioned nine times before the positive topic is addressed.

    Finally, an example of “the exclusive and particular masculine vocation” is offered in the example of Blessed Pope JP2. There, he finds five characteristics: courage; self-donation; endurance; intellect and compassion.

    It seems to me that the drawing upon the riches of wider creation has already been started, in mining the work of the men’s movement (see, for example, a previous article, “Sent Forth to Father a People. . .”. Similarly, there is an attempt to examine the feminine question by, as the link leads to, Pat Gohn who sees the feminine characterisics as . . “generosity, receptivity, sensitivity and maternity.”

    Clearly, considering the distinct masculine and femine vocations together is helpful to each task.

    I would note with interest in regard to the initial via negativa, the oft-quoted philosophical maxim that “errors are instructive.”

    It would seem helpful to start with these three lists, and refine them to a better place where the lists will be different but similar, in a word, improved.

  6. Fr. Meconi,

    Thanks for posting this. This is a very important subject, and I appreciate your thoughts here.

    It is kind of amusing, in a sort of sad way, to see the familiar dance that takes place every time the subject of men and masculinity in the Church comes up these days. We’re all taught to do this dance these days, so it is no surprise to find it everywhere.

    I’m talking about the dance that tries to dance around that small line of Scripture, “For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23). Of course, we dance around this line of Scripture because the previous line reads, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22), which is frequently too much to handle for those thoroughly invested in what we might call today’s non-Christian secularism.

    But what is not lost on me (and I hope is not lost on others) is that when Scripture says, “the husband is head of his wife”, it is not qualifying this statement. It does not say, “the husband who has good leadership skills is head of his wife”; it does not say, “the husband who has good administrative skills is head of his wife”. Rather it says, quite universally, that the husband is head of his wife, and that, as a consequence of this, “wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything”. That is, all husbands everywhere, whatever their culture or belief system or way of life.

    Why? Because this statement – “For the husband is head of his wife” – is a definition of manhood. And it’s not just a definition of the manhood involved in the literal relationship between a husband and wife, but it is also a definition of manhood in a more abstracted sense because, while not all men marry, men are still men and are all called to some form of fatherhood.

    For example, we call God “Father”. The Catechism says we call God Father because He is “is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children” (CCC 239). It also says in the same place, “God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature.”

    Notice that it does not say that we can call God “Mother”, nor does it say that the image of motherhood is connected to being “the first origin of everything and transcendent authority”.

    So what is it about fatherhood which is so intrinsically connected to “the first origin of everything and transcendent authority”, that we say that these characteristics belong positively to God, specifically as Father? Well, the Scripture has already told us: “For the husband is head of his wife”.

    Hence also the male-only priesthood, which necessarily precludes the possibility of a woman ever becoming the head of the Catholic Church on earth. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Again, the Scripture has already told us: “For the husband is head of his wife”.

    This is what I am saying: any attempt to understand or interpret the meaning of true masculinity and true manhood in a way that cannot fully embrace the fact that God has linked masculinity to headship and authority – in the family AND in wider society – will fall short in being able to fully identify what masculinity is and how it differs from femininity.

    My name is Paul and you can find me, and a lot about the subject of gender and the Church, at my blog, “A People As His Own” (http://apeopleashisown.wordpress.com).

  7. Thanks for the link to my WaPo post, Fr Meconi. Keep the conversation going.


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