Our culture launches a brutal assault against men. It comes from two different fronts with seemingly contradictory attacks. The first is the radical form of feminism that has grown in prominence over the course of the last 40-50 years. This radical feminism spreads the narrative that men are sexist, pigs, brutish, predatory, inferior, barbaric and on and on. Social media is filled with these kinds of vile mischaracterizations of men that go after the jugular of masculinity. Watch closely in your favorite sitcom: the wife is usually the strong intelligent leader of the family while the husband is a bumbling idiot.
On the other front, we have a culture that is obsessed with hedonism in which men are told to lust freely after women, or men. Pornography is normal, as are things like masturbation, adultery, and promiscuity. The massive pornography industry, along with the advertising industry, has exploited and profited off of the visual tendency of men. These images are everywhere, from social media to television to grocery stores to billboards. It is impossible to avoid it. Lust isn’t just an issue outside of the Church, as much as we would like to think so, to our own detriment. This is happening in our own pews. Far too many of our brothers in Christ are waging a terrible battle and we largely ignore their struggles, either out of ignorance, because we have taken on the culture’s view of men, fear, naivete, or apathy.
The failure of finding authentic masculinity and femininity
In the wake of Vatican II — while far too many people greatly misread, misapplied, and distorted conciliar documents such as Gaudium et Spes —radical feminism found sway within the Church. A great project to feminize the Church began, and while the Church needed to embrace authentic femininity, in many corners it has largely disregarded its own heritage and applied cultural principles of feminism as opposed to the theological understanding of feminism so beautifully taught by St. John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem and his Theology of the Body. Instead, many women took the helm on far too many projects and left men to their own devices; everything has to have a female touch and typical masculine traits are discouraged.
Everything needs a balance of authentic masculinity and femininity which find their perfection in the Blessed Trinity. God is pure spirit. The “He” is found in the relations of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, not in a biological sex or gender (St. Thomas Aquinas). God has revealed Himself to us as a relation of Divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church’s understanding has always been that the sexes are equal in dignity by virtue of being made imago Dei, but differ at a biological and an ontological (the level of being, existence, reality) level in their masculinity and femininity. Both sexes possess masculine and feminine traits, but each of the sexes embodies these traits not only physically, but spiritually. Biological sex is also a reflection of spiritual realities. The Church is not either/or, she is a both/and in her teaching. The Church is the only vestige left that embraces authentic femininity and masculinity.
Men by virtue of their masculinity—and this is a great good—are defenders, protectors, providers, and deeply oriented towards ritual. I know this not only as a Catholic, but as a U.S. Navy Veteran. These traits are universal and, while our culture seeks to tear down the qualities that make men men, we have an obligation as Catholics to live in conformity to truth and reality. Men have a very distinct and crucial role to play in the Church. It is time we stop expecting men to be anything other then men. It is time to start allowing men to participate in the life of the Church through their distinct expressions of masculinity.
The cancer of pornography
On the other end of the spectrum is the repeated call for men to give in to their base desires through disordered sexuality. This ranges from the use of pornography for masturbation to adultery to promiscuity to homosexuality. In our culture, men are inundated with images that are meant to make them think of sex non-stop. Even a cursory reading of the daily news on the Internet can contain advertisements related to pornography. The grocery store checkout lines are stocked with magazines depicting scantily clad women, which may not meet the definition of pornography, but still carry a similar message about objectifying women.
I am going to say this loud and clear: Pornography is a problem inside the Church. It is not some far off distant problem. It is not the struggles of the “failing” Catholic man (whatever this even means) who barely goes to Mass or who is intentionally seeking to circumvent the Church or live a life of disobedience. No. There are many men who go to Mass, Adoration, pray the Rosary, are in ministry, are properly catechized, and regularly receive the Sacrament of Penance are struggling with this problem. And we are failing to help them because we keep it hidden, which only furthers the shame these men face. It is time to talk about the elephant in the room.
This is not an issue that is going to be resolved by our parish priest giving a Homily during a Sunday Mass. Nor can we point fingers at our parish priests and blame them for this epidemic problem. They have grown up in the same culture as our lay brothers in Christ. Many priests lament the lack of training or understanding in how to confront this problem within their flock. Yes, this issue needs to be discussed from the pulpit, but let’s not pretend that a Homily is going to magically help the men sitting next to us in the pews who genuinely want to be holy, but who battle mightily and fail at times against this form of sin. Lest we think ourselves superior, there are in fact heavier sins than those of lust, such as pride, anger, and avarice.
The solution is radical and counter-cultural
The answer to this problem will take time and it will be radically counter-cultural. It is time the Church starts calling men to heroic virtue and authentic masculinity. We must encourage and embrace the masculine roles of protector and defender of the home, the Church, and the nation. If men are going to win the battle against lust (and other sins too), and live the virtue of chastity, then they need to be taught that their battle is holy and it is in defense of their family. Men respond to calls to battle. Even to this day, every man I’m close to (my own husband, my dad, and others I know) respond to battle imagery. They respond to calls in which they are told to pick up their armor, sword, and shield in order to defend their family and Holy Mother Church from attacks from the Evil One. Devotion to St. Michael—who is a powerful defender and intercessor—should be encouraged in men, as should devotion to Our Heavenly Mother and her most chaste spouse, St. Joseph.
When men engage in sexual sin, both inside of marriage and outside, they violate their very nature as men. St. John Paul II reminds us: “God has assigned as a duty to every man the dignity of every woman.” Instead of protecting their wife, girlfriend, or acquaintance, they deeply wound her and bring harm upon her and their children, in the case of marriage. Mortal sin of any kind within a marriage opens up both spouses to spiritual warfare since by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony they are one flesh. It is against the nature of men to inflict harm on those he loves and desires to protect. Sexual sin is a direct assault on masculinity and marriage. Since these sins go to the heart of what it is to be a man, they result in tremendous shame.
The call to heroic virtue and to live in accordance with the masculinity they have been given by God, allows men to discover the path God has given them in order to become saints. This path is different from that of women and there is nothing wrong with this truth. Men need a rallying cry to holiness from other men, especially from their priests who are their spiritual fathers. I’m a wife, mother, daughter, sister in Christ, and former sailor, and while I can shed light on this subject from a female’s perspective, men need other men. Men need brotherhood. In the end, these changes will have to come from men themselves with the support of their sisters in Christ. We need to get out of the way and let them be men and we need to help them up when they fall.
These issues are complex, but a good beginning is to call men to holiness; remind them, and us, of what the meaning of life truly is: sainthood. The Church needs to encourage men to fight the good fight. To battle on against the enemy who wants to drag them off to hell. Have we forgotten what we are up against? We must arm men with the tools they need for spiritual warfare and help them to learn the virtues so that they can live them in their own lives and foster those virtues in order to respond to temptations. In living heroic virtue, men and women can learn how to overcome sin. We learn to overcome sin by fostering good habits, alongside regular reception of Confession and Holy Communion and a life of regular prayer. When the temptation to act out lust strikes, men need to remember to be courageous so that they can protect the women they love and the women they are tempted to objectify and use for disordered sexual gratification.
I will not pretend that this is even close to a complete solution. I will leave the particulars to our brothers in Christ to work out as to what would help them live their masculinity fully within the Church. I do believe that the Church needs to return to preaching beatitudo as the purpose of our lives. We are made for happiness with God and that is achieved through a life of holiness. The moral life is oriented towards our happiness with God, not a set of laws to be followed blindly. It is a journey of love and a battle to be won. That doesn’t mean we will not experience epic or catastrophic failures. We will, but the point is to continue on fighting.
If pornography or other sexual sins are something you struggle with, then set up an appointment to talk to your priest about your struggles and receive the Sacrament of Penance. Seek advice on how to repair the damage it has done to your relationships and pray for fortitude (courage). God forgives all of our sins when we turn to him with a contrite heart. Shame, hiding, and self-loathing are from the Evil One. Christ wants all of us to return to the light that can only be found in Him. Turn to St. Michael for defense in your hour of need.