Last week Rob Marco discussed some of the difficulties that face young men’s groups on Crisis. The piece was entitled “Why Your Catholic Men’s Group Will Eventually Fold.” It wasn’t exactly clear to me what the point of the article was: are those of us who do have a good men’s group supposed to give them up because they are doomed? Or should those of us who don’t have one give up hope of forming a group and not bother to try? Or develop a new program like all the other “Be a Catholic Man” initiatives that Mr Marco finds underwhelming–only better?
To be fair to Mr. Marco, perhaps he was just diagnosing a problem he has experienced. Nevertheless, it is only to be expected that there should be proposed remedies to illnesses, not simply their indication. If we have a real need and an obstacle, we ought to try to overcome it. We’re men. We fight for arduous goods. Additionally, we’re Catholic men, and can draw on supernatural assistance when we fight not just for spiritual but for temporal goods as well.
Marco said: “Many of the men who are in most need of Catholic male fellowship are in the worst position to make it happen: mid-career, young and growing family, demands on time to balance everything.” Yet if they are most in need of it, shouldn’t they continue trying even if they fail or don’t perfectly succeed? The phrase “the best is the enemy of the good” comes to mind. Another passage that comes to mind is from that most pessimistic of inspired authors, Ecclesiastes:
All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to destroy, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather. A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. A time to get, and a time to lose. A time to keep, and a time to cast away. A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. A time of love, and a time of hatred. A time of war, and a time of peace.
One of Mr Marco’s main concerns seems to be that a good men’s group will often have a peak of excellence and then peter out. Well, what is wrong with that? “All things have their season,” and if the season of decay is a sad one, it’s also not an unconquerable one.
If a men’s group flourishes and then dies, at least three things ought to be said. First, the fact that it diminishes or ceases after a time does not negate, invalidate, or prevent the good it did while flourishing. If it saved a man from loneliness or sin or enriched his faith for one year, and not the next, what is the problem? Perhaps it’s time to gain those goods from another source. Having experienced them in a once-successful group, a man will be more motivated to search for them again or cultivate them in another way.
Secondly, the good such a group can do ought to be much longer lasting than the group itself. If a men’s group has character-forming and spiritually enriching elements, a young professional and/or father ought to be able to continue more easily in a balanced and healthful life after such supports are removed. In the gym, one starts with sitting barbell presses before standing ones. If a men’s group provides accountability for everything from weightlifting to avoiding porn, the virtuous habits formed by such accountability are supposed to help men keep going in the right direction when God and self are the only ones they are immediately accountable to.
Thirdly, since such groups are often based on age and business, it is natural that they change; natural that men in their late twenties transition to a different circle in their mid-thirties, and so on. And this brings me to another aspect of Mr Marco’s article: the reliance of men’s groups on one or two guys for leadership.
Undoubtedly, this can be a source of annoyance. Sometimes even more difficult is the position of the wife who feels like the hosting of a men’s group is imposing on or draining family resources. At the end of the day, this phenomenon of natural leaders is as old as the hills and must be navigated gracefully by all parties: for the natural leader, to make sure he doesn’t allow more to be asked of him than he can handle; on the part of the ones led, to try and step up from time to time and not demand too much. I know several very charismatic men my age who can pull a group together like few others; their gift is precious and shouldn’t be neglected or presumed upon.
With regard to age mixing in men’s groups, I would also like to say something about mentorship. Accountability to peers is well and good, but the contemporary obsession with witnessing and peer-evangelization (e.g. university and youth ministry conducted by men and women the same age as or just a couple of years older than their “flock”) isn’t the only or most healthy way of doing things. Young men need the mentorship and experience of older men: older men worthy of not just the name “man” but “father” and “grandfather” ought to be ready to mentor and help young singles and newly married men. This mixing of ages may or may not be able to be part of a fun and functioning men’s group. But its possibility shouldn’t be excluded. At the same time it is also true that older men may have the houses and wallets to host gatherings that younger men don’t have, especially if their children are grown up.
Regardless of personal prejudice in the matter of pipes and tweed jackets, I do readily admit the fact that there are a lot of men who “don’t fit into these boxes” and that it doesn’t make them lesser men, as Mr Marco said. But I would take issue with the idea that such habits produce “shallow, easy stereotypes, so you don’t have to think too much about what actually makes one a Catholic man.”
All of us to a greater or lesser extent box ourselves. And when we see someone else in a different box we say, “hey, look at them in that silly box.” All of us need to learn to transcend our boxes to one extent or another. But that doesn’t mean we need to live without them or deny that many (if not all) boxes have valuable and interesting features.
There are lots of shallow stereotypes and boxes. There is the gym-bro, the bud light and sports show dad, and the crunchy bikers. It seems like the issue with the Chesterbelloc stereotype is that it is one of the few that are exclusively Catholic. A failure to think about what actually makes one a Catholic man doesn’t seem to be helped by not reading such authors, or by not smoking or drinking, or whatever it may be. If tweed and tobacco could be distractions from the essence of Christian manhood, couldn’t they also be a starting place as hobbies for fraternity? If reading and talking of Chesterton and Belloc might start out as a superficial infatuation, might it not mature into a philosophical and cultural strength, and a path to still greater literature and role-models?
Most importantly, though, if culturally enriching elements are among the goals of most men’s groups (and they should be), we ought to recognize that “accidentals” are not quite so superficial as we moderns like to think. If there is a sacred smoke (incense) proper to solemn liturgy, why not admit the place of the secular smoke which in greater ages than ours accompanied the “feast of reason and flow of soul”? If my “TEXAS” T-shirt puts me in a work-out frame of mind, why shouldn’t my tweed jacket put me in a literary one?
In the last analysis, however, it’s not clear what contemporary alternative Mr. Marco has in mind. Is there a more obvious one? Following the theory of aesthetics put so well by Anna Kalinowska, I’m not willing to bow to modern slobitude as the going tone. Tweed, pipes, and craft beer—or synthetic T-shirts, iPhones, and energy drinks? Which is more Catholic? Which is (at the very least) more human?
At the end of the day, this isn’t about garb. I’ve certainly met tweedy Chesterton groupies. But their problem was not wearing too much tweed: it was not reading enough Chesterton. It’s the poorly formed and foppish Bellocian, not the thoughtful student of his works and emulator of his virtues, that partly justifies Mr Marco’s statement.
The idea of intellectual formation and pipe smoking as a hobby brings up the question of activities: it is true that men’s time together “needs to be structured around some kind of activity for it to work.” However, claiming that “this, too, is another kind of no-win trap” doesn’t necessarily follow. Many men don’t necessarily mind being the “point-guy to take charge and make it happen for the group.” Aren’t we made to be leaders? If so, why can’t we take turns? And as for “something to do,” it only takes one or two men with large properties to provide an endless supply of splitting wood, clearing brush, and fixing fences. Actually, I’m not sure that really sounds like a good time. But I’d totally do it if bratwurst, homemade beer, or firearms (preferably all three, if not at the same time) were involved at some point of the day. There are things that men have always done together and, like most everything else in life, they require at least a little bit of organization. Get used to it before giving up on it. (The earlier objection about wives may find here a partial response: if men’s groups do lead to improvements either in the men themselves or in their properties, wives will be the first to notice and appreciate it.)
To conclude: the arduous attainment of the goods of a men’s group ought to inspire not just young men but older men as well to put thought and effort into keeping fraternity alive. When a group ceases, moreover, its importance has not been for nothing. It might be started again, or perhaps a more suitable group will take its place. This is part of a natural cycle, as much as the rest of life. If such endeavors can sometimes be “sabotaged” by work and family, their value is not undermined.