In the pews at any nearby mass, one becomes distinctly aware of the demographics of the Catholic Church. Apostasy has been a huge problem for the Catholic Church for the last 30 years. 13% of the US adult population- according to Pew- are former Catholics. When this number is broken down into subgroups, one finds that most apostate or ‘lapsed’ Catholics are men. Men have left the Catholic Church more than any other group in recent years. It would not be strange to find that the Pews of Catholic Churches are overwhelmingly filled by women these days.
To some extent, this makes sense. Despite having an all-male clergy, the Catholic Church has had a very feminine element for hundreds of years.
The Catholic Church in the 1200s went out of its way to protect women. Consensual marriage was introduced to the West (and indeed the entire world) by Papal Decree in the early 1200s. The Pope ordered that the woman’s voice be considered equal to the man’s when forming the union of marriage. In the Pope’s and The Curia’s postulation, a woman had ultimate veto power to prevent herself from entering a marriage against her will.
While other religions in the middle east insisted (and still insist) on separate sacraments, worship services and baptisms for men and women- it was the Catholic Church who dissented from the majority view of its day and insisted that men and women (despite whatever imbalances of social/political power existed at the time) were created equal. The position of the Church was and is that women as creations of God are of the same value and worth as men. The Catholic Church has insisted upon one baptism for all members of the entire faith irrespective of gender.
Indeed, the pen-ultimate figure of veneration in the Catholic Church is a woman. No major world religion holds a woman in as high regard as the Catholic Church holds the Madonna (the Catholic and Latin word for the Virgin Mary). The Madonna is worshipped and her image is displayed at any given opportunity in any Catholic church or basilica. If you wanted a drinking game that would kill all participants in 3 and a half minutes- go to the Vatican and take a shot every time you see a painting of ‘Madonna and Child’.
It is understandable how the Catholic Church grew to have so much female participation in modern times- but their recent loss of the male parishioners is a clerical tragedy. Men are leaving the Catholic Church in droves and there is great debate as what to do about it. Some say this male exodus is the result of the backlash against the abuse of (mostly male) victims by pedophilic priests. Others say it was the ‘watering down’ of Catholic doctrine that occurred after Vatican II.
No matter what the cause of the male-exodus- on Twitter, there has been a recent and perceptible shift among younger (Gen Z) Catholics. These young Catholics seem to be pushing to find a way to include men back into The Curia.
The Pope has taken direct but feeble action against the exodus of men from the Church by using ‘Anglicanorum coetibus’ to allow some married men to serve as priests under very limited circumstances (although this has proved ineffective at keeping men in the pews).
The problem hasn’t been fixed yet but at least there is some push within The Curia to do something about it.
Unfortunately, where you don’t see a similar push by the laity (or clergy) is in modern Protestantism. There is a greater crisis of masculinity across all Protestant denominations that has gone completely unreported and in turn largely unsolved.
Recently I was asked by someone if a friend of mine “was gay or just really churchy” and unfortunately I understand what she meant. There is a certain type of Protestant man that has spent so much time in Church that it seems like he has zero testosterone- he becomes a (somehow) even worse manifestation of the “Church Lady” phenomenon that Saturday Night Live parodies so well. These male-church-ladies are always humourless and lack the bravado that many red-blooded American men display with ease. The contemporary Protestant church does not seem like the place for your modern dynamic, virile man. While the apostasy rate isn’t quite as bad in Protestantism as it is in Catholicism, neither seem like the place for masculinity. In simple terms, Protestant churches don’t seem like a place that produce men who can bust a joke or bust a nut.
This development of the humourless and bravado-less protestant men goes to explain why so many super-churchy guys come off as gay. Protestantism has drifted away from being a place your average male would feel comfortable.
One reason for this is because no one thinks of the Church as a funny place and that is a terrible misfortune. Early Christians knew how to have a good time. Humour was of the very essence of early Christianity. The Sistine Chapel has a huge mural of a priest being bit in the testicles by a snake. A monastery in central Italy has paintings of demons who fart fireballs. Gargoyles on the easements of most European Cathedrals have comically large boners and make silly faces at parishioners. Martin Luther had a potty-mouth. Luther and other early protestants filled their documents with endless toilet jokes about the Pope. On more than one occasion Luther and his allies would shit on pamphlets published by priests they didn’t like and mail the pamphlets back to the priests. It seemed like early Christians couldn’t help but crack up as they carved or painted their iconography (or shat on other people’s). One can strongly infer that the early church was a hilarious place.
Even Jesus liked to have a good time. Jesus’s first miracle was supplying a wedding with more wine once the wedding’s casks ran out.
Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians and Pentecostals, as well as every other variety of Protestants, can tell you how far modern Christianity has fallen away from humour. I have attended Methodist churches for 23 years and I believe I have gone months- perhaps years- without as much as a chuckle in the pews. Almost every modern Protestant can tell you of humourless hours-long sermons that don’t conjure as much as a giggle.
If the meme that circulated in late 2019 that ‘girls cant funny’ has any validity- then it starts to explain why men have flocked away from modern protestant Christianity – leaving only women in the pews. (At least the Catholics still have their funny boner gargoyles and snake-bitten testicle paintings to fall back on- to remind them that Christianity was once humorous- Protestants have nothing).
Further and perhaps equally important to the humourlessness of modern Protestantism that drives men away from the Church is- the modern liturgy’s uncomfortability with rage.
I can not tell you how annoying confirmation was when I was 12 or 13. If you asked the pastors conducting the weeks-long courses about any problem one might face in their life, the answer was always simply “forgiveness”. The modern church has forgotten “forgiveness” is an end-stage to be sought via a long journey. The modern church has forgotten that rage- via righteous indignation- is the first step in a long journey that eventually terminates in forgiveness.
In the Gospel of Matthew (as well as John), when Jesus cleanses the temple, does he immediately, passively and flaccidly forgive the money changers? No! Jesus rages in a fit of righteous indignation. He goes about the temple flipping tables and cracking whips at people. The prince of peace wasn’t afraid to kick ass when it was called for. Certainly, Jesus later forgave the money changers, but that wasn’t before some whips needed to be cracked.
This is completely opposed to modern Protestant teachings that go straight to forgiveness. Forgiveness seems to be emphasized for forgiveness’s sake. If someone is faced with evil, sin or injustice, that is within their control; the immediate response should not be forgiveness.
But can you blame most Protestant churches? Recent Protestant doctrine, since at least the 1990s, has become almost values free. Just as food producers in the 1990s and early 2000s were scrambling to make their food fat-free, Protestant clergy were scrambling to make their teachings more appealing by making them values-free. The result for both the food producers and churches was the same, a watered-down, unsubstantial, piece of consumption that was sure to leave the consumer fat and unsatisfied.
Of course, forgiveness became a panacea to everything- churches were failing to teach any values between right and wrong. How can you teach a young boy what calls for righteous indignation or rightful rage- when you aren’t teaching him what good and bad is.
This is a topic Christina Hoff-Summers wrote about significantly in her book “The War Against Boys”. While Summers was writing about a trend in schools that began in the 1990s and continues today, her findings on the teaching of values-free-pedagogy could easily apply to the crisis of masculinity in the modern Protestant church. Hoff-Summers wrote extensively about the harmful effects of the drift of public schools ceasing to teach prescriptive moral values to boys. She marks how- from the youngest ages- boys of all races and backgrounds can feel alienated and disinterested in learning environments that don’t have moral and values-based elements to their curriculum. Among other maladies- Hoff-Summers notes, this change in pedagogy has unintended negative effects, leading to higher school delinquency and behavioural problems as well as significantly higher drop out rates among boys of all ages. Boys who go through school without rigorous moral and values-based classroom study are less likely to graduate. (This same effect is not as present in girls). In short- boys won’t stick around if you aren’t rigorously instructing them in life-values. Boys don’t want intellectual junk food.
The same phenomenon is occurring in Protestant churches. When boys become men, they seem to drop from the pews like Hoff-Summers notes that they drop from schools. The reasons are unclear and worth scholarly debate but finding a Protestant church (that isn’t a cult) that is comfortable instructing their young boys in serious Christian values beyond just forgiveness (and maybe kindness) is almost impossible today. Certainly, forgiveness and kindness are important, but unless churches want to go the way of public schools, a wider variety of Christian values need to be taught for boys/men to keep interested and unalienated.
Oddly, the first place protestants might want to look to find something that appeals to the masculine need for variety in values may be the in the church attic- in the box of old hymnals. The first signs that masculinity would soon occupy an awkward place within the church was when churches started altering their hymnals. Gone were the strong, traditional songs like Bethlehem or Battle Hymn to The Republic (commonly called ‘Glory, Glory, Hallelujah’), that reinforce the strong masculine virtues of love of God, country and righteous battle- that appeal so strongly to boys. In came the crappy acoustic guitar music that could easily become trash-pop love songs if you just took out the word ‘God’ and inserted the word ‘baby’. (Note what an easy transition it was for Katy Perry to move from “gospel” to garbage-pop).
Even more nauseating than the loss of the beautiful hymnals was the repackaging of Church doctrine for boys. Youth pastors became the cringy-iest analogizers. When Family Guy parodied a youth pastor introducing himself by saying “hey kids! Put DOWN your Ipods and listen UP! Because we’re going to talk about abstinence” (well after Ipods were remotely in style), they weren’t far off the mark. Leon Podles, in his book in the “The Church Impotent”, notes the cringe-worthy attempts by the Church to relate to young boys by comparing Christ’s grace to jet aviation fuel. If the meaning of that comparison was lost you don’t worry, it was lost on the boys too. (Apparently, Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams and it also can’t appeal to boys). The whole comparison was so canned that I actually cringe-laughed while writing this. (Does this technically count as a chuckle in the pews?).
Outside of Leon Podles who generally focuses on Western Christianity as a whole, rather than just Protestantism- there is no one reporting on this growing crisis of masculinity in the Church- much less anyone trying to solve it. As it stands- one has to wonder- can modern Protestantism again become a vibrant place, comfortable with a masculine liturgy and laity?. Will Gen Z raise hope of restoring Protestantism like we see in Catholicism- or is this a decline that can only be managed, not reversed?
I am of the conviction that masculinity within the Church can be saved. Christianity is based on the belief of resurrection and restoration. Masculinity within the liturgy and laity can be resurrected and restored. The male-church-lady phenomenon can be reversed.
-But none of this can happen without more being written on this topic. This needs to be a topic writers, and churchgoers are concerned about. While bringing back a sense of humour, a comfortability with rage and some music that isn’t downright AWFUL are all steps in the right direction; they are among the first steps in a long redirection that is sorely needed to keep men within the Church. Protestants & Catholics- before they can do anything else- must decide that they want men in the church.
*** This is a repost from the author. The first circulation of this piece occurred in a separate publication in late September 2020 ***