‘Feminized’ Church comment sparks debate

Saying the Catholic Church has become “feminized” because of a crisis in manhood was bound to elicit strong reactions inside and outside the Church.

Catholic commentators have been responding to Cardinal Raymond Burke’s headline-making recent interview with the New Emangelization Project, an online initiative that has a mission to evangelize men and address the Church’s “man crisis.”

In the interview published Jan. 5, Cardinal Burke, the current patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, discussed the “great confusion” men have experienced in their vocations over the last 50 years, which he attributed in large part to feminism.

“Unfortunately, the radical feminist movement strongly influenced the Church, leading the Church to constantly address women’s issues at the expense of addressing critical issues important to men,” said Cardinal Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis who was removed last year by Pope Francis from his position as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

The manhood crisis, Cardinal Burke said, has resulted in a “very feminized” Church where sanctuaries are increasingly populated by women and altar girls, which he said discourages young boys from serving at the altar and discerning priestly vocations. The cardinal added that some parishes have become “so feminine” that men do not want to be involved.

Finding balance

Several committed Catholics involved in men’s ministry agree with Cardinal Burke’s analysis while other faithful observers, who say the cardinal raises many valid points, argue that he overstates the impact of feminism. They also question the idea that the Church is “too feminine.”

“I have a lot of colleagues that are women and who are brilliant, excellent and just as concerned about poor catechesis and poor liturgy. I don’t think it is proper to say liturgical abuses or problems with catechesis are the results of the Church becoming feminized,” said Timothy P. O’Malley, director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.

“Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women. The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.”
— Cardinal Raymond Burke, in an interview published at the website newemangelization.com.

Kerry Weber, managing editor of America Magazine, a Jesuit publication, told Our Sunday Visitor that Cardinal Burke was correct to say that fatherhood, family and strong relationships are important.

"I agree that fatherhood, family, and building strong relationships are important issues for the church. But I also think that, in order to address the challenges to these things, we as a church need to have a conversation that extends beyond what some describe as the "feminization" of the church and that delves into the broader context of our society and the messiness of our everyday lives," Weber said.

However, Matthew James Christoff, the founder of the New Emangelization Project, told OSV that he agreed with Cardinal Burke’s argument that the Church has been feminized at the expense of men.

“Cardinal Burke does not have an issue with women,” Christoff said. “He’s talking about balance, and frankly, the need for men to step up and become more involved. He’s not talking about the legitimate concerns and rights of women. He’s talking about when there’s an aggressive battle between the genders, that kind of radicalism drives a wedge between men and women, and it affects the Church pretty dramatically.”

‘I’m your priest’

Sam Guzman, founder and editor of the Catholic Gentleman blog, agreed with the cardinal’s argument that men are not drawn to a feminized Church.

“The Church was very attractive to men in the past when it was very disciplined and very organized. Men love rigorous discipline and order,” said Guzman, who compared the priest celebrating Mass while facing the faithful — versus populum — to having a feminine trait of relating to one another.

Said Guzman: “When the priest faced the East liturgically, it was like saying, ‘We’re marching before the throne of God together, and I’m your priest, standing in the gap between you and the Almighty, offering this Eucharistic sacrifice.’ It was not a show.”

Cardinal Burke said men have also been “really turned off” by liturgical abuses since the Second Vatican Council. He said aspects of the Church’s life that emphasized the “man-like character” of devotion and sacrifice have been shelved to the detriment of men, who he said are drawn to “rigor and precision and excellence.”

‘Cultural narratives’

Simcha Fisher, a Catholic author and blogger at Patheos, told OSV that women also value reverent devotions and liturgies.

“When I go to church and I see horrible felt banners, bad sermons, ugly flowers, liturgical dancing, I’m not OK with that just because I’m a woman. It bothers me just as much as it bothers men,” said Fisher, who took umbrage with what she sees as conflation of mediocre liturgy with the feminine. 

“Things that seem to bother (Cardinal Burke) are no more feminine than say ultra-violence or pornography are masculine,” Fisher said, adding that she has seen many parishes where active female parishioners do not outnumber their male counterparts. She also suggested that women often get involved in the Church because men are not stepping up to do the work.

While disagreeing with some of Cardinal Burke’s language as “unnecessarily hostile” and incorporating visions of masculinity grounded in warfare, O’Malley said he agreed there is a very real problem among men today facing the Church and society.

“An additional problem is that men in the culture are allowed to be irresponsible, to enter a state of delayed adolescence,” O’Malley said. “The biggest thing the Church can do is break down the small cultural narratives about what masculinity is and what it involves.”

Moving forward

People involved in men’s ministry agree the Church has to do more to address the needs and challenges facing Catholic men today.

“Men need to be specifically called and challenged,” Christoff said. “Second, men need to be reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, to our Lord and king, Jesus Christ.”

“The truth is men are hurting, men are broken and men have been discarded in many ways,” said Doug Barry, a lay evangelist and founder of Radix, a Catholic ministry. Barry said the culture, influenced by radical feminism and other ideologies, has largely “neutered” men and discouraged their natural instincts to be providers and defenders for their families.

“The devil knows if he can destroy the union of man and woman, that he can destroy an important part of society, and the world as a whole,” Barry said. “Even in the Church, we don’t talk a lot about the spiritual battle.”

Curtis Martin, president and founder of Fellowship of Catholic University Students, said the Church ultimately has the answers to address the deep crisis facing men — and women — in the world today.

“The Church needs to become more herself, more clear and confident that she has the piercing insights of what it means to be a man and a woman,” Martin said. “No other group of people, no other institution on earth, has more insight of what that means.”

Father Brian Doerr, a founder of Those Catholic Men, an online resource, said men have been marginalized by society. Even in the Church, he said, ministries geared toward men are often seen as excluding women.

“Primarily, it’s because I think people are afraid of young men,” Father Doerr said. “They believe the stereotypes about them, but I tell you, young men today are just as much in love with truth, goodness and beauty as anybody else.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.