Ordinarily, political issues within a particular religious institution are best left to those within that faith. Secular politics are complicated enough; church politics, particularly Vatican politics, are on a whole ‘nother level.
However, in recent comments on the evolving roles of men and women in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Raymond Burke of St. Louis, has opened a door to discussion of larger issues revolving around gender, our blindness to privilege and how we human beings experience and respond to change.
The comments in question came in Burke’s interview with “The New Emangelization,” a project founded to “draw men into a more active life of faith in the Catholic Church” and to reverse “the exodus of Catholic men from the faith.” If you’ve attended a Catholic service recently and noted the ratio of men to women, you know that it’s a real issue for the church, as it is for many faiths.
And what might be causing that exodus?
As Burke perceives it, “it’s due to a number of factors, but the radical feminism which has assaulted the Church and society since the 1960s has left men very marginalized.”
“Women are wonderful, of course,” he tells his interviewer. “They respond very naturally to the invitation to be active in the church. 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.”
That’s right, daughters of Eve. Once again, it is your fault. Men are drifting from the Catholic Church because it has been radically feminized, because women have been too quick to get involved and have made men feel unwelcome. Apparently, that male alienation isn’t lessened in the least by the fact that the entire Catholic leadership, from parish priest to monsignor to bishop to pope, is comprised of men and only men.
According to Burke, that radical feminization and marginalization of men starts at the very beginning, with changes in who is eligible to assist in Mass:
“The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. I want to emphasize that the practice of having exclusively boys as altar servers has nothing to do with inequality of women in the church.”
I find that last sentence particularly telling. Burke is being sincere when he says that allowing only boys to assist at the altar had “nothing to do with inequality of women in the church,” because he is that blind to its significance. He can place himself in the position of a boy who lost his role as altar server because a girl was better at it, and he can see that as a diminution of the male role. But he cannot place himself in the position of a girl who would otherwise be sitting in the pews, wondering why only boys get to perform that holy function.
Clearly, I’m not going to try to defend Burke’s statements. But I do think it’s useful to try to understand them, to see things from his perspective for a moment.
Burke is 66, which means that he grew up in a time in which the dominance of men was unquestioned, particularly within the church. That represents his normal — the state of affairs that he perceives to be natural and right and the gauge by which he still measures the world around him. And if that’s your understanding of the world, then yes, the power and authority and influence of men within his beloved church has indeed been undercut by what Burke perceives to be “radical feminization,” even if a lot of other people would say that process still has a long, long way to go. And as a male, you might indeed feel threatened by the fact that things were being taken from you that you once took for granted.
And as Burke tells us, it’s not limited to the church:
“I recall in the mid-1970s, young men telling me that they were, in a certain way, frightened by marriage because of the radicalizing and self-focused attitudes of women that were emerging at that time. These young men were concerned that entering a marriage would simply not work because of a constant and insistent demanding of rights for women. These divisions between women and men have gotten worse since then. “
It’s odd. In his interview, Burke speaks repeatedly of “manly discipline,” “manly character,” “manly virtues” and “the heroic nature of manhood.” I’m old-fashioned enough myself to still see value in those things. Yet time and again, the men whom he describes seem strangely intimidated by the notion that they might have to function — in the family, in the church, in jobs and elsewhere — on a more equal footing with women.
Given “the heroic nature of manhood,” surely that’s not more than we boys can handle.
But here’s the larger lesson:
If you believe that the world as it used to be is the world as it ought to be, then yes, we in the male gender ARE losing, and those losses go well beyond the exclusive right to be altar servers. Women today hold positions in politics, business, civil and family life that once were reserved exclusively for men, and yes, that has made it harder on those of us with a Y chromosome. And it’s going to get harder still.
However, that doesn’t mean that we men are being discriminated against or marginalized. To be honest, any red-blooded male who claims victimhood at the hands of “femi-Nazis” just needs to quit whining.
By that same standard, it is also true that white people are “losing”, that Christians are “losing”, and that straight people are “losing”. The advantages that once accrued automatically and invisibly to those of us in those categories are undeniably eroding, but a loss of relative advantage should not be confused with actual disadvantage, as some insist.
Do what Cardinal Burke has not done: Look around you, and see. He can sit in a Vatican that has been run by and for men for thousands of years, surrounded by male bishops and archbishops and cardinals, yet somehow see a “feminized” institution in which men have been marginalized and run off, discouraged from participating.
Yes, it’s ridiculous. But look at Congress, look at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, look at the state Legislature, look at Wall Street, look at almost any institution that wields power and influence. What do you see?
The old advantages have not disappeared, but they have weakened, and that’s a good thing, for all of us.