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The loss of men from the Church, and the official response
This is a sort of appendix to my posts about masculinity and the Church, which was inspired by Leon Podles’ book The Church Impotent. As anyone who wants to can confirm for himself, and as Podles notes in his talk (available here), but not in his book, the Traditional Latin Mass is a setting in which you will find as many men as women attending, as a matter of course, by sharp contrast with many Ordinary Form parish Masses. You also find as many men as women attending the services of the the Orthodox churches, and the Synagogues of Orthodox Judaism. In Islam, you can even find more male than female participants.
You would think that bishops and priests would seize on this and ensure that the Traditional Mass was freely available, especially for the most vulnerable group: young adults leaving Catholic schools. On the contrary, there is often a great reluctance to allow precisely this group to come into contact with the ancient Mass. The reluctance comes from something which is familiar to those promoting the liturgical tradition, which we might call the Fear of Success. If the EF is successful, popular, inspiring, that is frightening. It can only be allowed if it is going to be relatively unsuccessful. This is in part because of the inevitable bureaucratic mind-set in which anything which rocks the boat (or ‘makes a mess’, as the Holy Father puts it) is annoying, but also because young men being attracted by anything which does not subvert their masculinity is something which some people find very alarming. The same people who become uncomfortable about the Traditional Mass are also, frequently, uncomfortable about things like rugby and the Armed Forces. To use the kind of new-age language they might understand, they don’t want all that masculine energy around. Podles suggests that some clergy, consciously or not, are content with the feminine profile of their congregations because it makes them easier to manage.
This needs to be set into the context of a wider cultural phenomenon: a distrust of masculinity in general. This is particularly noticeable in some educational contexts, and in some children’s entertainment, the purpose of which appears to be to make boys less masculine, to do less the things little boys like doing, like playing about fighting and making lots of noise. Little boys who resist this risk being classified as ADHD and subjected to medication. Similar pressures are brought to bear on young men, though with limited success. Indeed, the attempt to tie the ideas of social acceptability with the suppression of healthy masculine behaviour has the obvious and inevitable effect of promoting what we might call hyper-masculine behaviour, which really isn’t socially acceptable.
Every now and then there are statements of official concern about the fate of boys in schools, by the Government or academics. There appears to be nothing equivalent from the Church. If you ask anyone, priests or bishops, they are all aware of the problem of male lapsation: it is undeniable. But have they commissioned surveys to probe the problem? Have they set up working groups to address it? Have they sponsored special events, programmes, apostolates, training for priests, have they tried doing anything at all to address it? It is difficult to think of anything. At the level of parish, diocese, Episcopal Conference, and in Rome, there are studies and initiatives on everything under the sun, but not this. Instead, you find panic-fueled initiatives to appease women, such as the concessions to permit female altar-servers and Extraordinary Ministers, making women ‘pastoral administrators‘, and bizarre videos from the Vatican asking for ‘women’s experiences’. Women are important, of course, but should we be worried, specifically, about women’s lack of participation in the Church when women dominate almost every kind of lay participation possible, whether it be running the parish administration, bustling about in the sanctuary during Mass, and actually sitting in the pews?
There is a partial explanation, in that the result of women being a majority of the congregations, and the vast majority of the parish activists, their concerns and interests are constantly on the minds of the clergy who have to deal with them. This self-selection effect, however, has not stopped bishops from taking seriously the needs of minority language groups, immigrants, homosexuals, and others who might be ignored.
As a matter of fact there was a priest not far from me who set up a ‘men’s group’ in his parish a few years ago; I even gave a talk to it. The project didn’t come to much and he has since retired. What was interesting was the criticism this poor man received. Would anyone be criticised for setting up a parish women’s group?
What we have to face is that Catholic families, like all families, have a roughly equal chance of having boys and girls. If we end up with congregations which are predominantly female, it can only be because there is a higher lapsation rate among men.
We are not attracting more women: numbers attending church are down decade by decade. But the problem of lapsation is worse with men. Furthermore, the loss of men has particularly worrying implications for the future, since fathers have notably more influence over the religious practice of their children than mothers. Surprising, perhaps, but true: read the statistics here, from a survey in Switzerland. Here’s a sample:
A non-practicing mother with a regular father will see a minimum of two-thirds of her children ending up at church. In contrast, a non-practicing father with a regular mother will see two-thirds of his children never darken the church door. If his wife is similarly negligent that figure rises to 80 percent!
From anecdotal evidence, Podles suggests that men who do go to church are often there because of their wives. They can be there with varying degrees of enthusiasm or pain. In the Traditional Mass, again I can only appeal to anecdotal evidence, but of the married couples I know, in the majority of cases it was the man who discovered the Traditional Mass and introduced it to the woman, not the other way round, sometimes before marriage, sometimes after. Generally speaking, however, it would be wrong to say that the wives were there on sufferance ever after: many of these are home-educating mothers very much at the coal-face of passing on the traditions of the Church to the children. Leaving aside the little clique of enthusiastic busybodies who sometimes form in the context of the Ordinary Form, for all the attempts to be more community-oriented and touchy-feely I don’t believe that the New Mass has a great appeal to women; it is merely less unappealing to them than it is to men. The statistics bear this out: to repeat, we have a whopping high lapsation rate, which is even higher for men than it is for women.
There are things which could be done to make the Ordinary Form less rebarbative to young men. Most of these things, however (greater gravitas in the liturgy; the ending of female service of the Altar; positive preaching about fatherhood), would annoy the liberal activists. I suspect, in fact, that the same people would be annoyed by the very presence of the young men, and at some level want to get rid, if not of the individuals, then at least of their masculinity. Much easier than the trench warfare of the OF Parish Mass is the green-field site of the Traditional Mass, from which the liberal activists voluntarily absent themselves. Not only does it already have the features which are necessary for an appeal to men, but it lends itself to the promotion of further apostolates. I’ll say something about them tomorrow.
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