Making the Church Manly Again
Two weeks ago I attempted to diagnose a few causes of the Catholic Church’s manliness problem. This week I will offer some proposals. It is only right to do so. There’s something terribly unmanly about lamenting a crisis without offering anything more constructive than lamentation. Now is the time for action, not for bitching.
A general theme that emerges in these proposals is the need to un-update our Church. The reforms inflicted upon us in recent decades have bellyflopped because they amounted to little more than a general decline in standards. They now need to be countered-reformed. I’m not even talking about specific liturgical debates about the old Mass versus the new, but a larger spirit. On some level, the reformers lost confidence in the Church’s right to demand anything of the faithful.
If the Church is to become manly again, it must become confident and demanding again. Spirited men despise accommodation and pandering. They see little point in an institution and creed that can’t bring itself to ask anything of them. Or to think about this another way: what we need is a true update, one which recognizes the needs of the moment and tries to answer them.
Please do not read any further if you are one of those people who deliberately misinterpret arguments. My aim is to offer a few things that might not be quite so obvious. It goes without saying, for instance, that we must redouble our dedication and attentiveness in prayer and study of the Word of God, so I won’t say much more about it. I want to offer a few ideas that maybe aren’t quite so obvious.
I aim to write in greater depth on almost all these topics in the weeks to come. For now a general overview will suffice.
1) Elevate attire at Mass
The suggestion that men should look decent for Mass rarely fails to incite a few people who love convenience and comfort above all and who cannot bring themselves to dress any more formally or respectfully for Mass than they do for Walmart. They’ve been raised on sentimental heresies which tell us, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts!”
My concern is less about aesthetics and more about the quality of worship—or rather the argument that the two aren’t so completely divorced. A sharp appearance conveys purpose and respect, in addition to reinforcing them. A sloppy appearance does exactly the opposite: it conveys and reinforces a slackness of character. Dressing sharp puts a man in a better frame of mind to worship.
Going even further, our appearance has consequences for how others worship. When you walk into a church in 2022 in which everyone puts some effort into looking sharp, you almost automatically sense an elevated tone. Reverence is a socially contagious phenomenon. The man who dresses sharp conveys a certain message: that what we’re doing matters and is worth taking reasonable troubles for. He subtly encourages others to do likewise. If a man show up in shorts, sandals, and a t-shirt, looking like he’s going to the post office instead of God’s house, his informality likewise sends a message. He couldn’t take the trouble, because Mass is not something one should take trouble for.
To be clear, I’m not advocating dandyism or vanity. I’m simply arguing for an aesthetics of reverence and moral seriousness, crucial for a revival of manly energy. This will then set the stage for some of the other things in the works. We will make our example even more powerful if we can conspire with our fellow Catholic men to do the same.
2) Fast Hard
I am increasingly convinced that fasting has deep and mysterious power to make a man formidable. Within hours, a fast teaches a man much about life and reality and himself. The Church once understood this better and demanded regular, twice weekly, fasting from the faithful, whereas it now it demands disastrously little, just twice a year.
A few years back I was convinced that fasting could not work for me. I told myself that my metabolism was too high and that fasting would render me unable to function; hangriness would derail the day.
Then I tried it and discovered otherwise. Not only could I function well enough—in some ways I could function better. I learned that I was not a slave to my appetite. New levels of focus and clarity, among other things, become possible for a man when his body is not dedicating so much energy to digestion.
This focused state of fasting creates auspicious conditions for supercharged prayer. I don’t know how to say it otherwise than this: you can talk to God in a special way when you’re fasting; you are more intimately aware of a listener on the other end. The double whammy effect would involve using this opportunity to pray for a re-assertion of the knightly spirit in the Church, while also becoming manlier ourselves through fasting.
In addition to the spiritual and cognitive upsides, fasting also brings incredible physical advantages. The list is too long to detail here, but I do want to mention one of the most fascinating: cellular regeneration. When the the stomach has been empty for many hours, the body begins eliminating damaged cells parts and regenerating them. This carries big implications for our ability to heal.
There’s much more to say—but I’ll save it for a later date. We need to fast and we need to invite our friends to fast along with us. Hopefully it will bear such fruits in us that others will be game to join the fun.
3) Reclaim the vocabulary of the virtues
To be clear, I’m not saying something uber-obvious like “Men need to become virtuous again!” I’m saying we need to unlearn the degraded modern definitions of the virtues and relearn the older and better ones.
Virtue itself has become such a castrated word. When people hear that term spoken aloud today, which isn’t often, they often have in mind some uptight notion of propriety, buried under layers of schoolmarmy lameness. Virtue is not that at all. Virtue is simply man’s capacity for excellence. Look to the etymology: the word comes down from the Old French vertu "force, strength, vigor; moral strength; qualities, abilities,” from Latin virtutem "moral strength, high character, goodness; manliness; valor, bravery, courage (in war); excellence, worth.” The world ultimately traces to the Latin vir “man,” and has everything to do with man’s potential for being.
Just as the word virtue has been maimed in modern usage, so have the words for the individual virtues. The task before us is to recapture these words and show that the virtues are actually worth striving for. If we don’t, moral aspiration is basically pointless: why would you strive for excellence when it is seemingly so lame? Why, for instance, should a young boy strive to be meek when that word is understood to be a synonym for weak?
Serious conceptual work needs to be done on this front, and I aim to write much about this in the weeks to come. Meekness must be unlinked from weakness. Prudence must be elevated above mere cunning and calculation. Chastity needs to be reclaimed from prudery. Magnanimity must be shown to be a thoroughly Christian virtue, not at all to be scoffed at by those obsessed with a false definition of humility, which itself needs to be given proper context. And so on.
We could start by reading Josef Pieper and Thomas Aquinas on the virtues. We might even start a reading group and invite our friends and fellow parishioners.
4) Train together
I can hear a number of whiny reply-guys chiming whenever I say Catholic men need to reclaim physical strength and the martial ethos of medieval chivalry.
The body matters. Anyone wishing to pretend otherwise is not even worth arguing with—nor are they sound Christians, even. We are going to need our bodies for the difficulties ahead. Even better: we can grow stronger with our fellow Catholics. Friendships flourish during training. I see parish lifting groups or boxing clubs or the like proliferating in the years ahead, and my eyes get a little misty at the beauty of the sight.
A friend and I are drawing up plans for something like a Catholic scouting club for the young men of the parish, which among other things would involve a good deal of fitness and martial training.
5) Establish a bigger presence in the parish
Parish councils and local chapters of the Knights of Columbus need an infusion of manly men. It is beyond pointless to call for a revival of muscular Catholicism if we are unwilling to establish our presence here.
One of my aims is to become a lector at Mass. Every parish will need strapping knightly fellows to bring a knightly energy and composure to the front of the church and read the Scripture with an unwavering voice. Children especially need to see real men doing this.
6) Renew veneration of the warrior saints
One of the biggest tragedies of the recent reforms is the distance they put between Catholic men and the heroic tradition of our Church. We need to remember the champions of this tradition—not just the saints who were martyrs and evangelists, but the saints who were actual knights and warriors too. We ought to make friends with them and emulate them as best we can while asking for their prayers for our own efforts.
George of Cappadocia is a great example. The man embodied all the chivalric virtues—and all of these virtues were unified in his devotion to God. Now that dragons stalk the land ever more openly, the time for a revival of devotion to St George has come again.
A lesser known saint whom we might befriend and venerate is King-Saint Fernando III. He didn’t just suffer nobly and devoutly; he won! He might as well be considered the saint-hero of the Reconquista, as well as patron of all men with troubled relationships with their fathers. Seeing as how we need to embark on a reconquista of our own, he is a saint for our times as well.
7) Canonize other heroes of Christendom
Charlemagne, Richard the Lionheart, Godfrey of Bouillon, Jan Sobieski, El Cid, Don Juan of Austria, and others—the Church would do itself a great favor by canonizing these heroes who fought for the Church of God during dark hours. Obviously, this is beyond the power of any layman to accomplish. Yet our devotion to heroes can get the process moving.
At the very least, we need to remember the wholesome effects of good old-fashioned hero-worship. This will help our fellow Catholic remember that the Church wasn’t always a club for women and seniors. Jesus Christ will always be the ultimate when it comes to hero-worship, but these heroes can help us worship him better as well.