Toward a Theology of Authentic Masculinity

A guest blog by Dave McClow, M.Div, LCSW, LMFT, clinical pastoral counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

Isn’t it time for a Theology of Masculinity for the New Evangelization?

Sparked by Fr. David Vincent Meconi’s, SJ September 2013 editorial in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, I wanted to expand on his questions and comments about the need for a theology of masculinity.  Here is part of what he had to say:

Provocative and important as Pope Francis’ comments are about the need for a theology of women, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and his effusive recognition of “the feminine genius” certainly began that conversation. But what have recent popes and magisterial teachings done to address the nature of man and masculinity?  How would the men of our parishes and in our pews be different today if John Paul had written the encyclical, say, On The Dignity of Man—Viri Dignitatem?  How would men today be more able to live out their own unique discipleship and role in both the world, and in the Church, if we were able to articulate how men embody the Christian vocation to holiness in exclusive and particular ways?

I am a son of John Paul II, and am deeply impressed with Benedict and Francis, but I am frustrated about this omission and have wondered about it much over the last few years.

The Problem

Fr. Meconi goes on to suggest that a theology of masculinity is needed especially in America where we are not growing boys into men. “America, especially, has a way of infantilizing men.”  Video games, porn, and comic book hero movies are some current ways of achieving this.  His piece is well worth the read.

He ultimately goes on to suggest that Christ is the ultimate model of masculinity just as Mary is for femininity.  He then stresses the priestly aspect of Christ as the remedy for men.  I would agree and want to add some “whys” to the need for a theology of masculinity.  I think it is essential for the New Evangelization.  Lastly I want expand on his model for a theology of masculinity.

Biology vs. Culture

Motherhood and fatherhood have always helped define femininity and masculinity.  But while biology defines more what it means to be a woman, the culture defines more what it means to be a man.  The woman’s body is designed to conceive, carry, bear, and feed children.  Women have a distinct and physical connection to the phrase in the Eucharistic prayer, “This is my body which has been given up for you.”  The man has a relatively small, although highly pleasurable, biological role in the conceiving of children, but no biological role in child rearing.  It is all culture after conception.  As Theology of the Body suggests, the male anatomy does point him to loving someone outside of himself; but when the cultural winds blow harder, they co-opt the voice and authority of defining what it means to be a man.  There are philosophical and political agendas that seek to liberate women from the oppression of their bodies and from men.  The media has helped to relegate men to irrelevant roles: think Everybody Loves Raymond, or Two and a Half Men—buffoon or playboy.  The Culture of Death is winning on this one!

The Problem of Fatherlessness

Blessed John Paul II used to say “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 75).  I would add that “The future of the family passes through fatherhood.”

Fatherlessness is an undeniable and well-documented elephant in the living room!  Fatherlessness has increased criminality and juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, poor school performance, premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock births among teenagers, gender confusion, the number of women and children in poverty, the likelihood of childhood sexual abuse or child abuse, teen runaways and homelessness, gang involvement, and the risk of suicide attempts and completions by teens.   This is the short list, and it is well documented elsewhere (see David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America).   The mass shootings in the news of late almost always involve a fatherless kid, but this does not get commented on by the Church or Catholic media.  (Al Kresta was a recent exception on his show, Kresta in the Afternoon, in the last few months.)  The Culture of Death is winning this one, too!

A Pro-life Issue

At least 30% of abortions are coerced by others, (and I suspect mostly men) according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.  This double distortion—coercion of another and abortion—is a distortion of authentic masculinity.  Masculinity is a pro-life issue!

Church Attendance Problem

The Church is losing men!  The typical Sunday Mass has about 60% women and 40% men.  Many men see going to Church as women’s work.  There are 76% of baptized Catholics who don’t attend Mass regularly.  But if fathers thought that going to Church was important and went, their children and wives would follow.  Fathers have a profound effect on the next generation according to a census study from Switzerland.  If mom and dad attend regularly, 34% of their kids will attend regularly.  If mom goes regularly and dad goes irregularly or not at all, that drops to 2% or 3% of their kids who will attend regularly.  If dad goes regularly and mom irregularly or not at all, the percentage jumps to 38% or 44%!  This alone should give us pause to look at how to engage men for the New Evangelization! 

The Gospel: Fatherhood Restored

So if masculinity is in crisis, and the culture is distorting it; if fatherlessness and men are literally and figuratively killing our society; and if the next generation of Church attenders is largely dependent on men going to Church, where is that encyclical “On the Dignity of Men”?  Where is a clear articulation of masculinity? 

I am frustrated by the first question, but the answer to the second question is found in the Gospel and the Catechism.  Fatherhood is central to the Gospel: from original sin, which attempts to abolish God’s Fatherhood (see JPII’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 228); to salvation, which restored God’s Fatherhood (revealed as Abba—Daddy or Papa, Jn. 10:30-33, Mk. 14:36—and the father of the prodigal son, Lk. 15:11-32); and to the living out of earthly fatherhood as Malachi and Luke state, “turn[ing] the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 3:23-24; cf. Lk. 1:17).  (For a little more on the Gospel and Fatherhood, see my blog here.)

All Men Are Called to Fatherhood.

Thus I would tie masculinity directly to fatherhood.   All men, young, old, and in between, married and single, are called to fatherhood, first and always to spiritual fatherhood, then possibly to biological fatherhood.  St. Escriva says it this way, “Don’t let your life be sterile.” Men must be fruitful with spiritual or biological children!  Men are called to be fathers (mentors/big brothers/friends) to the fatherless. Fatherhood is a part of God’s essence—so why would it not be the essence of masculinity?

Fatherhood Lived Out As Prophet, Priest, and King

How is this lived out? I would build on Fr. Meconi’s idea of Christ as the model for men in His priestly function.  I would say that men’s spiritual and biological fatherhood are to be lived out as priest, prophet, and king as the foundation of authentic masculinity. This of course is based on the sacrament of baptism, where men (and women) “become sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal office” (CCC 871).  I will unpack this in a later blog.           

Men: The Most Leveraged Focus of the New Evangelization

But let’s say men were living out their authentic Catholic masculinity in spiritual fatherhood—we would see the ripple effects go through the family, the neighborhood, and the whole of society!  Each of the problem areas mentioned above—the identity crisis, the effects of fatherlessness, abortions, and poor church attendance—would all be positively impacted.   I think focusing on men is the most leveraged activity of the New Evangelization. 

While I haven’t thoroughly read Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which is on the New Evangelization, I did search it for the words “men” and “women.”  Men are not to be found as a focus, while women are (“we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” 103).  I am not begrudging this initiative; I just think it makes sense from the data of our Culture of Death to go after men for the good of families, the Church, and society.

John Paul II gave us a great deal to think about our sexuality.  Shouldn’t the Church be leading the charge on defining masculinity?  Isn’t it time for a theology of masculinity that will serve to ignite the New Evangelization in the third millennium?

Children Raised by Gay Parents WORSE OFF Than Other Kids, New Major Study Shows.
Most Antidepressants Make it Harder To Get Better, Study Says.
Don’t Think NFP is Effective? Advertisers KNOW It Is–”Bio-Marketing” Can Remotely Monitor Fertility Data to Increase Sales
Helping Your Kids Deal with Anger
About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

  • Joaco

    Remember “Fiddler on the Roof”? Wise words:

    “Who day and night must scramble for a living
    Feed the wife and children, SAY HIS DAILY PRAYERS!
    (…) The Papaaa!, Tradition!

    Who must know the way to make a proper home,
    A quiet home, a kosher home?
    Who must raise the family and run the home?
    The mamaaa!, Tradition

    • Dave McClow

      A high view of men and fatherhood, require a high view of women and motherhood!

    • axelbeingcivil

      What if, between a married couple, the wife is better equipped to make a living to feed the family and the husband is a better homemaker? I’m not really a fan of the notion that people should fall into assigned roles based on their chromosomes.

  • Thinkling

    I agree with this analysis. In a related area, we can also lament priestly formation which in many seminaries, for a dark period, actually endeavored to bring about a more emasculated priesthood, instead of an authentically masculine one to best be “in persona Christi”.

    While not about Christ per se, I found John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos to have good points about authentic masculinity.

    • Dave McClow

      Yes. And it seems to be turning the toward a more masculine approach with the JPII priests coming on line.

      I am finding some useful things in JPII Pastor Dabo Vobis. What is a good for priest is good for men in general.

  • Magistra6


    I recommend reading a very thought-provoking book on this topic: “The Three Marks of Manhood: How to be Priest, Prophet, and King of your Family,” by G. C. Dilsaver.

  • Mark

    As a Catholic I find the idea, “Christ is the ultimate model of masculinity just as Mary is for femininity” disturbing. This elevates man to God-level status, which is absurd.
    Furthermore, your comment, “Motherhood and fatherhood have always helped define femininity and masculinity. But while biology defines more what it means to be a woman, the culture defines more what it means to be a man” is both insensitive and senseless: if a woman chooses to join an order, or be single, is she therefore not a woman? Heck, you could take this poor argument and conclude that gender is not truly defined until one chooses their vocation!
    Please remember that we’re losing lots of women to the Catholic faith because these women feel inadequately forced into a box by the Church. So when defining my masculinity, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tear our fellow women down.

    • Dave McClow

      I don’t see your conclusions following the argument I was making.

      First: Men and women through baptism are both raised to a god-like status. Check your catechism number 460. Second if men are following Christ they are laying down their lives for their brides or Bride (the Church).

      Being a woman means having a womb and breasts. It shouldn’t be news that having a womb and breasts suggests that a women is capable of having babies and feeding them. Motherhood then is more biologically defined than a man who only contributes sperm to the biological process of getting children on earth. It doesn’t mean that fathers are not important. It does means that culture has more impact on the definition of being a man.

      “Heck, you could take this poor argument and conclude that gender is not truly defined until one chooses their vocation!”

      My whole point is that fatherhood defines masculinity–not just for those who have children, but all men must be spiritual fathers. You can say the same thing for women and spiritual motherhood. You don’t have to wait for a vocation choice. Women and men are called first and always to spiritual paternity. We are all called to be fruitful and multiply!

      A high view of masculinity, men, and fatherhood, means by definition, that you have a high view of femininity, women, and motherhood!

      You seem to have bought into a radical feminist lens that views relationships as only about power and who’s got it. Man = God, Women = mere human. This is not the Churches view at all. Much more could be said here, but this will have to suffice.

      Thanks Mark for helping me clarify this.

  • avalpert

    You don’t find it the least beat odd that having a mother go regularly to church actually decreases the likelihood that the kids will when the father goes to?

    That doesn’t scream either poor methodology or misinterpretation of the data to you?

    • Dave McClow

      Check out the study. I don’t think it was. I have the study if you are interested.

      My take is that mom’s have more influence in the beginning years, and dad’s have more influence as the kids go into the world.

  • Lydia

    I have found Emily Stimpson’s book These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body to have an excellent section on spiritual parenthood. I first heard of spiritual motherhood doing a Women of Grace study and what a beautiful teaching. I’m so happy to see you discussing spiritual fatherhood and how it can transform society.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “Women have a distinct and physical connection to the phrase in the Eucharistic prayer, “This is my body which has been given up for you.”

    This is so true, but we must stop putting all emphasis on the important heroism of men to be in wielding punishment and grand heroic gestures that last only briefly. I don’t know why we are told to believe that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were all non-sexual, but this makes light of the great role that generation after generation of preparing a people for greatness is born out in the family of Joseph and Mary and in the LIFE of Jesus.

    True heroism is not in suffering and dying; it is in everyday faithfulness of watching, working, waiting. Every minute that a man gives to support his family is a minute that he can also truly say, “This is my body which has been given up for you.”

  • axelbeingcivil

    Why not just teach people how to be people, and let gender fall by the wayside? I’m with Heinlein that specialization is for insects. The notion that qualities are masculine or feminine, be they gentility or a nurturing quality or leadership and ambition, is harmful; it does a disservice to people who do not fit the traditional shapes.

    • Dave McClow

      What is your response to the effects of fatherlessness? What is your response to the fact that the Church is 64% female?

      “it does a disservice to people who do not fit the traditional shapes” I would agree if you are thinking of stereotypes, but I think there is a complete picture that the Church can paint. Jesus is the model.

      To not want to deal with differences seems to deny reality. I have read stories of strong feminist’s giving up on trying to make their children be the same once confronted with the reality of the differences in their children. Masculinity and femininity have different expressions of the virtues.

      • axelbeingcivil

        My response to the effects of fatherlessness is that the psychological impacts on children are typically as a result of reduced care access, not necessarily because a family is somehow “incomplete” without a male parent or with a male parent who doesn’t fulfill a specific role. Statistics agree; single parents are typically required to work extensively, especially single mothers (who, statistically speaking, are from poorer and lower education backgrounds and thus lack the means to seek higher-paying work), leaving less time for child-care. They also are typically poorer, being a single-income household, and thus can’t afford the opportunities most can.

        Single parent households have problems but those problems don’t necessarily come from only having a single parental figure there. It’s just a case of four hands making lighter work of a task than two.

        All in all, what I would say is that I’d like all parents, male or female, to consider their children dearly. If you make a child, you have a responsibility to it, even if all that amounts to is realizing that you are not capable of taking care of them and turning them over to people who are. There’s nothing inherently gender-specific about caring for or raising a child.

        As for the church being primarily female, that’s pretty much always going to be and have been the case; churches act as community-organizing centres, traditionally, and so women, traditionally being the more active members in the social community, will be more represented amongst its members.

        Now, to answer the main thrust of this, I guess I’d be best going in order.

        Firstly, Jesus as the model is necessarily interpreted through societal lenses. What a given society deems masculine or feminine will naturally influence people’s views on just what their holy scriptures say. Early Christians, living in Rome, carved statues of Christ that depict a rather effeminate young man, with suggestions of breasts, long and curly hair, and an androgynous face. This was because, prior to the development of the notion of the Virgin Mary as an intercessory figure, Christ was the central figure to both male and female Christians. The Greco-Roman tradition was to depict deities as androgynous in a great many cases – look at Apollo, for example; peppering my admittedly rather formal argument with slang for a moment, he is a good definition of “man-pretty” – so that men and women alike could see characteristics of themselves in their figure of worship.

        In short, to early Christians, Christ wasn’t depicted as a wild, “manly man”; their view was one that could mix their own traditional views on gender, of divine power and delicate gentility.

        Today, the modern views of masculinity and femininity spring largely out of European societal convention that has wafted back and forth between egalitarianism and strict gender roles for centuries. Our societal lens tells us that men are symbols of authority; powerful, distant, rational, and, while said to be loving, doling out that emotion in the form of strict guidelines. This is the view many project onto God; a distant but ultimately loving father, who gives gifts and bestows punishments with the same temper their own might’ve showed them to fix a car or wielded a belt.

        This is acculturation. Traditionally male authority figures, often authoritarian in demeanor, passed on this notion that this is what it means to be a leader and, being an obviously central role model, what it means to be other things as well.

        Good grief, this is turning into a blog post all of its own…

        This long, winding pathway brings me to a response to your claim that differences are just plain biological or innate, re: the statement about feminists. The problem there is that we do not live in a vacuum. Any parent of any child in the developed world will see their child bombarded with messages from culture. Go to any store for children, see what the clothes and toys and entertainment are like; princesses, beauty, home-making toys for girls; construction, destruction, competition for boys.

        Even if the parent makes a deliberate effort to keep their child from that, it’s pretty much impossible to maintain a “bubble” and let individual personality develop without outside influences. These kids watch TV, they read books, they go to school, and so forth; they can’t avoid picking up social and cultural cues. They’ll integrate them into their own wants and behaviours because humans have a social drive to adapt and fit in with the herd; standing out is dangerous when done poorly.

        In the end, I believe people are people, regardless of chromosomes. There might be statistical commonalities of differences between genders but natural human variance is broad enough that statistical commonality is a bad thing to rely on when declaring someone’s destiny, and to suggest that just because someone has a propensity that they should fall into a certain role is, to say the least, a bit worrying. To tell them that there is a divinely inspired reason for this is doubly so.

        Let’s teach people to be people, and not pigeon-hole them from birth.

        Good grief, that was a journey and a half. My apologies. If you make it through that, I salute you.

  • Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente

    Surely Christ is the prototype for Christian behaviour, for both men and women.