Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Never Mentioned Problem Of The Male Gender Gap In Church Participation

This is where a lot of Catholic men must be getting their spiritual sustenance. It's certainly not in Catholic Churches.

One of the biggest issues in Catholicism, and one which is never addressed, is the gender gap in practicing Catholics. While it is true that men in general attend Christian services less than women, the gap in Catholicism is double what it is in protestant congregations. What's even more interesting is that there is no real gender gap in other spiritual traditions--Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Judaism. So it's not that men in general are less spiritually inclined than women, and that's probably true for men in the West, it's that men are turned off by the religious expression of Christianity as it's practiced and conceptualized.

Some writers feel this trend is a product of men substituting consumerism and secular pursuits for religious practice. Others see it as an outgrowth of the anti clericalism in Europe coupled with Catholicism's official promotion of the kind of personal piety exemplified by the female mystics and visionaries of the late 1800's. This period also saw a huge upswing in Marian devotions and Pius IX's crusade against modernism and the rise of the European middle class. Writers in this camp see much of what Pio NoNo promulgated as an attempt to shore up male clerical power in the face of a rising population of educated and independent men. Still others see this gap as indicative of the failure of modern Christian denominations to have adequate rites of initiation for male adherents or any kind of message which gives meaning to the core attributes of the masculine side of spirituality. Leon Podles falls in this camp.

What ever one thinks the reasons are, the lack of male participation will insure the steady downward trend in active Catholics. In spite of all the hoopla around young conservative males being the future of the Church, the facts are that the biggest gender gap is seen in these very generations and one of the reasons is because their fathers didn't go to Mass.

This gender gap can't be blamed on Vatican II or the abuse scandal. This has been a steady and predictable arc for over 200 years. This also means it can't be blamed on feminist nuns, or feminism in general. The perception of Catholicism as not being a manly pursuit is the direct product of the all male clergy. They have created the Church that their fellow men have rejected.

I do believe the Vatican is subtly trying to address this gender gap problem (with out ever admitting it) with some recent decisions. One was the attempt to blame the abuse scandal on gays and the subsequent attempt to remove the 'effeminate' gay male from seminaries. Another could be the multiple investigations of the LCWR. Two of Cardinal Levada's stated issues are women's ordination and homosexuality. Can't be having either one of those if the idea is to appeal to masculine men. Time to put those 'feminazis' in their place.

Even some of the proposed changes in the liturgy could fall into this category. It's hardly unusual to read male comments disparaging the 'touchy feely kumbaya' nature of the Novus Ordo or comments concerning the emasculation of Jesus by making of Him some kind of bleeding heart social worker instead of the Divine sacrificial martyr hero of the Tridentine rite.

The trouble is, I doubt any of these steps are going to appreciably effect the gender gap. The problem is much deeper than gays, and the LCWR or the Novus Ordo and goes back much further in the Catholic tradition. It has to do with the fact that the dignity of the ordinary male who did ordinary masculine things like marry and have sex and raise children was purposely relegated to an inferior position as opposed to males who maintained sexual purity and became dedicated religious. The irony of this is that while clerical men gained enormous social status the biggest losers were all other men. I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind, but it's what we have now. '
Addressing this gender issue is one of the places I hope the emerging church can be successful. If it can't address male spirituality in a meaningful way, emerging churches won't have much of a future either.


  1. My first thought was that men have enough already--only the male pronouns to be used in prayer--and the plumes and swords of the Knights--then I thought back to how sad it is that men-and women-in the married state have so little value in this Church. Being a faithful and loving husband or wife,father or mother seems to be reduced to procreative activity and raising your children in the faith. What happened to "Love one another as Christ has loved you?"

  2. This was such a profound reflection steeped with so much insight Colleen! I'd never made the correlation between the stereotypical apathy of males, when it came to their Christian Faith, to the gap between the celibate priesthood compared to the average layman.

    But now this approach gives me a whole new series of insights as well. Perhaps the current leadership of the Church is so pre-occupied with homosexuality precisely because of the celibate nature pervasive throughout all of the priesthood. If some priests were allowed to marry and have children perhaps there wouldn't be such a "cover-up" phenomenon present among the members of the priesthood, at least when it came to those who were gay, to hide their orientation.

    Personally, I just feel that if priests were allowed to marry, and these priests had children who turned out gay perhaps this would contribute to a re-awakening or evaluation of the said norms within the Church when it came to homosexuality.

    If the priesthood wasn't set apart as a preferred moral category above the people, but rather, IN the midst of the people maybe more heterosexual males would see married priests as role models, and therefore, holiness and devotion to the Lord as not just a feminine quality practiced by nuns but an equally masculine attribute practiced by dedicated priests as well as other male religious individuals.

    It is sad though how so many male Christians just fall by the wayside when it comes to their Faith and let their wives do all the work in raising their children in their Faith.

  3. Excellent analysis, Colleen. I suspect the exodus of men from churches in Europe began when churches seemed to side with the owning classes rather than workers.

    Ironically, as this shift was going on, Christian leaders in England started talking about "muscular Christianity," and the clergy who chose to live in blighted urban areas with working-class folks were often ridiculed as effeminate, because they often were high church.

    I suspect a lot of European men have come to identify the church with the haves, and they see it as being vs. the have-nots--unconcerned with them as workers. And they haven't been taken in by the window-dressing approach that tries to depict Christianity as something for real men.

    As long as churches appear to identify with the wealthy elites who control things politically and economically, they will not attract many men in Europe, though they may do so in the U.S., because we consider ourselves above ideologies like classism.

  4. P.S. I like your point, Phillip, about the preoccupation with celibacy among a celibate clergy.

    I suspect that preoccupation has a lot to do with the need of an all-male, male-bonded social group to be noisy about its heterosexuality. A theologian friend of mine points out that groups that are the most male-bonded and exclusively male--e.g., the police and army historically, and the Catholic priesthood--are also the noisiest about their heterosexuality.

    They have to be because the male bonding, in an all-male club, is so intense.

  5. You should look at Orthodoxy also. Go to a Greek or Arabic Orthodox Church and see the number of men outside the church smoking, talking, making deals. They only go in to get their wives and children or to go to the little meal after services.

  6. I think that men have grown distant to a paternalism that tries to control them as if they were their sons. I also think there has been a certain degree of homophobia in men and the RCC clergy has traditionally been 40 to 60% homosexual. I think also some men just prefer to put their spirituality in their women.

    By the way, sometimes going fishing may be a lot more spiritual than listening to a large number of sermons that I have sat through.

    R. Dennis Porch

  7. Dennis, I still feel that way about a round of golf early in the morning.

    Phillip, I think the celibate nature of the clergy may have a lot to do with the fact the gender gap in Catholicism is twice what it is in other Christian denominations.

    I also think you have a good point about married clerics having gay children, or even being able to sympathize with other parents who have gay children. Sharing an experience makes a huge difference in empathy.

    Bill, I read a study in which the authors traced a number of Catholic traditions in piety directly to Pio NoNo. Things like Holy Cards, and Marian devotions, and an upsurge in devotions to various and sundry saints. They too thought these were directly aimed at working class males who were upwardly mobile and getting too independent.

    No different I guess than Benedict's sudden interest in John Vianney. No wonder so many men go fishing or golfing on Sunday.