Why don't men like church? Sometimes a story is hard to see because it's just too common

This week's "Crossroads" podcast is rather different from the norm. Please allow me to explain why.

You see, this podcast is not about a story that is in the news. It's a discussion of a larger trend that I am convinced is helping shape some major trends -- in culture, in the church and, yes, often in the news.

Like what? Well, it is relevant to the rise of the "nones," especially the departure of young men from pews. It's also, I have long been convinced, linked to several hot-button debates about the Catholic priesthood. You could make a case that this trend -- centuries old, actually -- is helping fuel the decline of liberal Protestantism in the West, while also causing problems (to a lesser degree, statistically) in evangelical and Pentecostal sanctuaries.

Oh, and then there is that whole "Jesus is my boyfriend" issue in modern church music, in megachurch Protestantism and even in some liturgical circles.

We are talking about the fact that lots and lots of men just don't want to go to church. Go to most churches -- especially struggling churches -- and look around. What is the ratio of women to men?

I wrote a pair of columns about this and, frankly, I have been getting some interesting feedback from readers. People are not neutral on this subject, for sure. They either think this problem is real or they think that people who want to discuss the issue are (a) way too liberal, (b) way too conservative, (c) anti-women, (d) anti-Catholic tradition or some combination of the above (and I could have added lots of other factors that folks put in that mix.)

The columns were based on a series of lectures by the conservative Catholic writer Leon Podles, author of the controversial 1999 book "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," that were delivered recently at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore. In a way, Podles -- a former federal investigator with a doctorate in English -- was updating the work in that book.

To check out those columns, click here for Part I, which focuses on what Podles believes is the long, long history of this trend, and then here for Part II, which discusses ways that churches can try to address these problems. Here is the overture to the second column:

Sunday after Sunday, believers stand and sing at the start of worship. Here is the question author Leon Podles wants church leaders to ponder: Which of these two entrance hymns would inspire the most fervor in men?
First, consider these modern lyrics: "I am God of the Earth like a Mother in labor I bring all to birth. With all the Earth we sing your praise! We come to give you thanks, o lover of us all, and giver of our loving. … We are your work of art, the glory of your hand, the children of your loving."
Now for something completely different: "The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain; his blood red banner streams afar: who follows in his train? Who best can drink His cup of woe, triumphant over pain, who patient bears his cross below -- he follows in His train."

It's crucial to understand that Podles is not talking -- for the most part -- about feminism, in the modern sense. He is talking about trends of feminization in style, culture and content that go back into the Middle Ages, in the churches of the West (think Europe and the Americas, in particular).

Thus, here is some crucial material from the first column, linked to his central thesis:

... Podles kept returning to two themes. First, in the Christian West faith increasingly focused on emotions and feelings, as opposed to action, service and sacrifice. Then this approach soaked into worship and sacred art.
"My theory is: men distance themselves from church because they think church, and maybe Christianity in general, is feminine, and they want to be masculine and don't want to be feminine," he said.
Throughout history, men have been willing to make great sacrifices to defend the faith and spread the faith. The list of laymen recognized as martyrs and saints was long, Podles explained -- until the late Middle Ages.
What men have never been willing to do, he noted, in a follow-up interview, is meekly follow leaders they do not believe are strong and inspiring.

To be blunt, Podles believes that church leaders have worried -- for centuries -- about keeping men under control. The problem with that, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is that all kinds of bad things happen to marriages, families, the church and society when men are not active in a traditional faith. Fathers are crucial to the development of faith in their children, for example.

This is a bitter irony, in light of the Medieval trends that led to this "good Christians are docile and obedient" trend. Here is part of a long Podles interview at NewEvangelization.com:

In one French city in the Middle Ages, careful studies have shown half the young men were involved in gang rape. It was just a practice. Obviously, responsible adults were not happy about this behavior, and the Church and the state got together over the centuries, trying to reign in young men, and with some success, a great deal of success, that the homicide rate has declined 90 percent in Europe since the Middle Ages, 90 percent, more in some countries. It’s almost non‑existent in countries like Norway.
A centuries‑long campaign, almost ended murder in Europe, and the same thing with gang rape, was severely punished over the centuries. The clergy and the state got together to do this. Now, the clergy’s role in this was to convince men not to be so violent, and they decided the best way to do this was to convince men to be more like women, and they found a theological justification for this in Aristotle, who said that the feminine is receptive and the male is active.
The clergy thought, “A‑ha, so Christians should be receptive. Therefore, a Christian should be feminine,” and this is misunderstanding, but they preached this to young men over, and over, and over again, “To be a Christian, you have to be feminine.”
The clergy also were very active in trying to end not only homicide and gang rape, things which should have been ended, but anything that would excite young men: drinking, sports, dancing, fireworks, a big opposition among Spanish countries.
The clergy were extremely opposed to fireworks because they excited young men. [laughs] Young men did not appreciate this, and remembered, when they grew older, that the clergy were their enemy, that the clergy were the “Fun Police.” they wanted to stop anything a young man enjoyed, like whistling on Sundays, [laughs] or going for walks on the Sabbath and extreme Sabbatarians.
These young men found the clergy opposed everything that young men enjoyed. For instance, the Curé of Ars (St. John Vianney) came to the town Ars after the French Revolution, which was totally de‑Christianized. In his inaugural sermon, he said what he wanted to do more than anything else in this village, he would accomplish one thing. Stop dancing.
He would refuse absolution to people who had danced, even refuse absolution to people who watched people dancing. He built a chapel in his church to John the Baptist, writing the words, “His head was the price of a dance.” The young men did not appreciate this, and the amount of energy put into condemning dancing, both by Catholics and Protestants, is astonishing.
I think it’s a proxy for “sexuality” myself, but Charles Borromeo excommunicated people who confessed to dancing three times. They were excommunicated if they confessed to dancing three times. The Council of Baltimore in the 19th century forbade dancing at any Catholic event.
Young men got the message loud and clear, “Whatever you like to do, any excitement you like, is bad, and you should sit quiet like a girl,” and boys don’t like to do this. ..."

There's much more to discuss on this topic. Hopefully, these columns started some discussions -- including in some newsrooms. The second column ended with these thoughts:

The bottom line: Do not fear challenging men to do difficult, even painful, things.
"We tend to gloss over all the mentions of honor and glory in the New Testament, but they really are the goal at which we aim -- to be honored by God, to hear His voice saying, 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' " said Podles. Thus, spiritual leaders must remember that, "men want to be respected, to be assured that they are real men. But the only real validation can come from an infallible judge."

Enjoy the podcast.

Please respect our Commenting Policy