Cardinal Burke's vision of a manly church, and what it leaves out

When it comes to policing grammar and usage, as any editor must, there are shifts in what is considered acceptable that it is fruitless to fight against. Ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, using "decimate" to mean "destroy almost completely"—there's no compelling reason to resist any of those things, aside from pedantry for its own sake. But I will always hold the line on the misuse of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." I don't care if it gets past the copy-editors at the New Yorker; it must not win the day. And the reason I resist is that "begging the question" is an important concept, and when we want to talk about it, we ought to have a phrase that clearly points it out. I was glad to be able to call on it in the final paragraph of my most recent Commonweal column, where I wrote this: "Who knows: maybe my kids will grow up to be the ones who can explain the all-male priesthood to me in a way that makes sense—who can offer a theological justification that doesn’t sound like begging the question."

Now, in his recent eyebrow-raising interview with (yes) the New Emangelization, Cardinal Raymond Burke has given us all a perfect and dismayingly high-profile example of what I'm talking about. He says:

I think that [the introduction of female altar servers] has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of [a] priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

What is it about serving as an altar boy that is "manly"? Well, the fact that it is similar to what a priest does, and what a priest does is manly by virtue of the fact that only a man can be a priest. "It requires a certain manly discipline," Burke says, but then later he concedes that "girls were also very good at altar service" once they were allowed to try it. So maybe it doesn't require any distinctly manly aptitude after all. As we have seen, this is a familiar part of traditionalists' argument for restricting the role of altar server to boys: the notion that they won't be interested in doing it if it's not something only boys can do. Thus my impression that most common defenses of the all-male priesthood, and the choices we make to maintain it, are begging the question: Unless you take for granted that the priesthood is properly and necessarily reserved to men, a role only a man can fulfill, none of this stuff meant to support that idea—e.g., claims about altar servers needing to be "manly"—makes any sense.

It should be clear from my column that my cultural assumptions are basically the opposite of Burke's: he thinks young boys need to be raised with a strong sense that the roles open to them are open only to them because of their incipient manliness; I think it is bad to impose arbitrary gender-role boundaries on children before they've had any chance to develop a sense of self based on their individual gifts and inclinations. Burke, or his fellow traditionalists, would reply that the boundaries they value are not arbitrary. But if so, why do they require such effortful reinforcement? Burke points to the pernicious influence of "radical feminism," but he seems to mean just "feminism." I don't deny that there's any significance to gender or sex in personal development. But I have faith that the non-arbitrary boundaries that will guide my sons into their future lives as men will assert themselves without much help from me. It's the assumptions they will make about where women fit into the picture that I'm worried about.

In short, I don't want them to look at the world the way Cardinal Burke seems to, as though women were not worthy of much consideration at all. Oh, when he mentions women he knows enough to say positive things. "Women are wonderful, of course," he says, and later: "It is easier to engage women because our sisters tend to be very generous and talented." But he doesn't mention us much. And what he says about men—who are, after all, the subject of this interview—is most notable, to my mind, for the way it leaves women out of the picture altogether.

“If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically,” Burke says. But of course we are training young men. (Radical feminists might have flipped the tables and kicked out all the boys when they let the girls in; ordinary feminists just figure both should be equally welcome.) Burke means "If we are not training only young men." The only goes without saying. If it's not for boys only, it's not any good—because, as he argues, "Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural."

And what if young girls do want to be altar servers, like the boys? (And not instead of them?) As I did? Was that not natural? Please phrase your answer in the form of not begging the question.

Most of what Burke says in this interview is a not-very-sophisticated version of standard traditionalist concerns about too many ladies spoiling the manliness of the church. However, finding that sort of talk on the fringe is one thing. It is far more alarming to hear someone who until very recently held a position of significance in the Vatican sounding like he's reporting in from Mars.

Unfortunately, the radical feminist movement strongly influenced the Church, leading the Church to constantly address women’s issues at the expense of addressing critical issues important to men.

Yes, if there is one thing you can say about how the church lost its way in the last fifty years, it is the constant focus on women's issues. Why, just recently the CDF was effusively praising U.S. sisters for their attentiveness to the demands of radical feminism.

The goodness and importance of men became very obscured, and for all practical purposes, were not emphasized at all. This is despite the fact that it was a long tradition in the Church, especially through the devotion of St. Joseph, to stress the manly character of the man who sacrifices his life for the sake of the home, who prepares with chivalry to defend his wife and his children and who works to provide the livelihood for the family.

The importance of men became obscured! In the Catholic Church! Except of course for the fact that men remained exclusively in possession of all positions of authority and power, as they had been for many centuries. But other than that!

Aspects of the Church’s life that emphasized the man‑like character of devotion and sacrifice have been deemphasized. Devotions that required time and effort were simply abandoned. Everything became so easy and when things are easy, men don’t think it is worth the effort.

He's conflating a couple of things here—the falling off in formerly popular devotions (things like Eucharistic Adoration and First Fridays and rigorous fasting, I would assume), and the disappearance of overtly gendered ways of approaching prayer, like (his example) the concept of "Knights of the Altar." He asserts that the latter is "highly appealing to young men," but has he considered that such things have fallen out of favor because they are no longer appealing? That they tapped into a culture where men needed, or would respond to, a self-consciously "manly" framework for their parish involvement, and that in today's culture men might find such a thing embarrassingly out of touch with their experience of family and faith life? That perhaps conflating chivalry and devotion is not a timelessly relevant way to think about being a Christian? I'm all for reintroducing devotional practices that give people, men and women alike (and even separately, if they like), a way into developing a relationship with Christ or a reverence for the Eucharist or a sense of parish belonging. But if those things won't work without a lot of rickety men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus framing, then maybe they just don't work.

One thing that makes Burke's worldview difficult to grasp is his idiosyncratic notion of what masculinity—or "manliness"—consists in. I ordinarily consider myself above linking with a smirk to a photo of the cardinal in his magna cappa and lace whenever he says something foolish, since it seems to me the whole "What kind of man wears a dress" approach is not all that enlightened itself. But in this case it seems almost obligatory to point out that the "manly" culture Burke longs to return to is ringed about with lace and robes.

As for devotion to St. Joseph, that is indeed a wonderful tradition, and one that has always struck me as fairly vibrant even in our corrupted age. Most of the religious sisters I know are very big St. Joseph fans (although their perspective is immaterial to Burke). But when I think of the images of St. Joseph from the era Burke harks back to, "manly" is not the word that comes to mind. Ditto, for that matter, the images of Jesus that were popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They tend to be pale and a bit droopy. It's hard to imagine *that* Joseph having much success with a hammer and nails, let alone defending his family from whatever dangers may present themselves. I live near a lovely church named for St. Joseph, built in the 1920s. The statue of him at his workbench, convincingly plying his trade, that my sons love to admire is a recent addition to the garden outside; inside there's a stained-glass window of St. Joseph in glory, holding a lily in his delicate hands. It's a beautiful image, but "manly" isn't the word I'd use to describe it.

Nor is "manly" how I'd describe Burke's favored vestments, or the work of an altar server, or excessive fear that liberated women demanding their rights will overwhelm one's sense of self. But for Burke those things fit the definition of manliness because they belong, or belonged, to men in a world where men are the only ones whose experiences must be considered. If the priesthood is taken to be a realm of men alone, then everything pertaining to the priesthood is by definition manly, from wearing lacy albs to swinging a censer to hearing confessions. Burke values the outward trappings that set priests apart, and because reserving the priesthood to men sets priests apart from women, that distinction must be maintained.

The big problem with this way of looking at things is that it does not have room in it for women except as the outsiders over against whom manliness is defined. Burke's claims about what men respond to and prefer imply corollaries about women that he never even acknowledges, because making room for women is simply not a concern. Look, for example, at how Burke brings in the old poor-postconciliar-catechesis-is-to-blame theme:

Young men were not being taught that they are made in the image of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These young men were not taught to know all those virtues that are necessary in order to be a man and to fulfill the particular gifts of being male.

It seems not to occur to Burke that there's a problem with his formulation here that might explain why nobody wants to teach it. Namely, if the proper way to understand those titles of the Trinity is as ennobling boys and men to embrace their particular, manly sharing in the image of God, where does that leave girls and women? Are they not made in God's image? Or just, you know, not as much?

Learning that it is not manly to be vulgar or blasphemous and that a man is welcoming and courteous to others; these might seem like little things but they form a man’s character. Much of this has been lost.

Don't those things form everyone's character? If it's not manly to be vulgar and discourteous, is it feminine? Or does it go without saying that it's not feminine, and only boys need to be taught to be courteous? These are questions that arise naturally if you assume that girls are in the room. And what feminism holds is that preferring to avoid those questions is not a sufficient reason to exclude girls from the room.

Explaining the supposed exodus of men from active participation in church life, Burke cites "serious liturgical abuses that turn men off"; one such abuse he names is that "in many places the Mass became very priest-centered." Which...is...something men hate?

Young men and men respond to rigor and precision and excellence.

Whereas young women...?

Men don’t go in for this kind of corny approach to the Mass when it becomes some kind of feel-good session, or where there is irreverence. Men are there to receive Jesus Christ.

Whereas women...?

I don't know whether to be disappointed or grateful that the cardinal's interviewer did not respond to any of those statements with what seem to me to be obvious follow-up questions. (Instead, he responded with observations like "Men think that the Mass is feminized and they don’t really understand the powerful manliness of the Mass.")

Discussions, like this one, about how to return the church to its proper course, where the priesthood is embraced as the exclusive realm of men, tend to gesture patronizingly toward women's natural goodness, if they think to mention women at all. It's most important to tend to the needs of men, the argument goes, because only men can be priests, which we need, and anyway women will take care of themselves. There is some reason to believe in feminine loyalty despite neglect, given how women have stuck around all this time despite the shoddy treatment we've received (as even the Vatican office for religious life seemed to acknowledge in its final report on the visitation of U.S. nuns). But Burke is certainly not speaking out of respect for the dogged faithfulness of women religious, nor out of a sense that women might properly feel insulted by some of what has in the past served as catechesis on the sexes. What undergirds his arguments is not so much a conviction that women don't need as much from the church as men do; it's a confidence that the church, properly constituted, doesn't need as much from women.

That perspective says something frightening about how Burke and others like him understand women's participation in the body of Christ. But it says something even worse about what they think of men. If it's true that male egos are so fragile that having to share space with women will naturally drive them away from God, then the church that depends exclusively on their service and leadership really is in crisis.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Also by this author
"a virtuous pain to read"

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Books
Collections