Masculine Christianity R.I.P.?
Allan C. Carlson
One of the great churchmen of our time, Cardinal George Pell of Ballarat, Australia, died this January 10 in Rome. He was 81 years of age.
I first met him in 1994, when he was the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Melbourne. I had journeyed “down under” to give several talks for a conference of the Australian Family Association, of which he was ecclesiastical patron. As I had been told, he was a physically imposing man, tall and muscular. In his youth he had excelled at Australian rules football, a game that makes the American version seem tame. Indeed, in 1959 he signed a contract to play professionally for the famed Richmond Football Club. However, he soon left the sport to study for the Catholic priesthood.
His presence brought to mind a description of the spirit found among members of the Catholic Jesuit order in the 1930s. “The model was one of a muscular Christianity and imperturbable masculinity,” wrote historian Peter McDonough in his book Men Astutely Trained. The priest was heir to that wholly male band of Christ’s disciples and was expected to show the same self-sacrificing courage they had shown centuries before.As one novice from the modern era explained, these were young men “grounded in the spirit of St. Ignatius—men of generous heart and powerful physical constitution equipped, themselves, to vanquish Satan and to snatch from the jaws of Hell souls who were made for Heaven and Happiness.”
Pell’s masculine Christianity was rounded off, or completed, by his role as a spiritual father, at both the parish and societal levels. His own talk at the AFA conference celebrated the natural family as the incubator of Christian faith and warned of the dark forces gathering to destroy it. In 2001, he invited me to return to Australia to give the keynote address at the founding of his new project, the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family–Melbourne. And he was a formal patron of several controversial World Congress of Families events held in his land. As I would sometimes joke, he had this Protestant’s vote to be the next pope.
The shadowy leaders of Australia’s cultural left, including the influential “gay community” of Sydney, found this form of masculine religious and social leadership to be intolerable; George Pell, they resolved, must be destroyed. In 2002 they floated allegations that Pell had sexually abused a 12-year-old boy four decades earlier, a charge that dissolved in the light of day. In 2017 they tried again, advancing patently absurd allegations of child sexual assault said to have occurred while he was archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell, now prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy in Rome, returned home and stood trial. Mobs of persons, seething in rage, gathered each day outside the courthouse, demanding Pell’s conviction. The first trial ended in a hung jury. A second jury, though, gave in to the mob. Convicted, Pell began to serve a six-year prison term in solitary confinement. However, Australia’s highest court overturned his conviction in April 2020, holding that the jury had betrayed its trust. Nonetheless, the fate of George Pell looms large before would-be champions of a muscular, traditional Catholicism.
The Household of Herr Pastor
Masculine Protestantism has suffered a different, if equally dismal, fate in our time. The model, of course, had been Martin Luther. After rejecting lifelong celibacy for clerics, citing abuses, the German reformers of the sixteenth century embraced a strongly patriarchal family structure. Herr Pastor would preside over a boisterous household, rich in offspring and activity. He would employ the male attributes of foresight, risk-taking, and courage, and serve as protector of the Christian home—his own, first and foremost, but also those under his pastoral care.
The pastor’s wife, inspired by the Proverbs 31 woman, would bear the children, manage the daily business of the household, care for the sick and infirm, and inspire and counsel the women in her husband’s congregation. Famously, Luther’s wife, Katharina, set the pattern as the mother of ten children (six natural and four “adopted”), the “boss of Zuhlsdorf” (their farm), and “the morning star of Wittenberg,” known for her early rising to tend to her many duties. Laymen, as “housefathers,” and their goodwives would follow the pastoral example.
In his remarkably sympathetic book When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, Harvard University historian Steven Ozment describes this “as the heyday of the patriarchal nuclear family.” The Lutherans exalted the energized Christian home as bringing “the liberation of men, women, and children from religious, sexual, and vocational bondage.” More broadly, “[a] father not only provided for the present and future needs of his immediate family but also extended his household” throughout the homeland, giving assistance to “church and school, friends and neighbors, the poor and the needy.”
The ultimate ruin of the Protestant pastoral home came in the middle decades of the twentieth century through women’s ordination. That act openly denied that the office of pastor had necessary male attributes—no Muscular Christianity needed here. Indirectly, but just as brutally, the ordination of women destroyed the informal office of pastor’s wife. In parallel to the traditional Roman Catholic nuns who found their lives and work (and even their garments) under assault in the wake of the Vatican II conclave, pastoral wives were now dismissed as embarrassing relics of an unnecessary patriarchal past. They faced a common challenge: “So you want to do church work, honey? Get ordained—or get a real job somewhere else.”
A Very Visible Sign
For their part, ordained women became the spiritual pioneers of transgenderism, a distorted form of maleness in a post-masculine milieu. Trying to fit themselves into the still implicit male pattern, they cut their hair, suppressed their breasts, tried to hide all the other natural curves, and adopted grim smiles. Such grey countenances now populate the churchwide assemblies of progressive Protestantism.
Progressive Catholics are eager to catch up. Planning a masterstroke, the Germans managing the current “Synodal Way” are, according to reliable reports, moving toward two acts: First, citing sexual abuses, they want the Roman Church to allow priests to marry. And second, they want the same Church to ordain women. This would simultaneously smash both the celibate male priesthood and the Herr Pastor alternative, ending two millennia of masculine Christianity in the West.
But what about the East? Among the Orthodox, patriarchs still lead the autocephalous churches, and the priesthood remains all male, even among “progressive” Greeks. Some years ago, I was enjoying a beer with medical ethicist Tristram Engelhardt. Born in Texas and a convert to Orthodoxy through the Antiochian Church, he would sometimes show up at a meeting in cowboy hat and boots, claiming to be “a Texan Arab,” and so he was that evening. I said something positive about the Orthodox “compromise” on family matters, preserving celibacy as the standard for monks and those aspiring to ecclesiastical leadership, while encouraging parish priests to marry and welcome a brood of children. He replied with a flourish: “Compromise?! Hell no! This is God’s Truth!” Perhaps so, but I leave that for another discussion.
Still, the Eastern Orthodox have given today’s young Christian men a model of and respect for another—and very visible—sign of masculinity: the beard! While most Protestant Reformers grew beards as an indication of virile (and philoprogenitive) masculinity, and even Catholic prelates took up the fashion (if for different reasons) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by the twentieth century most Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy avoided facial hair. Only the Orthodox saw and maintained the full beard as a sign of faithfulness.
This is now changing. According to some accounts, the turn to beards began a decade ago through the example of “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson and his Duck Dynasty, religiously grounded in Southern Baptist piety. However, beards now seem to be growing in all the provinces of Mere Christianity. My own Lutheran parish, staunchly Missouri Synod, counts many young men drawn by an energetic pastor who preaches a masculine gospel. The majority of them have full beards.
Perhaps this is God’s answer to the heresy of women’s ordination. No matter how many ways a woman might draw or pump testosterone into her body, she can produce no more than a pathetic tangle of wispy hair on her chin. Here, the spiritually transgendered meet their Maker. May billions upon billions of hair follicles bloom!
Allan C. Carlson is the John Howard Distinguished Senior Fellow at the International Organization for the Family. His most recent book is Family Cycles: Strength, Decline & Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Transaction, 2016). He and his wife have four grown children and nine grandchildren. A "cradle Lutheran," he worships in a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.
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