Recently the blog Those Catholic Men wrote a piece on how to keep our sons from being “effeminate”. Let me say first that I agree, and very much support, the intent of this piece–that we need to raise sons that exemplify the virtues of courage, gentility (righteous anger), and truth. But there are a couple of issues I have with the article, that need to be addressed and understood if we really want to help our men.
Is Intellectual Modesty Bad?
The author of the post used the following quote from G. K. Chesterton to help illustrate his point:
“At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table… Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy).
The appeal of this quote is understandable: it is from a well known and respected author and gets at the heart of what the blogger is attempting to show–that men today are failing to take a stand for Truth out of fear of “offending” someone. But this quote, when taken in the context of what Chesterton is saying, is not really about courage, but about humility. Chesterton is not commenting on a fear of “offending” but rather on the pervasive epistemological doubt that characterizes a generation that grew-up in full fledged post-modernism. Yes, as a culture we do tend to fear “offending” people, and that is detrimental–but we also suffer from a serious self-doubt that we cannot actually be certain about everything we “believe”. I would argue that this self-doubt, this “epistemological modesty”, can actually be a healthy thing. While a man who is strong in opinion may unwaveringly assert that, for example, his system of economics is objectively the best, it takes a true man of courageous faith to assert that, while there are obvious merits and partial truths to the beliefs of others, his faith is objectively best.
And this is the actual problem that the author is trying to address–our men commit the vices opposed to true humility: either they obstinately adhere to a belief despite the obvious (as shown in the heretics) or they are so intellectually modest to the extreme of thinking all things true (as the pluralist). In addition, the prideful fails to see any good in any belief system other than his own, while the overly modest fails to see the unique and even better good in his own. Are we raising men who fail at the virtue of courage? Yes, but only because they first fail at the virtue of humility.
The Curse of the Effeminate
As Catholics who wish to foster a culture of affirmation, virtue, and a true understanding of gender and sexuality, we need to banish the word “effeminate” from our vocabulary. I understand that the author most likely used that word to draw people to the article, but I don’t believe the implications of using that word were worth the potential good that people may have gained from reading the post.
To be “effeminate” is defined according to Webster as “having feminine qualities untypical of a man : not manly in appearance or manner”. It derives from the latin effeminatus meaning “womanish, voluptuous, tender”. It is not used only to imply that one’s mannerism are “womanly” but also in appearance. As opposed to the word “feminine” it almost always is used in the negative sense and applied to a male. It therefore implies that any qualities of tenderness a man may possess are unbecoming. This can only serve to further the notion that “our” view of manhood is the only correct view.
We cannot commit the same offense as the secular world and portray men as a single, uniform, personality. The Catholic stereotype is a man who is brashly outspoken and very abrasive about the superiority of the Catholic Church. He probably smokes a pipe, loves to go camping, has fathered twelve children, and is the sole provider for his family. It sounds ridiculous because it is. Manhood, just like womanhood, is about manifesting virtues through one’s own calling in life–being a damn good professor, caregiver, lumberjack, soldier, writer, teacher, musician, artist, or whatever you may be. Take, for example, two men: the first is a shy man prone to timidity, few words, and soft spoken. The second is outspoken and has an opinion about everything. Both men can be virtuous–for the first man it would be an act of courage to speak up when he knows he has something of value to say, and it would be an act of fortitude for the second man to keep quiet when he’s proven wrong. As Aristotle has said, virtue is particular to each person according to his natural state.
When we use the word “effeminate” we are setting up our young men to hate in themselves any manifestation of virtue, especially that of humility, which may be culturally construed as “womanly”. Since when has the virtue of humility been relegated only to the domain of the female, and why should a quality of holiness, shown in a woman, be construed as a vice when shown in a man? Holiness is holy, no matter the gender or how it is particularly manifest in one man compared to another. Ever try comparing what holiness looks like in the lives of the saints???
Furthermore, by continuing to use the term “effeminate” to describe what we would consider less than masculine men, we are unconsciously telling young men and women that the feminine is somehow “lesser” than the masculine. It’s like telling anyone “You throw like a girl!” and not thinking about how that implies that girls are weaker than boys. My point here is that it would be more productive and encouraging to charitably tell our young people about specific behaviors we find detrimental to their physical and spiritual well-being, instead of name-calling in a way which subconsciously projects unloving ideas about the opposite sex. So instead of saying “You throw like a girl!”, we should say “Throw harder! Put some muscle into it!”
The goal here is not to nitpick about political correctness, but to reflect on how our words affect the hearers–are we bearing testament to the truth and joy of the Gospel? Are the ways we are talking (even joking) about the differences between the sexes supporting the Truths we know from Theology of the Body? What is our goal in saying these things? Does it cut down, or does it build up? There’s a scripture about that somewhere.