News Focus

Be a hero and save your family’s souls

Bishop Thomas Olmsted: ‘Men must save their families from destruction’ (CNS)

This time last year a senior cardinal boldly suggested that men were in special need of evangelisation because they were being sidelined by the modern Church. In an interview with a website called the Catholic Emangelisation Project (sic), Cardinal Raymond Burke said that a “feminised” Church had “led many men to simply opt out”.

Many people would agree with the underlying point he was making, but the resulting headlines were not very sympathetic. “Man crisis in the Church is all women’s fault,” IrishCentral.com reported. “Does Catholicism have a man crisis, or is Cardinal Burke paranoid?” asked The Washington Post.

David Gibson, of the Religion News Service, wrote cuttingly that “Burke, a liturgical traditionalist as well as a doctrinal conservative who is renowned for wearing elaborate silk and lace vestments while celebrating Mass, also said that ‘men need to dress and act like men in a way that is respectful to themselves, to women and to children’.”

Most damaging was the suggestion that the cardinal was blaming the Church’s gravest scandals on feminists, with the Huffington Post reporting: “Cardinal Raymond Burke somehow blames ‘feminised’ Church for sexual abuse crisis.”

Observers of all political stripes might have concluded that the so-called “new emangelisation” had foundered before it had really begun.

And yet the campaign’s fundamental observations remain true. According to the New Emangelisation Project site, “only a quarter to a third of regular Mass-goers are men and 70 to 90 per cent of roles in parishes are dominated by women”.

This has huge implications for the Church. A Swiss study by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner, published in 2000, found that adults were far more likely to follow the religious behaviour of their fathers than their mothers. Overall, if a father and mother attend church regularly, 33 per cent of their children will also attend church regularly later in life.

Now another American bishop has raised the subject, through an exhortation and a video – but this time he has received an outpouring of support. All of a sudden, it seems that the “new emangelisation” is about to take off.

The intervention by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, comes in the form of a video called “A Call to Battle”, which has been viewed almost 80,000 times on YouTube. Unlike Cardinal Burke, who had scathing words for feminists, the video is directed solely at Catholic men. In it, the bishop urges husbands and fathers to “man up” in the face of today’s crisis in the family. He says that men must “save their families and themselves from destruction of not just the physical but the spiritual kind – their very souls”.

The 10-minute film follows Bishop Olmsted’s exhortation to Catholic men released last September, which featured a similarly militaristic title, Into the Breach. In that text he called on men to “not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men”.

The new film has the same premise, with one priest saying: “Never in the history of humanity have there been so many wives without husbands and children without dads, all because of broken masculinity.” Another adds: “The man’s responsibility to be the spiritual leader of the family has been abdicated.”

The well-produced, sophisticated and stirring film is likely to become a model for other evangelisation efforts. It looks like a Hollywood trailer, with horns blaring in the distance, drums and high production values, but the key to its success may be its tone. Cardinal Burke’s comments, however unfairly, were seen as blaming women, a no-no in a culture where some groups are seen as inevitable underdogs in need of protection.

Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, applauds the new film, but argues that traditionalists are still leading the way in reaching out to Catholic men.

“Bishop Olmsted is to be commended for recognising the crisis of masculinity taking place in society and the Church,” he says. “We have found that the Traditional Mass has a great appeal to men, with just over half of our congregations typically being male, compared with about a third in the ordinary form.

“The whole Church could learn the lesson that to reach out to men the liturgy needs to emphasise the transcendent, with a focus on reverence rather than the emotions. Masses with a ‘hug of peace’, spontaneous bidding prayers and a priest surrounded by female servers and Eucharistic ministers are not going to attract many men.”

The video’s call to “spiritual warfare” is significant. The most successful religion in the West at attracting young men is radical Islam, and precisely for all the wrong reasons. But its preachers do realise that men need to aspire to heroism. So while Christianity is seen as feminine, this is not the problem; Christianity has always had a feminising effect, or at least a domesticating one, exerting pressure on men to abandon violence and adultery. What is different is that the contemporary Church arguably lacks a vision of men as heroes – a deep-seated need for males. A compelling sense of brotherhood is also important in attracting men.

The Church in America does realise this, and the “new emangelisation” is taking off in other ways, too, with men’s breakfasts and confraternities springing up. Conferences feature workshops on such issues as being a better father and husband, developing spirituality, and dealing with social ills such as pornography. Most of all, though, they ask of men that they be heroes. No wonder, then, that as Crux reported last year, the number of conferences in the US solely for Catholic men have increased from 16 at the turn of the century to more than 100 today. It seems that lot