Boys to men: Initiating our sons into adulthood

More and more, we are recognizing that we have a serious problem plaguing our society: We lack mature men. Boys’ bodies develop on their own, but they will not become men unless they also grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually into manhood. Traditional cultures lead adolescents through elaborate rites of passage and, until recently, boys would learn how to work alongside their fathers. Today, on the other hand, many young men remain stuck in prolonged boyhood, not willing to accept a vocation of service and sacrifice for the good of others.

Jason Craig addresses this problem in Leaving Boyhood Behind: Reclaiming Catholic Brotherhood (OSV, 2019) and proposes some concrete ways for dads to form their sons in the Church. For boys to become men, they must be taught how to work hard, to sacrifice themselves and how they feel, and to live their faith. Too often boys live in a simulated reality, think only of themselves, and do not step up to the accept the responsibilities of life. Young men do not prioritize getting married and having children, the goal of manhood, but remain unsure of their purpose and trapped in insecurity.

Craig calls Catholic men to mentor boys, creating new rites of passage to initiate them into manhood. “To mature as men, males must embrace the call to the sacrificial offering of their strength for spouse, family, and nation. Rites of passage prepare men to make this sacrifice, while providing the bulwark of a community — of brotherhood — to sustain men in living out the gift of their masculinity, and to pass that gift on to the future generations. As we have seen, there are many aspects of today’s culture that make this sacrificial spirit difficult. We have to work harder than ever to create brotherhood with other men and to bring boys into manhood” (124).

He also gives some more specific examples of the shape this mentorship can take. “The most fundamental, practical, and first action we men should take to initiate boys into masculine maturity is this: Men must be the primary catechists and mentors for young men and for one another” (125). Fathers cannot simply allow others to educate their children in the faith, but must serve as a role model and teacher, as well as working with other men to make the parish a place conducive to masculine fellowship and mentorship. Secondly, fathers should teach their sons how to work, for “in his work, a man has the opportunity to give himself over to his daily burdens out of love, for the sake of his family” (127). The effort and dedication needed in work help bring boys to maturity and create a bond between men. Third, Craig recommends the experience of leisure, leading boys to disengage with technology to experience the real things of nature. “Boys need to be seeing, feeling, and touching real things in the real world — homesteading, hunting, hiking, playing, camping, swimming, carving, building, climbing, hiking” (131). Finally, Craig recognizes how mentorship extends to prayer and the spiritual life, learning how to engage in contemplative prayer, penance, fasting, the liturgical life, and fraternal community.

Craig also offers an important exhortation to embrace the fatherly authority that God has bestowed on men to discipline their children in a loving way, which helps them to learn self-control. “Fatherhood is a great power and a great responsibility. We must speak and act with authority, yet we must also retain the trust of our children. . . . Fatherly discipline and authority are important exercises of dominion, and boys need it. The undisciplined boy stays a boy” (112). Dr. Leonard Sax, in an important book I reviewed previously, The Collapse of Parenting, makes the same point: If parents refuse to exercise their authority to guide their children to maturity, setting clear limits for them and teaching them discipline, they will remain emotionally immature and less likely to succeed in school and as adults.

As Father’s Day approaches, it is a good moment to reflect upon the importance of fatherhood and the role that it plays in raising healthy and holy children. In response to all the problems we face, we can say with confidence that good fathers will go a long way toward shoring things up. The more men embrace this God-given role, the more we can raise the next generation of leaders for the family, society, and the Church.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash