On ‘toxic masculinity’

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Is masculinity “toxic”?

The American Psychological Society apparently thinks so. They issued a long report about it recently. I tried to read it, but I barely made it through the first sentence — “Western culture defines specific characteristics to fit the patriarchal ideal masculine construct . . .” — before I knew I’d be taking a wine break very soon.

I did manage to read the second paragraph, where I saw: “The socialization of the male characteristics mentioned above also onsets at an early age, making it a prime time-period for prevention intervention.” (Characteristics listed? Toughness, stoicism, self-sufficiency, etc.)

OK, I’m no psych scholar, but that seems to clearly say that early childhood is the best time to intervene to prevent boys from developing male “characteristics.”

In the meantime, Gillette released a probably well-intentioned ad about men and the #metoo movement. A lot of it was laudible — violence against women is bad, men need to step up, etc. Nobody disagrees with that, and I was glad to see them speaking out.

But the ad met with a lot of resistance, not because of its anti-violence-against-women message, but because it seemed to paint men with broad brushstrokes. (Or razor strokes, as it were.)  Because hey, if you want to sell a lot of men’s razors, try implying that vast majorities of your target market are sexual predators.

I initially thought the ad would be a little more pro-average-guy than it turned out to be. The still screenshot showed a bunch of men grilling. I like men grilling. But nope, they turned out to be the bad guys, monotonously chanting “Boys will be boys will be boys will be boys . . .” This disappointed me, as did the word salad at the beginning that hit hard on “bullying”, “the #metoo movement,” and “masculinity.”

I just didn’t think that last word deserved to be lumped in with the other two.

Here is my take: I like masculinity. I think it is among God’s most wonderful inventions. I like men’s strength. I like men’s protectiveness. I like their different-ness from me and from femininity in general. I like the way the two play off of each other. I like the way men love deeply, and yet theirs remains a distinctly masculine kind of love.

I don’t think men need to be what society (or the “patriarchal ideal masculine construct”) decrees that they be. I think men should be what they are. Men are strong. Men are protective. Men are, yes, sometimes aggressive. None of these things are socially conditioned. Masculinity and femininity spring from the way we were created, from our natural physical and neurological makeup.  Men’s bodies have, on the whole, a higher percentage of muscle than women’s bodies do. Just as women’s brains have more interconnectivity between the hemispheres. These and myriad other differences in our physiology give us men and women different — and complementary — gifts.

These are tendencies, not stereotypes. Masculinity isn’t about John Wayne riding into the sunset, any more than femininity is about weak women dropping hankies and fainting. Our individual mileage varies. There are as many unique expressions of masculinity as there are men.  Some men are stronger and/or more sensitive and/or more protective than others. Same with women. But our bodies and brains are fundamentally different, and that leads to certain predictable variations.

I don’t believe masculinity is “toxic.” Masculinity is raw material, just as femininity is. Men can use their gifts for good or for evil, just as women can. (But try using the term “toxic femininity” in polite company and see what happens.) For millennia, the goal of society has been to channel those instincts, not to suppress them. Where would we be without masculine strength and aggressiveness channeled toward the protection of society?

But today, there seems to be a movement to neutralize masculinity entirely. I have been saying for a long time that feminism — while laudable and important in many ways — made a fundamental mistake early on in assuming that “it’s better to be a man.” Women are often deemed “equal” to the extent that we usurp male characteristics and excel in traditionally male domains. It makes sense that the next step would be to say that men themselves are no good at being men and need to become more like women.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Of course, nobody wants to see men using their gifts in ways that abuse women. But I don’t think the answer is to neutralize or eradicate masculinity. Male strength put to a noble purpose is (pardon the expression) a truly beautiful sight.

The deepest answer is transformation. It is holiness. The message of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is simply that our creation as masculine and feminine is fundamentally good, and that only in becoming transformed by the grace of Christ can each become the awesome, beautiful forces he intended them to be.

Holiness is often perceived as strictly feminine. It is not. Male holiness is strong. It is masculine. I’ve never liked the images of Jesus as some kind of First Century Sensitive Hippie. He was a strong man — a carpenter. He knocked over tables and drove money changers out with whips. St. Joseph, his foster-father, the man who formed his masculine nature, was likewise a true man. He protected Mary through a socially-unsanctioned pregnancy, and the infant Jesus from a murderous king. I often turn to him as protector as well. (Joseph, not the murderous king.)

But a world that doesn’t understand holiness, apparently has no idea what to do with masculinity. Or femininity.

St. JPII wrote extensively about the New Feminism. I never understood why he didn’t also introduce a “New Masculinism.”

I think somebody needs to pick up where he left off.  Soon.

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

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As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.