As Catholics, we’re faced constantly with statements about what it is to be a woman, and that’s a very good thing. Real, genuine womanhood has been under violent assault from feminism on one side and misogyny on another for well over a century, and countering that with such delightful and informative works as Alice von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman is important. But we rarely hear anything about what it is to be a man, and by “man” here I mean not simply a rational animal but a male rational animal. What does it mean to be a man? Is there a privilege to being a man, as there is to being a woman?
The first thing to address here is that we can consider “being a man” in two senses: the natural and the supernatural; that is, the order of nature and the order of grace. Grace perfects nature, it does not change it; but man is a natural being, who by nature has a supernatural soul but not grace, and consequently we must consider the question from both these vantage points. We’ll begin with being a man in the order of nature, and move on to being a man in the order of grace.
In the order of nature, man is fundamentally a husband and a father; that is his primary role in life. It is true, of course, that some men voluntarily give up the joys and trials of wife and children in order to dedicate themselves to the service of God, but we must remember that this sacrifice is fundamentally one of grace, not one of nature. To show this (granted, this is not a demonstration, but it’s still very persuasive dialectically), we need merely look to the account of the creation of man, in which God gives His charge to His new creature:
et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam ad imaginem Dei creavit illum masculum et feminam creavit eos benedixitque illis Deus et ait crescite et multiplicamini et replete terram et subicite eam et dominamini piscibus maris et volatilibus caeli et universis animantibus quae moventur super terram
Which can be translated (Englished by myself):
And God created man to His own image; He created him to the image of God, He created them male and female; and God blessed them, and said, “Increase and be multiplied, and fill the earth, and make it subject; and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the flying things of the sky, and all living things which move upon the earth.
The very first things that the Scriptures tell us about man are the following:
- He is made in the image of God; that is, he has a spiritual soul.
- He is male and female.
- He is to increase and be multiplied.
- He is to be lord of the earth.
The Scriptures, wisely as always, tell us very simply and directly what man is and then what man is for on the natural level; by which I do not mean on the physical level only, but rather in the order of nature. Man is a spiritual being, made in the image of God; man is also a physical being, in which he is divided into male and female; man is ordered toward an increase in numbers, which as we all know is accomplished by the relationship between male and female; and man is to be the lord of creation.
More, our own reason tells us that fundamentally man is a husband and father before all else. Man is, as we know, a social being; he cannot thrive—reach his appropriate end, the contemplation of God—except within a community of other men. Man belongs to many such communities, the highest of which is the state, and the lowest of which is the family. It is clear that the family, consisting of a husband, wife, children, and sometimes others, is the most basic of those communities, because it is ordered to the most basic of human needs. That is, it is ordered toward the provision of the daily needs of mankind and to the continuation of the human species. Consequently, on the most basic level, man is part of a family; but the role of the man, the male human being, in the family is that of husband and father. Therefore, husband and father is man’s most basic role.
Now, the above falls far short of demonstration; it assumes certain principles and it skips certain steps. But the assumptions are those that could hardly be doubted by any believing Catholic, so I will not spend any further time examining them. It’s clear that a man is a husband and father at the most basic level of the order of nature; we can proceed now to determining what exactly that means, at which point we enter the order of grace.
Once again, the Depositum fidei, the Deposit of Faith, tells us exactly what it means to be a husband and father:
mulieres viris suis subditae sint sicut Domino quoniam vir caput est mulieris sicut Christus caput est ecclesiae ipse salvator corporis sed ut ecclesia subiecta est Christo ita et mulieres viris suis in omnibus viri diligite uxores sicut et Christus dilexit ecclesiam et se ipsum tradidit pro ea ut illam sanctificaret mundans lavacro aquae in verbo ut exhiberet ipse sibi gloriosam ecclesiam non habentem maculam aut rugam aut aliquid eiusmodi sed ut sit sancta et inmaculata ita et viri debent diligere uxores suas ut corpora sua qui suam uxorem diligit se ipsum diligit nemo enim umquam carnem suam odio habuit sed nutrit et fovet eam sicut et Christus ecclesiam quia membra sumus corporis eius de carne eius et de ossibus eius propter hoc relinquet homo patrem et matrem suam et adherebit uxori suae et erunt duo in carne una sacramentum hoc magnum est ego autem dico in Christo et in ecclesia verumtamen et vos singuli unusquisque suam uxorem sicut se ipsum diligat uxor autem ut timeat virum
Which, being Englished, means:
Women, be subject to your own men, as to the Lord; for the man is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of the Church; He is the savior of the body. But as the Church is put under Christ, so also women to their own men in all things. Men, love [your] wives as also Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her, in order that He might sanctify her, cleaning [her] with a washing of water in the Word. That He might show to her the glory of the Church, having no spot or wrinkle or anything of that type, but that she might be holy and unspotted. So also men ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his own wife loves himself. For no one ever holds his own flesh in hatred, but nourishes and maintains it, as Christ does the Church. For we are the members of His Body, from His flesh and from His bones. Because of this a man leaves his own father and mother and clings to his wife, and they shall be in one flesh. This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the Church. Nevertheless, may each one of you love his own wife as himself; and let the woman fear the man.
This requires exegesis, of course, but everything we need know about husband and wife is contained at least in seed in this single passage.
First, notice that there is nothing about mutual subjection here.* There is not a mutual subjection of husband to wife and wife to husband; St. Paul says nothing of the sort. He says, in fact, that wives should be subject to their husbands “as the Church is put under Christ” (ut ecclesia subiecta est Christo). To say, then, that the husband should be subject to his wife just as the wife is subject to the husband is to say that the Church is subject to Christ just as Christ is subject to the Church, which is blasphemy. Christ is not subject to the Church, nor is a husband subject to his wife. Rather, he is “the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of the Church” (vir caput est mulieris sicut Christus caput est ecclesiae).
However, the man is the head of his wife “as Christ is the head of the Church.” This means that his role in the family is that of savior; “for He is the savior of the body” (ipse salvator corporis). His role is not that of a tyrant, lording it over his wife like some Byzantine emperor; he is the head of his wife as Christ is the Head of the Church, which means his role is one of sacrifice, not of opulence.
St. Paul tells men to “love [your] wives as also Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her, in order that He might sanctify her” (viri diligite uxores sicut et Christus dilexit ecclesiam et se ipsum tradidit pro ea). And remember how Christ gave Himself up for the Church; He sacrificed His entire life, from the moment of His birth until that of His agonizing death, doing everything for the sake of His Body, the Church. So must a man do for his wife, and of course for his children. He must give himself up for them, indeed pour himself out for them, as Christ poured out His very Blood for the Church.
This sacrificial leadership will take many different forms. Sometimes, of course, it will take the form of martyrdom, as Christ’s did. More often, however, the necessities of family life will lead to a different type of leadership. Men must be prepared to sacrifice their own comforts for the good of their family, for example. Primarily, they must remember that as the head of the house, they are an example for the house; they must regulate their behavior carefully, providing a good example for all, especially any children. They must be moderate in their expenses. They must remember that no matter how much fishing or drinking may attract them, they have more important duties to which they must attend.
Men must carefully mortify their senses, directing themselves by the reason and not by the passions. For if the head of the body (in this case, the house) cannot govern itself rationally, then how can it govern the body rationally? A necessary part of this mortification is, of course, the fast. Little can be more impressive to the youthful mind than the all-powerful father, the head of the house, voluntarily sacrificing such a basic necessity in pursuit of higher ends. But the bulk of a father’s mortification will more likely be simple and mundane. Rather than watching a baseball game, he goes out and plays one with his children. Rather than reading a book to himself, he takes up one for his children. Rather than sleeping in in the morning, he awakes early with the children and allows his wife to do so. These are all minor things, barely worth mentioning in themselves; yet what more powerful witness to the family can there be? What better imitation of Christ in daily life, than to constantly sacrifice small things, as He did? What better way, absent a direct martyrdom, to give up one’s whole life in sacrifice for one’s family? Majorem hac dilectionem nemo habet, ut animam suam ponat qui pro amicis suis (“no one hath a love greater than this, that a man should lay down his own self for his friends”; St. John 15:13). It is not a direct and single outpouring of a lot of blood, to be sure, but it is a constant pouring out of a little. This is truly a fundamental aspect of manly character.
This sacrifice takes its greatest form in the order of grace, outside of the family; namely, a man sacrifices the very joys of wife and children in order to better serve God. As Christ, Who Himself determined to forgo those joys, told us:
Sunt enim eunuchi, qui de matris utero sic nati sunt : et sunt eunuchi, qui facti sunt ab hominibus : et sunt eunuchi, qui seipsos castraverunt propter regnum cælorum.
For there are eunuchs who are born thus from the womb of the mother; and there are eunuchs who are made by men; and there are eunuchs who have castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
Our Lord is not here advocating deliberate self-mutilation, of course; He is telling us that some men can and should forgo this great joy and this great blessing, in order to obtain still greater ones; namely, the kingdom of heaven. This state, which we call celibacy, is objectively a greater one than marriage; as St. Paul said,
Volo enim omnes vos esse sicut meipsum : sed unusquisque proprium donum habet ex Deo : alius quidem sic, alius vero sic. Dico autem non nuptis, et viduis : bonum est illis si sic permaneant, sicut et ego. Quod si non se continent, nubant. Melius est enim nubere, quam uri.
For I wish that all of you be as I myself am; but each one has a proper gift from God. One indeed has this [gift], another truly has that [gift]. But I speak to the unmarried and to the widows: it is good for them if they remain thus, as also I do. But if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burned.
In other words, each has his own proper gift; and for those to whom celibacy is given, it is objectively better to take it than to leave it. This is truly the greatest sacrifice short of martyrdom that it is possible to undertake; a great and manly sacrifice, a sacrifice of the greatest and most natural joys of this earthly life. Not all are called to it, but it is a great calling nevertheless.
Those called to the sacrifice of celibacy have lives which involve many other sacrifices, as well, as do those not so called. One thing that the celibate generally also sacrifice is the masculine gift of militancy. Men are militant; it is a fundamental and inexorable part of our natures. Men love contest and struggle; we love sport precisely because it permits such struggle. Even many of our less physical games are martial in spirit and terms; think of chess as an example. Even tasks as simple as crossword puzzles are made by men into physical combat, where one finishing before the other is seen as a triumph, and analogies to real, martial battle are easily and naturally drawn.
This militancy is rooted in the nature of mankind. Essentially, the physical basis for it is simple: men do not get pregnant, while women do. This is the fundamental reason that almost all warriors in almost all societies throughout history have been males; it is the reason why physiological differences between men and women are what they are. Men, as a whole, are bigger, stronger, and faster than women are; this is because of our martial role. We are the warriors of the human race; this is both our sorrow and our pride.
Men, as the leaders of a family, are primarily responsible for a wife and for children. As such, when that wife and those children come under physical threat, it is man’s responsibility to fight against that threat. Men have risen to this throughout the ages, and only in very recent times has anyone seriously denied it. Women, particularly when pregnant but also when caring for children, are vulnerable; they are also more vulnerable than men simply because they are not built for physical altercation, as men are. Man’s militancy is directed to the protection of his woman and of his children; he has a duty to train himself in the use of the tools necessary for that protection, and to keep himself as far as possible in the physical condition which will allow him to use them, if necessary.
This militancy also extends beyond the family, to larger communities and to the state as a whole. Sometimes this means that a man must leave his wife and children in order to protect them. This is a great sorrow for both man and family, and it should only be required of men when absolutely necessary, and when the necessity of it can be unambiguously demonstrated under just war doctrine.
Man’s militancy further extends, under Christian guidance, to what is now called chivalry; that is, to the protection of the poor, the weak, and those otherwise unable to defend themselves. The Catholic man will defend his family; but he will also defend other women without anyone to protect them; children; the poor; orphans; widows; those in the religious life; and anyone else who requires it. Chivalry is not limited to martial defense; the chivalrous man, the man who really embraces and directs the militancy which is a real and necessary part of the masculine character, will go well beyond that, offering his physical assistance to anyone who may require it. This extends from things as simple as helping old ladies cross the street to things as complex as volunteering for local “big brother” programs. The specifics will always vary according to time, resources, talents, and inclinations; but that the good man is also a chivalrous man is not open to doubt.
This, then, is the fundamental nature of being a man; leadership and sacrifice, in imitation of the greatest Leader of all. Truly, there is a privilege to being a man, just as there is to being a woman.
Praise be to Christ the King!
* Yes, I know about the late pope’s words in Mulieris Dignitatem. The English translation posted on the Vatican’s website reads, “whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual” (Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 24). This passage is disturbing on a number of levels, most especially because it directly and quite transparently contradicts the words of Ephesians 5, which specifically state that the subjection of the wife to the husband is “as” the subject of the Church to Christ. The English here does seem to be a fair translation of the Latin text (Sed, cum in necessitudine Christi-Ecclesiae, subiectio solius Ecclesiae sit, in necessitudine mariti-uxoris, subiectio non est unius dumtaxat partis, verum prorsus reciproca), which means we cannot simply pass this off as an erroneous translation, as we can so often with troublesome statements in this sad times. Can the late pope’s words be interpreted in a way that does not offend the Scriptures? Yes, they can; but they must be interpreted as meaning that the man’s subjection is one of service, not one of obedience, in the way that Christ was the servant of the Apostles when He washed their feet, even though He was truly their Master. Calling this a “subjection,” however, especially a mutual subjection, is extremely misleading and should not be perpetuated.