Thursday, November 12, 2015


I was asked to comment about an exhortation directed to Catholic men by the Thomas J Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix. These opening words give you a good sense of what it's about:
I begin this letter with a clarion call and clear charge to you, my sons and brothers in Christ: Men, do 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. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real. It is primarily spiritual, but it is progressively killing the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture, and even in our own homes.
My short answer is that there is a lot of good in the piece and that it's well worth your time to read it.

My longer answer is to wonder about the word "ethos". It has two meanings. In one sense it is a place, a cultural place, where you truly fit. If you were a sports coach who cared little for weddings and you go to wedding planners convention, you would be out of your ethos. If you went to a clinic about coaching young athletes, you'd be in your ethos. You'd walk into the room and you'd fel at home. And that would be true even if you were a neophyte coach and you were quite certain everyone else in the room was more qualified than you because, even then, you'd know you had a place. But it can also mean proving you have the right to be in the place you are. When I stand up in front of a group of young Catholics to discuss marriage and their plans for marriage, I need to show them that I'm worth listening to.

So the question is, in which of those two senses is "the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture and even in our own homes" at risk? Is the problem that safe Christian spaces are being undermined from within and without. It certainly feels that way sometimes. And there are people, one of my nephews for example, who would like to see Christians driven from the public square, seeing us as no better than con artists. But it behooves us to ask the question from the other side as well: Has Christianity lost its credibility to speak to the larger culture and is that what's really making the assault Bishop Olmsted worries about so successful? And here, I'm afraid, we must answer in the positive.

It's interesting, in that regard, that Bishop Olmsted, is appealing to lay men for help. For what motivates this exhortation is a belief that the health of Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, would be improved if Catholic laymen manned up.
For decades now, a model for manhood has been fashioned in the fictional British spy character named James Bond. Various actors have taken turns portraying this man who, in several adventures, has proposed what it means to be “manly,” yet Bond remains an enigma. Like the women that he uses in the films, the ones who watch him find themselves wanting to know him. He is never a father, nor does he accept responsibility for or love one woman. In him, we see a man whose relationships are shallow and purely utilitarian. Indeed, “James Bond is a male character whose name is the height of irony. He is 40 years old and has no bonds. He is actually pathetic.”
I don't disagree with that but, whatever else you might say about him, James Bond has ethos in the second sense. Sure, it's fantasy ethos and there is something no-quite-grown-up about it but Bond, like all action-heroes and superheroes speaks to a real desire that men have. That so many men seek it in such a ridiculously fake form as James Bond tells us a lot about how hard it is for them to believe in this in real life. It's not just that Bond is fiction as that he couldn't be anything but fiction. Outside of a tiny percentage of certifiable nut cases, every male Bond fan knows that he is embracing a  whacky fantasy. That so many have given up on finding any real hope for ethos in the real world is telling.

And that is the question I have for the Catholic church: what opportunity for ethos does it offer lay men? I ask because I don't think Catholic lay men will come riding to the rescue of a church where they don't feel they are in their ethos and where they feel that their credibility as men is constantly undercut. If all we have to offer such men is a long list of responsibilities that they shoudl man up and fill, they won' be coming to help us any time soon.

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