Male Religious: Models of Masculinity?

It may seem absurd to entertain even for a moment the idea that monks, friars, and brothers might be models of healthy masculinity. First of all because our vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience might rule us out us as plausible male figures. Poverty and obedience suggest that we are irresponsible people, fleeing the ordinary burdens of manhood, such as having a job, acquiring a home, taking decisions about our lives. And the vow of chastity, the renunciation of sex, robs us, it would seem, of the virility that one would expect of a male figure. And the gross and shameful history of sexual abuse by so many religious might make such an idea seem distasteful, even repellent.

Yet there is a desperate need in the Church for people who offer models of Christian manhood. Our society is suffering from a crisis of masculinity. Because of the breakdown of family life, many children are growing up without fathers. The economic crisis means that many fathers, if they are around, are unemployed, discouraged, and feel robbed of self-esteem. And so many boys wonder what it is to be a man. Gang leaders are often the only model to hand.

Fra Gugliemo Spirito, an Argentinian Conventual Franciscan, wrote:

Without adequate fathering, sons are often faced with confusion about their sexual identity, their sense of self-esteem is unsteady, their need for self-affirmation unmet. Their insufficient internal structure results in a certain inability to organize their lives effectively; the inability of recognizing limits and boundaries; trouble in accepting responsibilities, how to deal with their aggressivity; their clinging to strong hierarchical gangs; abuse of drugs and alcohol; self-hatred and scapegoating; wildness, violence and suicide, etc. Unless the child finds a significant father figure who can confirm him
as a man—and this does occasionally happen—he will spend his whole life searching for his sense of identity. He will try to find it on the outside, in the eyes of others, because within him there is only emptiness and insecurity.[1]

Maggie Gallagher speaks of a widespread hunger for a father: “It’s an ache in the heart, a gnawing anxiety in the gut. It’s a longing for a man, not just for a woman, who will care for you, protect you, and show you how to survive in the world, an image of maleness that is not at odds with love: Father hunger.”[2]

It would be arrogant and absurd to think that male religious can in a special or unique way answer this hunger. If the biological father does not, then often it may be uncles or friends or even elder brothers. But sometimes we religious will have a small role to play in the dramas of young people’s lives that may, with God’s grace, be a tiny reparation for the abuse committed by so many religious.

In my own life, I am indebted to the friendship of monks at my Benedictine school, and above all to a great uncle of mine who was a monk. Of him, more later. Many of my Dominican brethren have extended friendship to lost or orphaned young people that has helped them on the way to manhood: Serge de Beaurecueil, famous as an expert on Sufi mysticism, raised dozens of adopted children in Afghanistan;[3] Philippe Denis in South Africa is bringing up so many children orphaned by AIDS. I like to imagine that it was their vowed religious life that formed them for this. St. Joseph, the father who was not a father, will give us some clues as to how this may be done.


The Vows

[caption id="attachment_564" align="alignnone" width="840"] Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0[/caption]

But what about these crazy vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience? Don’t they rule us out as models of adult masculinity? Don’t they render us too eccentric to engage the imagination of young people who are wondering what it means to be masculine? Many Irish American men included the name Mary among their Christian names. A Dominican, it is said, was sitting in his habit in the common room in Chicago, going on about the weird people being admitted to the Order these days. One of the brethren replied: “Your name is Mary and you’re wearing a skirt. What makes you think that you’re so normal?”

I want to argue that though these vows do not tell us everything about being an adult man, they do bring to light essential elements of Christian masculinity. The vows of marriage illuminate other aspects, but that is another article. I have learned more than I can say from my sisters too, but one cannot say everything in a single article.

The word ‘adult’ derives from the Latin adultus, the past participle of adolescere ‘to grow to maturity.’ To be adult is the culmination of a process of maturation. It implies that one is in a story, with various stages, which gives a unity and shape to one’s life. Adult identity is the fruit of the past, and is open to a future. Most traditional societies plot one’s progress through the stages of maturation. Rites mark the transition from babyhood to childhood. The confusing passage through puberty is recognized, and one is initiated into adulthood with its privileges and duties. One looks forward to being an elder, and finally death has its ceremonies. The story gives narrative sense to the chapters of a life.

The contemporary crisis of adulthood is that we have lost the plot. Children are sexualized before puberty, and old people wear absurdly young clothes, ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ as we say in England. Unemployment means that many young people do not enjoy the duties and obligations of maturity, and adolescence gets longer and longer. Some people never leave it behind. Many people can never afford to become homeowners.

Adult identity demands a narrative that gives unity to one’s life, a sense of its direction and goal. The crazy vows of religious say something of this, by pointing to the final end of every human life, which is the Kingdom. What possible sense could it have to reject marriage unless one believes that we are on our way to the vision of God? The vows are a naked sign of what it means to be a human being, which is to say yes to God who calls us to himself. They are not the only or a privileged sign. Marriage and a dedicated single life are signs too. Let no one claim superiority!

​Adult identity demands a narrative that gives unity to one’s life, a sense of its direction and goal. The crazy vows of religious say something of this, by pointing to the final end of every human life, which is the Kingdom.

Poverty, chastity, and obedience all cry out: “This is what it means to be a human being, to say yes to the God who summons us to happiness.” They bring to light how wonderful is the human vocation by pointing to its end. In 1958, Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk, wrote: “I am still a member of the human race—and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race! Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man!”[4]

Probably St. Joseph imagined himself within another story: marrying Mary, settling down, having a big brood of children with her. Maybe he hoped that the family business would expand; he might even open a branch in Jerusalem. Then he found himself in a dream, caught up in another story in which he had only a small walk-on part. This was the story in which someone else was at the center, Mary’s child. This is when he grows up, and becomes truly adult. Truly growing up is discovering that you are in a larger story of which you are not the center. The vows that we religious take point to the greatest story of all, in which each of us has only a small part, God’s love affair with humanity. St. Augustine wrote: “To fall in love with God is the greatest of romances, to seek God the greatest adventure, to find God the greatest human achievement.”

This may seem an outrageous claim, but let’s look at the vows and see what they teach us about a Christian adult masculinity. They also teach us a lot about femininity, but that’s another article and not one for me to write.



We shall begin with the vow of obedience. In the Dominican Order, this is the only vow that we take explicitly. At first sight, it looks like the ultimate cop-out. You promise to do what you are told. Surely this is a flight from adulthood. What could be more infantilizing and farther from mature autonomy?

Religious obedience . . . is never a matter of blindly doing what you are told. It is the art of listening wisely.

The obedience of St. Joseph suggests otherwise. His obedience is to what he hears in a dream. In the Scriptures, the ability to interpret dreams is a fruit of wisdom. His namesake, Joseph the son of Jacob, was the most famous interpreter of dreams. He understood his own dreams, the dreams of the Pharaoh’s chief butler, even the dreams of the Pharaoh. Like Solomon, another interpreter of dreams, he was a wise man.

Religious obedience, at least in the Dominican tradition, is never a matter of blindly doing what you are told. It is the art of listening wisely. For St. Thomas Aquinas, obedience was a virtue of the mind, not the will. Herbert McCabe, OP, argues that “obedience only becomes perfect when the one who commands and the one who obeys come to share one mind. The notion of blind obedience makes no more sense in our tradition than blind learning.”[5] Community life is cemented and renewed by mutual obedience in which all are heard. The perfect obedience of Jesus to his Father was not a robotic mindlessness, but the perfect mutuality of the Trinity. Modernity sees obedience as about control. The Church should be counter-cultural and see it as about deep mutual, intelligent engagement.

Women often accuse men of not listening. There was an advert on British TV a few years ago which showed a young man gazing intently in the direction of a young woman. She said: “What I love about you is that you’re such a good listener.” No reaction. Then the camera shifts slightly and we see that he is looking at a game of soccer on a screen just behind her.

Meandering around the Web, I found that the most frequent complaint about men was their failure to listen. Here, for example, is Heidi Muller:

If there’s one thing men are great at, it’s not listening. Let me rephrase that. They are great at ignoring things they don’t want to hear. To be even more precise, they don’t like listening to women. Women—for better or for worse—tend to speak in code. When they ask for things, they ask indirectly because it’s the easiest way to gauge the true intentions of men. Men often commit wrongful acts unknowingly and then naïvely ask ‘what did I do?’ when women get upset. I’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong: you don’t actually hear what we’re really saying.[6]

But St. Joseph, the wise interpreter, is the one who invites us to listen with all our intelligence and imagination so as to decipher what the other person is saying.

For male religious this poses the tough challenge of listening with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. It challenges the macho deafness, the temptation to remain on the surface of what is said, and not decode the concealed messages, the hopes that are just hinted at.

St. Joseph heeds what he was commanded to do: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). And so he does: “He knew her not until she had brought forth a son, and he called his name Jesus” (Mt 1:25). Naming Jesus is more than slapping a label on the baby. In the Old Testament, naming the child brings to completion the birthing of a child. It has not really arrived until it is named. In that society it was the supremely loving paternal act. It is generative. The name brings the person’s identity to light.

Religious do not usually decide what babies are to be called! But it belongs to our obedience to God to call people by their right names, respecting who they are in God’s sight. We should speak people’s names with reverence. Their names should be safe in our mouths. In pronouncing their names reverently, we summon them to flourish, to unfold with confidence. This is the generativity that we religious can exercise.

Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, works with drug gangs in Los Angeles. He said in a 2010 NPR interview about his book, Tattoos on the Heart:[7] “The principal activity of most gang members is writing their names on a wall, and that’s because they want to be known, as any human being does. They want to be acknowledged and recognized as a person who exists in the world. So knowing the name . . . that was something I learned early on, 25 years ago, when I first walked those projects, to know everybody’s name.”[8]

Most of these kids do not have fathers who lovingly call them by their names, and so that is Boyle’s paternal role. He mentions one kid nicknamed Sniper, whom he slowly persuades to reveal the name which his mother calls him when she is not angry with him, Napito. In an interfaith lecture for the Chataqua Institution, Boyle said:

Everybody just wants to be called the name their mom calls them when she’s not pissed off. There isn’t anybody who can’t be that person who holds the mirror up and doesn’t judge, who loves without measuring, without regret—as our God does, with a ‘no-matter-what-ness.’ Everybody can be so loving that you don’t have any time left to be disappointed. Everybody could do that.[9]

Obedience, that imaginative attention to others, should help religious to do so, especially when there is no father around to do it.


Chastity and Poverty

This loving attention to who people are in the sight of God brings us seamlessly to the other two vows, chastity and poverty. For St. Joseph they are inseparable. There are no indications that he was materially poor. He was probably a well-off craftsman, perhaps even a successful businessman. His poverty was his chastity. He did not possess Mary, who must have the space for her own vocation. His vocation was to fade from the scene, to cede it to his wife and her child. They find the child Jesus in the Temple (Lk 1:41–52), who says that he must be about his Father’s business. Joseph is put in his place! From then on he plays no role in Jesus’ story. It is a self-effacement so radical that for centuries Joseph was hardly valued, and was considered a rather absurd figure, the man who raised another’s child.

For religious too, there is a profound relationship between chastity and poverty. Our love of others will often demand that we are ready to disappear from the scene, fade away. Like St. Joseph, we are not to take possession of those whom we love. Our love must be purified of the macho instinct to dominate and to own.

God the Father creates with a love that lets things be. “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3); let there be rocks and animals and human beings. His love gives us the space to flourish. We are slowly to learn the same discreet and spacious love, which does not intrude or grab the limelight. Herbert McCabe, OP, wrote: “What gives us elbow room, what gives us space to grow and become ourselves, is the love that comes to us from another. Love is the space in which to expand, and it is always a gift. . . . To give love is to give the precious gift of nothing, space. To give love is to let be.”[10] This is true of the love of spouses for each other and of parents for their children. But perhaps the religious has to learn the deepest dispossession. Our vow of chastity forms us for a love that makes no claims, which frees people to take their own path and to love others more than they love us.

Our contemplative prayer should form us as people with a deep interior tranquility, so that we can be quietly attentive to others. It belongs to chastity that we look at people’s faces, read their faces. The old pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead says, “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”[11] We learn to be humbly in the presence of another, not trying to take possession of them, whether sexually or through masterful behavior.

St. Joseph was a home builder, just as his namesake in the Old Testament made a home for his people in the Pharaoh’s Egypt. As religious, we do not usually make homes with people other than our own brothers and sisters. But we can offer the space in which people can be at home in themselves or find a spiritual home with us as long as they need, ready to move on when they want.

One of the most moving films I have ever seen is Of Gods and Men. It is the true story of a small community of Trappist monks living in the Atlas Mountains just south of Algiers, in Algeria. The monastery is close to a Muslim village. They are deeply embedded in the lives of the villagers, loving and loved. When they find themselves caught up in the rising tide of violence, the battle between the terrorists and the Algerian army, they must decide whether to stay or go. One day the monks share with their neighbors that they are considering going away: “We are like birds on a branch, we don’t know if we’ll leave.” A Muslim woman immediately replies: “We are the birds, you are the branch. If you leave we lose our footing.” They decide to stay and die. It is often the role of religious communities, especially monasteries, to offer oases in which people can be at home, so that they can the more easily make their own homes, alone or with others.

[caption id="attachment_558" align="alignright" width="370"] Photo: Dominican Province of St. Joseph; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0[/caption]

The vow of poverty is not about being impoverished. Very few religious are. It should form us for a simple life in which we are liberated from the voracious appetites of our consumerist society. In a society where identity is proclaimed by the possession of brands, poverty should offer the vast freedom of an identity which is not defined by one’s possessions. This is vital for young people who might feel that they can only be someone who matters and has weight if they get hold of possessions that are beyond their means. In religious men, they should glimpse a confident masculine identity that is not dependent on a Porsche or a Rolex watch.

The vow of poverty liberates one from the deceptive promises of the marketplace. Buy me and you will be sexy, beautiful, or happy. Sr. Margaret Atkins wrote: “Advertising aims to break the link between goods and their real purpose: the car is no longer for getting to work, but rather for attracting nubile young women, or racing across empty deserts, or making your peers jealous.”[12] We are free to live in the real world with real desires.

Men are often tempted to impose their wills by violence. The American Academy of Pediatricians has asserted that by the age of eighteen, American teenagers will have witnessed on the media 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders.[13] Often these are glamorized or treated as humorous. They act as a catharsis, until we need to find someone else to kill. Religious communities should be places in which we learn to embody a way of being male which is purified of dumb brutality. It takes time. In Of Gods and Men, two monks are washing up together when suddenly the young Christophe loses his cool and tells old Luke to “F*** off.” There, I thought, is religious life for you! The last entry in Christophe’s diary, not long before his murder, is on the feast of St. Joseph, to whom he was devoted. He promises to sing with Joseph Psalm 100: “I will sing of loving kindness and justice. . . . I will walk in the most perfect way. When will you come to me?”[14]

This film shows how the contemplative life works as yeast, healing the soul, liberating us from the swirls of anger and violence. Poverty, chastity, and obedience all, in different ways, tackle the voraciousness that make us want to bend people to our wills. They should help us to become truly non-violent males. One of the finest examples is Frère André of Montreal, canonized in 2010, utterly devoted to St. Joseph and embodying the strength and gentleness of true Christian masculinity.



I began by voicing a fear that religious life might make people infantile. By vowing poverty, chastity, and obedience, we appear to flee adulthood, responsibility, and the demands of complex human relationships. I hope that I have shown that this is not so, and that the vows should help religious men to grow up into a masculinity that is freed from all that is macho and dominative, a true maturity. This should make us not childish but childlike, with a capacity for play. For the really grown-up person is homo ludens, playful. C. S. Lewis wrote: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”[15]

In January I visited Baghdad with an American Dominican friar, Brian Pierce. After a public lecture, we went to dinner at a Muslim restaurant with a Dominican sister and some of our collaborators. While we waited, we played simple Iraqi games with a spontaneous delight and much laughter. When we went to stay with the sisters near Erbil, we discovered that this is an integral part of their common life, playing together, inventively and unselfconsciously.

Chastity teaches us unpossessive delight in others. Poverty strips us of burdensome self-importance.

To be a Christian adult is to find your place in the long story of creation and redemption, which begins and ends in play. Wisdom created the world, playing in the presence of God (cf. Prv 8:30). Our ultimate hope is for God’s peace, when “the sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp” (Is 11:8). Play is pointless, because it is that to which we are ultimately pointed. This is not an eternity of Scrabble or Monopoly, which tend to become murderous and evoke the other place! Rather, the play for which we are created is the joyful, pleasurable interaction with those whom we love, the interplay which is the life of the Trinity.

Lived well, the vows form us for playfulness. Obedience teaches that profound attention to the other, which is at the heart of play. Chastity teaches us unpossessive delight in others. Poverty strips us of burdensome self-importance. G. K. Chesterton says that angels fly upwards because they do not take themselves too seriously!

I owe my vocation in part to a Benedictine great uncle, Dom John Lane Fox. He went to the trenches a hundred years ago. Every evening he went into No Man’s Land to bury the dead and bring back the wounded. He was told that he was mad and that he would not last a month. He was wounded by a grenade, lost an eye and parts of his fingers. He saw the most terrible suffering but he grew up into a man of great joy and playfulness, teasing us all. This old monk was a sign of true adulthood in the Lord.

Featured Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[1] A letter to the author. I owe much to the insights of Fra Gugliemo Spirito.

[2] Maggie Gallagher, “Father Hunger” in Lost Fathers: The Politics of Fatherlessness in America, ed. Cynthia R. Daniels (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), 165, quoted by Spirito.

[3] Serge de Beaurecueil, Mes enfants de Kaboul (Paris: Cerf, 2004).

[4] Quoted in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 254.

[5] Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (London: G. Chapman, 1987), 229.

[6] Source:

[7] Gregory Boyle, SJ, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2011).

[8] Neal Conan and Gregory Boyle, SJ, “Father G Sees Past Gang Tattoos, to the Heart” on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (10 March 2010).

[9] See Fredo Villaseñor, “Boyle: Kids Joining Gangs Are ‘Always Fleeing Something. Always.’” in The Daily Chataquan (2 August 2013).

[10] McCabe, God Matters, 108.

[11] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (New York: Picador, 2004), 66.

[12] Sr. Margaret Atkins, “Living Simply: The Contemporary Relevance of the Virtue of Temperance” on Jericho Tree: Catholic Perspectives on Faith and Life (10 August 2015), reprinted from Priests and People (October 2003).

[13]Council on Communications and Media, “Media Violence” in Pediatrics, vol. 124, no. 5 (1 November 2009), 1495–1503.

[14] Christophe Lebreton, Le Souffle du Don Journal de frere Christophe moine de Tibherine 8 aout 1993 a 19 mars 1996, entry for 19 March 1999, Paris. I owe this reference to Fra Gugliemo Spirito, OFM conv.

[15] C.S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature (New York: Harvest, 1982), 34.


Timothy Radcliffe, OP

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