Cardinal Burke was ridiculed for saying men are repelled by a ‘feminised’ Church. But he grasps that fathers have a huge influence over whether children grow up to be Mass-goers

Relations between clergy and media now conform to a silly pattern: clergyman says something perfectly reasonable; media reports that he wants to bring back the Inquisition. So Cardinal Burke was taking a big risk when he gave an interview to the New Emangelisation Project (sic) on the subject of gender and the Catholic Church. With striking candour, he bemoaned the influence of feminism on Catholicism – and with grating predictability, the media called him a Neanderthal.

Newspapers like the Independent jumped on his suggestion that feminism took some responsibility for the child abuse scandals because it encouraged a crisis in sexual identity. The Washington Post’s Kaya Oakes wrote that the cardinal had an old-fashioned view of gender and was oddly blind to the continued institutional domination of men. And David Gibson, of the Religion News Service, pushed things further with an observation that was cattier than Joan Collins playing Puss-in-Boots: “Burke, a liturgical traditionalist as well as a doctrinal conservative who is renowned for wearing elaborate silk and lace vestments while celebrating Mass, also said that ‘men need to dress and act like men in a way that is respectful to themselves, to women and to children’.” Miaow!

But what did the cardinal really say, and how accurate was it? He argued three things. First, that there’s a crisis of Catholic spirituality among men that results in low Mass attendance. Second, that this is partly down to a feminisation of the liturgy. Third, that feminism has also undermined traditional male roles in the family and caused a wider societal crisis. Let’s test each hypothesis in turn.

Are men disengaging from the Church? Matthew James Christoff, who runs the New Emangelisation Project, designed to re-evangelise Catholic men, and who conducted the interview with Cardinal Burke, says that male Catholics “have been ignored [by the Church] to some large degree and many have drifted away”. He cites surveys showing that “only a quarter to a third of regular Mass-goers are men and 70 to 90 per cent of roles in parishes are dominated by women”. The fall in male participation obviously translates into a
fall in the numbers pursuing life in the priesthood.

The relative absence of men also has an impact upon the continuation of the faith from one generation to another. A Swiss study by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner, published in 2000, found that adults take their religious cues far more from the way their fathers behaved during their childhood than the way their mothers did. If a father and mother attend church regularly, 33 per cent of their children will attend church regularly later in life. If a mother attends church regularly and the father irregularly, only two per cent grow up to be regular attendees. But if a father is regular and the mother is irregular, the likelihood of church fidelity actually increases: 38 per cent of their children will become regular churchgoers themselves. If faith in childhood is seen as “something mother likes us to do”, then it doesn’t have nearly as much of an impact as if it is “something father insists that we do”.


If Cardinal Burke’s assertion that Catholicism has “a man problem” is indisputable, what about his analysis of the causes? When talking casually to friends and priests about the idea that the liturgy had become feminised, I was surprised to find near-universal agreement based on casual observation. Many men admitted that they felt “self-conscious” in a Mass that is all about talking and shaking hands, and celebrating the life of the community. “Note how many men stand with their arms folded, obviously uncomfortable,” one friend confided. “And a lot of them turn up late because they’re frightened that if they turn up early they’ll be asked to do something inane.”

Joanna Bogle, a Catholic writer who has a personal preference for the modern Rite, laments that the contemporary Mass features “too many women pottering about”. They tend to be “of a certain age – and I happen to be that age as well”, she says, and dominate when it comes to reading or assisting with services. She worries that this means that they are being distracted from other tasks in which women often are far better than men (“teaching, for instance”), while men don’t see many roles within the Mass that play to their skills.

The irony, she insists, is that the liturgy that developed after Vatican II actually ought to lend itself to greater understanding of the complementary roles of men and women. “Now we pray aloud and listen,” she says, “and we get to listen to and understand a rich nuptial language of God as the Father, Jesus as his Son, the Church as Mother, and so on.”

Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, disagrees slightly. For him, the post-1960s transformation of the Mass is at the heart of the problem – regardless of its entirely orthodox language. “The kind of liturgy that appeals to men,” he argues, “is one with grandeur.” The Old Rite emphasised the cosmic mystery of Christ, while the new is a celebration of community.

He says: “If you asked the question: ‘Would women enjoy a Mass more that is a celebration of community?’ most would answer: ‘That sounds marvellous!’ But this ignores the counter-proposition that men might enjoy it much less.”

In other words, everything that attracted women to the New Rite is precisely what alienates the men. And, ironically, one of those changes is the emergence of a greater emphasis upon the personality of the priest – what Cardinal Burke calls the “priest show”. “In many places the Mass became very priest‑centered,” the cardinal explained. “This type of abuse leads to a loss of the sense of the sacred, taking the essential mystery out of the Mass. The reality of Christ Himself coming down on the altar to make present His sacrifice on Cavalry gets lost.”

Non-Catholic liberals reading this might find some of the language alarming in its assumption that men and women are designed, and naturally inclined, to function in certain gendered ways. But while that might seem like a charmingly nostalgic and abstract principle when talking about liturgy, it takes on real-world meaning when considering what Cardinal Burke had to say about the modern family. “I recall in the mid-1970s,” he said, “young men telling me that they were, in a certain way, frightened by marriage because of the radicalising and self-focused attitudes of women that were emerging at that time. These young men were concerned that entering a marriage would simply not work because of a constant and insistent demanding of rights for women.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/1/15)