In Search of Manly Saints
Hugh Hunter of the Manly Saints Project writes about his journey of faith and why manly Saints are so important to the Church at large.
By Dr. Hugh Hunter
It all started when I had to pick a patron saint. That’s one of the things you have to do for yourself if you become a Catholic as an adult. I began flipping through hagiographies, looking for the right man.
I had a vague sense of what I was looking for. I’ve done a fair bit of reading in philosophy, and now and then I’ve encountered a philosopher with whom I felt a connection, a kindred mind. I don’t mean to suggest that my thoughts were comparable to those of the great men of the past. For me, finding a kindred mind was like discovering a literary older brother, a philosopher who approached problems in a way that made sense to me, who thought in ways I wish I could think too.
So when I started reading hagiographies, I was looking for someone who would be a spiritual kindred mind, not to help me with philosophical problems, but to help me with life problems. I wanted to find a saint I could use as a model and whom, in the absolute best case scenario, I might one day slightly resemble.
But when I started looking through hagiographies I didn’t find anyone who could be a kindred mind. Every saint I read about seemed the same: he played with children, he helped people, he was very nice. I knew that one of the differences between men and women, psychologically speaking, is that women tend to focus on people and relationships and men tend to focus on things and projects. That’s why little girls play with dolls and little boys play with trucks. By that standard, the saints I was reading about hardly seemed like men at all.
I knew that couldn’t be right. The history of Christendom is full of knights and discoverers, sages and statesmen. Where were their stories?
Now since I had come to Catholicism via Protestantism, I could make a pretty good guess about what was going on. Both Protestants and Catholics seem to have an institutional problem with manliness. Preachers downplay heroism and responsibility, and everyone is supposed to be a weeping, broken victim. You hear a lot about the Biblical metaphor of Christ as bridegroom, which is interpreted to mean that the individual believer (rather than the Church) is a bride. Sometimes it’s right there in your face. My home church has a giant Divine Mercy poster at the front. In the picture, Jesus is drawn slight, soft, and almost adolescent. He lacks the kingly mien that caused men to drop their tools and follow Him. He doesn’t even have the calloused hands of a carpenter. The conventional inscription, “Jesus I trust in you,” is followed by block caps spelling out the anti-manliest message I can imagine: “I DON’T NEED TO UNDERSTAND”.
Men in the Protestant and Catholic churches have gotten used to this sort of thing. We roll our eyes and power through. And when that becomes impossible, a lot of men stay home. The ratio of men to women is skewed in favour of women. It has been that way my whole life.
Since men make up 50% of the population, you’d think that their alienation would trouble the clergy. I’m sure some priests do worry about it. But often, the clergy are caught in the cycle of feminization. As men leave, priests adjust their homilies, their methods, their whole approach so as not to lose the people who are left: women. Churches become even more nice and sentimental. The men who left come to think of church attendance, or even Christianity, as something unmanly, and it is hard to blame them.
The existence of this vicious cycle of feminization was one of the things I learned from what is, so far as I know, the only serious study of the manliness problem in the Catholic Church: the work of Dr. Leon Podles. Podles points out that the manliness problem is not shared with other religions. No one thinks it’s unmanly to be a Muslim, a Zoroastrian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, or a Jew. Indeed, not even all Christians who have a manliness problem. The problem – complete with feminized worship and skewed ratios of male to female attendance – appears in the Western Church in the 12th century, after the split between Catholics and Orthodox but before the split with the Protestants. That’s why the Orthodox don’t seem to have a problem with manliness, but Protestants do.
Why do we have a manliness problem in the Western Church, then? In his first book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (1999), Podles argued that it was a combination of things: scholasticism, the work of Bernard of Clairvaux, and the emergence of a tradition of female mysticism. In his second book, Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity (2020), Podles blames a philosophical framework that emerged with scholasticism, on which the correct model for a Christian’s walk with God is not an active man but a passive woman. Whatever the cause, the problem has been with us for a very long time.
We also live in a moment when manliness is under siege in our culture. The things normal men do are apparently toxic. Not letting your family become a circus makes you toxic and patriarchal. You’re supposed to be physically weak and an emotional wreck. It reminds me of church! Before I read Podles, I figured that the manliness problem in the Church and the manliness problem in our culture were the same problem. Not so, says Podles. And if they’re two different problems that means you could tackle one without the other. That’s good news, sort of.
The experience of looking for a manly patron saint helped me to see an aspect of the problem. It’s what started me down the path on my Manly Saints Project, which became a weekly blog/podcast telling the stories of manly Catholic saints.
I cheat a little. Sometimes I tell the stories of men who are not yet fully saints, but are in the process of canonization. A few weeks ago I told the story of Emil Kapaun, now considered a Servant of God. Kapaun was an American army chaplain during the Korean War. He and many of the men of his regiment were captured by the communist North Koreans and Chinese. In captivity, Kapaun defied the communists by carrying on his duties as a chaplain. He stood up to the communists in their indoctrination sessions. When the men were being starved, he snuck into the communist storehouses to get bags of grain. He often quietly did the jobs that other men found disgusting and demoralizing, like cleaning out the latrines. By the time the communists took him away for lethal ‘treatment’ in 1951, the men of Kapaun’s regiment were convinced that they had lived with a saint.
Even back in the 1950s, before our culture had become hostile to men, those whom Kapaun had influenced were surprised to find that you could be a man and a saint. They kept bringing it up in the letters where they remembered Father Kapaun. And they made it a theme when they erected a statue of Father Kapaun in his old dioceses, which they inscribed “All man, all priest.”
The story underscores Podles’ point that what has gone wrong in the Church is a philosophical mistake. We have somehow convinced ourselves that the Christian life is feminine, that the only way to understand a Christian’s walk with God is the model of a wife submitting to her husband. For some reason, we don’t think of a knight swearing loyalty to his lord.
So how do you correct a philosophical mistake? Philosophers know that you can meet an argument with an argument. But when you do, the person you are arguing against will often nitpick your argument instead of being convinced. The better way, the most powerful way to meet an argument is Socrates’ old trick to meet it with a counter-example. If someone’s argument says X, here’s a concrete example of how things actually work without X.
In a world that has forgotten that Christians can be manly, a world that has forgotten manliness, the manly saints stand as counter-examples. If manliness isn’t compatible with Christianity, why are there manly saints? If manliness isn’t a good thing, why are the manly saints, saints? Raising these signs of contradiction is the modest aspiration of my project.
Dr. Hugh Hunter is the creator of the weekly blog the Manly Saints Project and the Manly Saints Podcast. His book, How to be a Philosopher is available on Amazon. He lives in Northern Canada.