Feminized Faith, Failed Families, and Fertile Fields

Hope-filled in its conclusion, a new book offers the Catholic community a fresh look at current issues, addressing them with scholarly and thoughtful argumentation, and peaceful and commonsense rhetoric.

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Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, has just released a new collection of essays entitled The Liturgy, the Family, and the Crisis of Modernity. As I’ve read the book over the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by his balanced writing style, particularly the wide and helpfully eclectic array of sources he draws on. Divided into three parts according to the themes suggested by the book’s title, in this brief article I’d like to share with you some of his insights and his diagnosis of the crisis of modernity in relation to the family.

In the chapter “Understanding the Feminisation of Christianity,” Shaw draws from a variety of sources, including statistical studies performed by secular authors as well as the writings of clergymen such as John Henry Newman and Robert Hugh Benson, to explore the shift from religion as “masculine and rational” to being associated with “feminine, domestic, and subjective” traits. Along the way, he explores the way in which phenomena like the “Fun Police” (an often Protestant restriction of characteristically “sinful” male pastimes like gambling) and “conversionism” (again, a Protestant idea that a strong emotional conviction of one’s sinfulness is necessary to spiritual conversion) are connected to making Christianity appear as an unmasculine religion. 

He also explores the connections of secularization of public and political life—overwhelmingly masculine spheres of activity—and the Victorian concept of the “angelic feminine.” Shaw will eventually connect this to the de-ritualization of the Roman liturgy following Vatican II as an emasculating process for Catholicism, where ritual action appealing to men is replaced with a “strong emphasis on verbal communication, which is more acceptable to women.”

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Engaging with the question of a female priesthood, Shaw opens a section entitled “The Male Priesthood and Patriarchy” with the helpful reminder that different disciplines utilize different types of argumentation based on what “kinds of arguments are possible in that discipline.” As a theological issue, he clarifies that arguments against a female priesthood must proceed not so much along the lines that there is a logical impasse to imagining God arranging this as a possibility. Instead, one has to turn to the Scholastic concept that some arrangements in the economy of salvation are conveniens, that is “overwhelmingly appropriate.” 

Says Shaw, “A logician might think these weak arguments, but they are not: they are overwhelmingly powerful considerations, from a theological point of view. They are the most powerful kinds of arguments, generally speaking, which are available within the discipline of theology.” What he cannot present is “a knock-down argument that God could not, in His omnipotence, have arranged things in such a way that women could be priests.” What then does Shaw argue?

He first explains the incompleteness in the argumentation of conservatives like John Paul II, who seem uncomfortable saying more than that men, in the order of grace, have been chosen to represent Christ’s authority while “women represent the Church, obedient to Christ, of whom they are members as individuals. Men represent something they are not, whereas women represent something which they actually are” (original emphasis). Shaw clarifies: if grace builds on nature, there must be something true naturally about men that makes their exercise of authority in the realm of grace appropriately founded in nature. 

Shaw concludes that a correct understanding of patriarchy as indelibly inscribed on human nature is the essential yet “unfashionable, or even scary” connection between nature and an all-male priesthood. The reason the spiritual patriarchy of the Church has become conspicuous is because of a decline in patriarchy in other spheres of modern life. Loss of this why for an all-male priesthood understandably led to the abandoning of other “less essential” but still patriarchally inspired roles, like those of male altar servers.

Continuing to reflect on patriarchy in “Headship and Hierarchy,” the feminist objection to masculine authority in marriage is met by a calm and careful reflection on the fact that “unlike the other forms of authority to which we are subject in this life, the relationship between husband and wife in a Christian marriage is based on consent.” Shaw continues, “This fact makes it very difficult to claim that it is intrinsically unjust, unless one adopts the Victorian conception of womanhood after all, according to which women are too frivolous and dim-witted to be allowed to determine their own fate.” 

Shaw’s other point in this chapter is that the alternative to the traditional household is “a household based on the theory of the equality of the sexes, in which there is no authority: not even authority over the children.” To deny authority to the husband is to deny the authority of the wife as well. Obviously, Shaw’s anti-equality position mentioned here is not one which denies dignity and equality as to possession of the same human nature in men and women, but simply one which tries to understand this equality as different from “sameness.” 

“The family is a natural institution,” Shaw reminds us. This means “that the family can never be erased. The other things I mentioned—magazines, associations, parishes and so on—can be, and from time to time are, destroyed.” Shaw emphasizes the importance of the family and relationship between the sexes from several uncommon but deeply helpful and important angles.

On the one hand, as previously touched upon, his treatment of patriarchy in several chapters is an important and synthetic contribution to the topic. “What is essential to patriarchy is the idea that, in marrying, husband and wife create a hierarchically-ordered community.” The family is not just two people; it must be conceived in the larger context of “children, servants, farm-hands and other employees, other family members, and guests.” Also, “it is important to stress that the wife has the second” place in command, not no place. “She is the second in command, and assumes complete command in the absence of the husband,” even if this absence is regular or permanent. 

In this regard, Shaw emphasizes that it is important to rid ourselves of early-twentieth-century circumstances, “the idle high-status wife, or the unpaid cook and cleaner of the working classes.” Ultimately, there is no room for the authority of the paterfamilias (or the priest) to be arbitrary or abusive. “It is limited in scope and can be exercised only for the good of the community to be governed.”

On a rather different issue, Shaw devotes several chapters to understanding the roots of the sex-abuse crisis in the Church today and how this is related to family, theology, and liturgy. In a trio of long and careful chapters (“Why Do They Call You ‘Rigid’?”; “Clericalism and the Culture of Clerical Abuse”; and “Sex Education and the Ethics of Consent”), he refutes the idea that the traditional theology of the priesthood leads to an authoritarian clericalism which in turn leads to situations where priests are in the habit of forcing their will and being obeyed and never criticized, obviously creating a dynamic conducive to abuse. 

Shaw explores the shift in ethical thought: from objectively wrong actions being punishable and wrong, to the consent of involved parties becoming the only determining factor for whether the action is permissible or not. He also addresses the fact that abusive mentalities, which create environments where sex abuse becomes tolerated, also support mentalities open to abusing the faithful via poor liturgy and bad theology. 

These three chapters also give important information on how the traditional family environment is the irreplaceable teacher of a balanced sexuality: 

This is not a lesson easily learnt from a textbook of moral theology: the Catholic family must be experienced, and it must seep into our bones. If we want to know what we can do about the current crisis, for parents there is always this: to live our vocation more faithfully.

While there are several other substantive and insightful chapters in the section on family, the last point I want to draw attention to is Shaw’s refreshingly integrated approach to family culture as both “natural” and “supernatural.” He writes: 

An environment in which parents and children can truly feel at home is not built exclusively on prayer and the sacraments. The family needs culture. It needs a tradition of cooking, of clothing, of architecture, of home decoration; it needs Christmas carols and fairy stories….Catholic culture is a natural culture as well as a supernatural one, and it is the family’s task to maintain it, develop it, and pass it on.

Shaw is hopeful for the traditional family structure because it is a natural institution. “Young men and women, despite many temptations and distractions, are strongly drawn to a life-long monogamous and exclusive relationship ordered towards children. They see this instinctively as fulfilling and wholesome.” Because this structure is written into what it means to be human, faulty upbringing and experiences in this regard can never quite erase this “foundation which is not learned, but arises from the depths of human nature.”

Seeing the centralization of the Church over the past century (started in particular by Leo XIII and Pius X) as a development which is no longer harnessed by Church authorities as a method of “engaging in a campaign against heresy,” Shaw sees the “final capture of the Church as a human institution by her enemies” not as something that will be prevented by Church authority and “zealous men in Rome with their hands on the levers of centralized power.” Rather, “it will be prevented, if it is prevented, by the refusal of ordinary Catholics to go along with it.” 

In this refusal, we are not an “atomized collection of individuals.” This is because resistance must be both coordinated and “inculcated in us and in the next generation.” This is the power which the family has over other institutions like parishes and schools. “The bonds of family life, between spouses, between children and their parents, and between siblings, are not invincible, but they are extremely powerful, and they create and sustain an environment where the whole person can be nourished—emotionally, intellectually, and physically.” 

Of course, the family is not just a natural institution but a sacrament as well. “The effect of the sacrament is to make the natural bonds of marriage unbreakable, to sanctify the natural love of spouses, and to reinforce with divine assistance their natural efforts in raising their children.” These are not gifts given “to lay associations, to magazines, or even to parishes.” Nor are religious communities sacramentally constituted, Shaw notes. The implication of all this is that “The family is the ultimate bulwark of Christian society.” 

As I similarly noted in a Tolkien-inspired essay, Shaw concludes that the strengthening of our family “against this storm which seems to gain greater and greater power” is a tremendous, meaningful, and terrifying task. But we know “something that our opponents do not: that Christ has already gained the victory.” Hope-filled in its conclusion, this new collection of Shaw’s writing offers the Catholic community at large, and traditionalists in particular, a fresh look at current issues, addressing them with scholarly and thoughtful argumentation, and peaceful and commonsense rhetoric. For all these aspects, the gentleman, scholar, and father Joseph Shaw must be thanked.

The Liturgy, the Family, and the Crisis of Modernity, published in 2023, is available in paperback and hardcover directly from Os Justi Press for those in the United States, and internationally from all Amazon sites.


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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