Saturday, August 06, 2016

Was religion feminised in the 19th century? Part 3: the Catholic experience

The donors of a fabulous Medieval triptych in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool,
which the SCT Summer School visited, attend Mass, as presented on the outside of
the triptych doors. They are in a private chapel, but the curtains at the back have been pushed
aside by young men eager to witness the Consecration. Late 15th century.
In the first post of this series I set out the sociologist Callum Brown's account of how piety came to be seen as female by evangelicals in the 19th century; in the second post I gave an explanation of how this came about: the influence of Romanticism. Under this influence, a model of piety was developed which was feminine. Women were held up as models (dominating pious obituaries, for example); men were problems - the obituaries even of clergy emphasised their struggles with sin.

The identification of the feminine with the pious is exactly the problem which Leo Podles talks about in a Catholic context, but in his book he blames 'Bridal Mysticism', the identification of the individual Christian, as opposed to the Church, with the 'bride of Christ', in the High Middle Ages (starting with St Bernard). In a more recent talk, he lays stress, instead, on the role of the clergy as the 'fun police', referring to opposition to dancing by St Jean Vianney and St Charles Borromeo. In either case, he gives a bit of anecdotal evidence for women being regarded as more pious than men in the later Middle Ages, and more frequent church-goers.  He draws a line between this and the lack of men in church today, bypassing the Reformation, Romanticism, and the changes of the 1960s and '70s.

As I have said before on this blog, Podles' evidence for a loss of men from the Church in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period is fairly thin, and even in the 19th century it is patchy. You do find people talking about female piety, but the discourse of 'female depravity' can be also found in the later Middle Ages (it is criticised by Chaucer's Wife of Bath), as well as 'masculine depravity': those medieval preachers criticised everyone. Bridal Mysticism was a significant, but not a dominating, spiritual school through this period. And it is clearly a mistake to imagine that later events and movements made no difference.

By contrast, Callum Brown thinks of the major shift as taking place around 1800. Brown tells us that Catholic sources are similar to Evagelical ones in their presentation of the sexes in relation to religion. Since Brown is talking about the UK, it is inevitable that Catholics would be influenced by the majority religion and culture, and the invasion of Catholic art and spirituality by the sentimentality of the early Victorian period is impossible to miss. However, the bigger picture of the development of Catholic thinking doesn't fit the pattern Brown offers. I'm open to correction, but I don't really see the stark contrast between 18th and 19th century Catholic spirituality which Brown describes in relation to Evangelical spirituality.

On the subject of Podles' 'fun police', this has a strong parallel with the Puritanism of Evangelical religion both before and after Brown's 1800 paradigm shift. Brown would say, presumably, that this only becomes part of feminised conception of religion in the context of other parts of the picture. This is surely correct. If a puritanical attitude to 'fun' is combined with an emphasis on male leadership and the depravity of women, you don't have a feminised understanding of religion, you have a very tough, masculine one - along monastic or even military lines - and that's exactly what we see among British evangelicals before 1800. That's not to say that it is really attractive to men: if the lack of fun is too restrictive there can be a backlash. Perhaps Podles is correct that men in France before the Revolution and Spain before 1936 were resentful of kill-joy clergy who were personally morally slack (although there were surely other factors), but this looks like an separate issue from the issue of feminisation.

In any case, it is clear enough that Catholic societies were never remotely as puritanical as Puritan societies. Against St Jean Vianney (operating in a church still influenced by Jansenism) and St Charles Borromeo (in a society much in need of moral reform), there are the fun-loving saints, like St Philip Neri and St John Bosco. Bosco used to quote Neri:

Let young men be cheerful, and indulge in the recreations proper to their age, provided they keep out of the way of sin.

One bit of hard evidence on feminisation, from the United States, is from the census of 1936, which is quoted by Podles himself:

[I]n Eastern Orthodoxy the ratio of women to men is .75-.99 to one; Roman Catholics, 1.09 to one; Lutherans, 1.04-1.23 to one; Mennonites, 1.14-1.16 to one; Friends [Quakers], 1.25 to one; Presbyterians, 1.34 to one; Episcopalians, 1.37 to one; Unitarians, 1.40 to one; Methodists, 1.33-1.47 to one; Baptists, 1.35 to one; Assembly of God, 1.71 to one; Pentecostalists, 1.71-2.09 to one; Christian Scientists, 3.19 to one.

Another, which is anecdotal but surely reliable, is Mgr Hugh Benson, writing in his autobiographical Confessions of a Convert which was published in 1913, and directly addresses the accusation that the Catholic Church put off men.

[A]mongst Catholics emotionalism and even strong sentiment is considerably discouraged, and … the heart of religion is thought rather to reside in the adherence and obedience of the will. The result is, of course, that persons of a comparatively undevout nature will, as Catholics, continue to practice their religion, and sometimes, in ungenerous characters, only the barest minimum of their obligations; whereas as Anglicans they would give it up altogether.
There is no “alienation of the men” [in the Catholic Church]; on the contrary, in this country, as also in Italy and France, I am continually astonished by the extraordinary predominance of the male sex over the female in attendance at Mass and in the practice of private prayers in our churches. At a recent casual occasion, upon my remarking to the parish-priest of a suburban church of this phenomenon, he told me that on the previous evening he had happened to count the congregation from the west gallery and that the proportion of men to women had been about as two to one. This, of course, was something of an exceptional illustration of my point.

I think it is very likely that feminisation grew in the Catholic Church in Britain in the half century after Mgr Benson wrote, especially in the 1950s, a time when sentimental Catholic devotional art, to use just one measure, certainly thrived. Brown describes a 'final blast of feminisation' in the Church of England, which saw a rocketing ratio of female to male candidates for confirmation, for example. But I would contend that this feminisation was less intrinsic to the Catholic offering, less deeply rooted.

The next issue to tackle is what exactly happened in the 1960s. Brown tells us that a highly feminised religious discourse, which is to say a set of social sanctions, expectations, and self-understandings linking religiosity to the feminine realm, suddenly collapsed in the 1960s, alongside religious practice. Why?

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  1. Not to get sidetracked here but are you claiming that St. Vianney was influenced by Jansenism. You are certainly not the first, but I really don't get it. Is it because he was always warning people against allowing the slightest opening to fall? I always thought that odd. Isn't Jansenism in its condemned form something more far reaching in its theological assertions?

    I am also not sure that St. Philip Neri and St. Bosco are done justice in today's modern reading of them. It appears to me that one would have to ignore the stricter writings of those very saints to say that they are different from St. Vianney or St. Borromeo. Didn't St. Philip Neri say

    "In the matter of purity there is no greater danger than the not fearing the danger: when a man does not distrust himself, and is without fear, it is all over with him."

    "If young men would preserve their purity, let them avoid bad company"

    "Let them also avoid nourishing their bodies delicately."

    Those are not that different from the advise given by St. Vianney (I have personally ready many of St. Vianney's sermons). Also, from this perspective, the advise of the desert fathers of the Church would have to be rated as Jansenism++. But I digress.

    Aside from that, a good read as always :) I do agree that emotionalism and strong sentimentalism is a problem. But I have many seminarian friends (attending a non-traditional seminary) friends who believe (and say they are taught), that it is the best way in the modern world. So sadly, the Protestant trend seems to have been taken up by Catholics.

    1. It's the huge concern about dancing which seems to require explanation by reference to the influence of Jansenism. I can see that dancing can be an occasion of sin, but the dancing of Vianney's day? And it played a very important social role.

    2. Did St. Bosco and St. Philip encourage dancing between the opposite sexes? Maybe I am wrong but I always thought that the Church maintained that relations between unmarried men and women be somewhat distant. There are sermons from the likes of St. Alphonsus for an example that discourage even looking at a member of the opposite sex. It would be pretty difficult to dance without looking at your partner so it would seem that he was against all forms of dancing between unmarried men and women as well.

      So from that perspective, wouldn't it seem to be the case that the Church was somewhat against the idea of dancing, even in the sense as it may have existed in St. Vianney's day?

      I am honestly not sure myself. I am just asking...