Father Phillip Chavez believes masculine identity is under attack.
It’s threatened by a number of factors, and it’s leading to marital and family breakdown.
Based in Glen Rock, Pa., Father Chavez, a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, is setting up a men’s institute to address key issues of men and their concerns, as well as producing resources for their character formation and integration. His mission is to give men confidence in their true identity.
He spoke recently in Rome with Register Correspondent Edward Pentin. Excerpts follow.
What prompted you to devote your energies to this ministry?
What I’m finding with men, especially with men in America whom I’ve long worked with (although I’ve seen this in Italy), is that many of them are suffering from a sense of inferiority, insecurity — basically the widespread sense of loss of masculine identity.
I’m trying to set up an institute to help men understand themselves again as leaders, protectors and providers of society, of their families, communities and of their Church.
Why is there this loss of confidence?
I think a man’s identity is mostly gained from his mentors, and so what I find most of the time in men is that they’ve lacked a sense of guidance, they’ve lacked what I call mentorship, especially when a man comes to an age of 12 or 13, when that psycho-sexual drive is burgeoning.
He has many desires for which he wants to know things, to learn. He wants adventures, he wants conquests, he wants to learn many skills — to hunt, to camp, to fish. And what I’m finding is that at that age he needs a number of leaders, mentors, guides, coaches, to lead him to things he wants to know in order to forge his own identity.
He just naturally desires to learn these things, so it’s really the duty of men to teach him these things, and also to teach what love is about, how to love, and teach him about women, about his sexuality — again, his own masculine identity.
What aspects of society are taking him away from his masculine identity?
That’s a very involved question. It’s many-faceted.
In the technological age, because he doesn’t exercise more of his masculine strengths to chop wood or forge things with his hands, he’s using his strength less, and to some extent his practical intellect that leads him into a world of imagination that isn’t good for him because he’s more a man of practical order, he likes to wrestle with things, build things, forge things on his own and with others.
So without that it’s often very difficult for him to find his identity as a maker, as a creator.
But also I think there are many things that confuse him in society. He needs to band more together with his brothers. This is one of the things, aside from his mentors, which today he’s lacking.
You’ll find that boys participate in sports, probably in a tense way. But the difficulty is, certain men’s or boy’s organizations are lacking for him, so he isn’t able to team-up together, to understand his masculine identity that he finds through wrestling with men, competing with them, challenging them and learning from them.
So because of that he’s losing his place in society, as well. He needs more association with other men and boys so he can understand where he stands.
It’s the desire I think of every man to be a man among men. If he’s around women too much, or finds himself too much in co-educational situations, I think he finds it very difficult to gain that masculine identity.
What examples are there in Jesus’ life, in the Gospels, which show men how to be true to their masculine identity?
That’s another very involved question. I guess primarily through Jesus Christ we find what it is to be a man, a man who finally laid it all down.
In the qualities of Christ I find there’s something incipient in every man which is Christlike, even on the natural level, for example. I think it’s the case that every man by nature wants to be known as a man by his strength, and that he can lay his life down.
Every man has the desire to hear that from his mentors, that he has what it takes to lay everything down. This is what men are looking for in their own identity, and so this just disposes him to that Christian supernatural virtue, which is really to lay his life down for his friends.
But Jesus Christ is the model too when he speaks out in an unpopular way, when he goes against the opinion of others, when he stands up, when he defends a woman, when he’s compassionate to her.
Men should be very understanding to women, to see them and their children perhaps in their weakness but be more understanding instead of judgmental. He was harsh on the Pharisees and Sadducees and the scribes, but when it came to women and children, he was always compassionate, deferential, always very understanding.
So there we see Christ who is … very kind and soft when he needs to be. Yet he’s fierce when he has to be, even to defend his Father’s honor in the Temple, he fashions cords into a whip and drives moneychangers out. He’s ferocious when he needs to be. To stand up for what he needs to. So in Christ you see the real qualities of a man.
Some also criticize a lack of paternal figures in society, that the idea of fatherhood has been lost in society. How much do you think that plays a role in the weakening of masculine identity?
The lack of fatherhood, and the absence of that being lifted up as an ideal in society, has been a real detriment to a man’s formation in a number of respects.
One of the things I see in terms of fatherhood — again I go back a lot to this idea of mentoring — is where to be a father means to watch over your children. It also means to train them and to form them. And for a boy, especially, he needs a father to lead him to think, to guide him, to direct him, to lead him to challenges, to help him to see himself as a man.
That’s what a father does. He leads his son to competition, hardship, to challenge, and fathers are failing to do that. And I guess what’s happening in that failure is that mothers try to overcompensate oftentimes.
That can often work to the detriment of a young boy trying to forge his masculine identity which, for a boy in adolescence, means, to a certain extent, as all cultures have really shown, that men have to in some way separate from their mothers so they can gain their own identity, so they can gain that kind of persona which eventually takes on a woman to their own side, for which they have to distance themselves from their mothers.
And their fathers are the ones that teach him that, teach the skills to do that. So without their fathers sometimes they find it very difficult to separate from their mother and her ways of doing things, and come into their own as a real man.
Would you also say that part of the problem is that the roles of men and women are no longer so clearly defined, that the differences between the sexes have become blurred?
That’s right. You know it’s unfortunate that when it comes to differentiation of the sexes, in common discussion what you find is the differences are mitigated and what is common is what is emphasized.
For women, I can understand why they would want to think that way, even naturally, but for men, the difficulty is that they want to know they’re different, they want to know where their contribution is, they want to know about their otherness and their place, because there’s something in a man that wants to separate himself from another so he can seek his own identity.
Women oftentimes find their identity when they’re in common; men often in their individuation. And so they need to see their differences, and I think in leveling the playing field, as it were, between women and men, we mitigate these differences.
It harms a man’s masculine identity very much. Again, it obstructs him in his understanding and his grasping of that ability to lead and also to protect and provide for all those in his care.
You’ve witnessed a large following in your ministry. Do you see a change in society, that people are coming round to the idea that masculine identity needs to be shored up?
What I find is people coming round to this idea of wanting a stronger man, a leader, a protector. I see it not so much in the academic forums, but in your average parish.
When I do parish missions and homilies on this, the women and men both come alive. The women want a stronger leader, especially those who are mothers.
Mothers know that when they have young boys, there’s this little creature they don’t understand. He’s wily, he’s wild, and women understand, especially mothers, that boys need a lot of guiding, a lot of learning by other men. But as I said, women want leaders. They want leaders in the home, they want to be led, not oppressed but led as Christ led.
So I find them very enthusiastic about a man who leads. What I’ve especially found is that a lot of single women, in their 20s, 30s or 40s even, are desperate and they’ll ask me: “Why didn’t I hear this long ago? Why aren’t our men listening to this?”
And so when I have Sunday evening gatherings of men, usually they’re very large gatherings, because men — even your common man, even the most sophisticated — are gravitating to this message, because they’re searching for their identities.
They’re searching for their purpose, and they’re searching for something in their own life, a way they can contribute, as well. I find the message very much welcome in parishes.
There seems to be a fine line between what you’re saying and what others would say was chauvinism. How do you deal with that, with people who say, “Oh, you’re just being a chauvinist?”
That’s difficult when people won’t hear the argument. I can understand why many are defensive about this message. They think it’s chauvinistic because it’s very much the case that women have lost trust in men.
Most women, to a greater or lesser degree, distrust men because men haven’t protected them or guarded them or stood up for them or laid it all down for them. Most women feel this, most women have experienced this — really good, pious, deferential women.
So for most women, there is a wound there of a man who hasn’t protected them, who hasn’t watched over them. So when I speak about men wanting, in their own aspirations, to lead, protect and guide them into their care, and to provide, women are very defensive because they have a difficulty trusting in that, to have confidence in that — to entrust themselves to man is a very difficult thing.
So for a woman to do that, to trust as Christ did, is very difficult, and for many women it takes a lot of courage and much prayer.
Edward Pentin is based in Rome.