Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Ecclesiology and the State

Fall 1999

THE CHURCH IMPOTENT: THE FEMINIZATION OF CHRISTIANITY
Leon J. Podles
Spence Publishing Company, 1999, xviii + 288 pgs.

Usually I review a book by getting into the swing of things at once. What is the book's central thesis? and (if possible) How is that thesis mistaken? are the questions that occupy me. But, faced with Mr. Podles's excellent study, I must confront a preliminary issue: why review this book in The Mises Review?

Prima facie, the case against doing so is strong. Mr. Podles argues from theological premises, and theology far exceeds my competence. He maintains that, since the Middle Ages and increasingly in modern times, the Christian Church has become "feminized." (Our author concerns himself principally, but by no means exclusively, with the Roman Catholic Church.) By this he means that men have, in large numbers, abandoned the church: among the laity, religion is largely a woman's affair.

Why has this phenomenon come about? It is by no means intrinsic to religion. During its first thousand years, Christianity was at least as much masculine as feminine. Further, the feminization that arouses our author's concern is not present in the Orthodox Church, nor is it to be found in Judaism. (Here, I venture to disagree with Mr. Podles: feminization is definitely present in Reform Jewish congregations.)

Is this not, then, a theological book far outside my province? I think we can see the relevance of the work to the social and political concerns of interest to readers of this journal if we pose a question to Mr. Podles. Suppose that you are right: the Church has become feminized. What is the matter with that?

Mr. Podles's answer would in part be theological: he thinks that feminization results from wrong doctrine. But a good deal of his response transcends purely theological concerns. He thinks that the feminization of the Church threatens disastrous social consequences. His reasons for thinking this precisely locate the relevance of his book to us.

Mr. Podles embeds his account of feminization of the Church in a far-reaching theory of masculinity and femininity. For our author, male and female signify much more than biological facts. Each term denotes one side of a fundamental polarity.

As our author sees matters, "the female is the norm from which the male must be differentiated. The basic pattern of the human body is roughly female...and male characteristics develop from that pattern only under certain circumstances" (p. 37). From this basic fact of biology, supported by evidence from psychology and anthropology, Mr. Podles concludes that the fundamental nature of the masculine is separation.

Men, of course, do not remain permanently apart from women. But, if they are to achieve proper masculine status, they must for a time break from the feminine. "The masculine is a pattern of initial union, separation, and reunion, while the feminine is a maintenance of unity. This pattern is found on the biological level, and even more on the psychological, anthropological, and cultural levels" (p. 45).

Man then represents separation, woman unity. Mr. Podles has given us no less than a metaphysics of gender. His theory in part resembles that of Otto Weininger, a controversial Austrian Jewish writer who influenced, among others, both Wittgenstein and Hitler. "Weininger anticipated many of the later psychological analyses of masculinity and femininity; he saw that femininity was the natural condition of all human beings" (p. 191).

To grasp Mr. Podles's theory correctly, we must avoid a common error. The feminine is not, he holds, a principle of reception in contrast to a male principle of aggression. In a fascinating excursus, our author blames the adoption of Aristotle's analysis of the female by the medieval scholastics for the prevalence of the erroneous position. In Aristotle's view, man imposes form on the female, who is pure matter. (In Aristotle's metaphysics, matter sometimes means receptivity.)

Man, then, must separate. To do so, initiation rituals play a crucial role. In these rites, young men, under the supervision of adult males, enact special ceremonies that mark their departure from the feminine. Often, the aspirant to masculinity must undergo special physical pain: if not, at least something dramatic happens that impresses his new status upon him.

In our author's view, initiation rituals lie at the core of Christianity. "Various actions of the Church, especially baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, and the laying on of hands came to be called mysteries in the East and sacraments in the West.... Initiation is an important action in religions that have a concept of a realm that transcends the everyday world. These mystery religions are closely parallel to masculine development" (pp. 87-88).

Once more a question already raised comes back. Mr. Podles's work, let us grant, has much more than theological relevance. We now have a good argument that anthropology and psychology journals should address The Church Impotent. But why The Mises Review? At last, we can fully respond.

The answer can best be elucidated with a further question: what happens if religion does not maintain control of masculine initiation rituals? Then, quite literally, all hell breaks loose. Mr. Podles sees the masculine as a force of immense danger that threatens destructive violence. "As the muscles grow and harden, the adolescent male feels the power of his body and uses it to frighten other people.... This attraction to power can be disciplined and sent into socially useful channels, or at least channels that do not threaten to destroy society immediately. But the common element in the deformations of masculinity that result from an exaggeration of some masculine characteristics is their more or less explicit worship of power in crime, Satanism, fascism, Nazism-all of which are practical forms of nihilism" (p. 195).

Thus, if Mr. Podles's theory of the masculine is correct, his work has vital importance for classical liberals. Unless the violence inherent in unchecked masculinity can be contained by suitable initiation rites, we have no hope of living in a libertarian society. In early 1999 our beloved president launched a massive and illegal war of aggression against Serbia over an issue that had not the remotest bearing on America's national interest. Surely the case is tailor-made for Mr. Podles's theory.

I have so far left out one piece of the puzzle. Mr. Podles thinks that, at its outset and for one thousand years thereafter, Christianity acted effectively, through its initiation rituals, to contain and channel masculinity. What went wrong? How did the Church become feminized, with the attendant threat to society of uncontrolled masculinity?

Our author places principal responsibility on what he terms "bridal mysticism." By tradition, the Church is the Bride of Christ; but Bernard of Clairvaux, recalling Origen, stressed the individual believer as a bride. Bridal mysticism, combined with Aristotle's view of the feminine, spread rapidly. But, once more, the theological details of Mr. Podles's case stand outside my competence; and readers are advised to study his intriguing account for themselves.

To one likely objection to Mr. Podles's thesis, we can construct a ready response. Supporters of "bridal mysticism" or other examples of feminization might accuse our author of reductionism. Is not a theological proposition properly judged according to its truth? Mr. Podles seems mainly interested in the consequences for society of certain theological views. But, even if he is right, what if bridal mysticism marks a stage in the development of sound doctrine?

Our author, to my mind, stands immune from this objection. He does not reduce theology to biology or anthropology. Anyone who reads his profound meditation, "The Masculinity of the Spirit" (p. 82), cannot doubt his deep concern with theological truth.

One assumption that Mr. Podles makes, though, is perhaps open to challenge. He ascribes the feminization of the Church to certain types of theology. But he needs to confront a counterexample. As he notes, the Orthodox Church remains largely masculine. Yet the Sophiology of Vladimir Soloviev and his many followers has been vastly influential on Orthodox theology since the late nineteenth century; and this is at least as feminized a view as anything Mr. Podles has turned up for the Western Church. One thinks in this connection of the great work of Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth.

As my readers will know, I do not like to see a good book go unpunished. But, so extensive is our author's learning that I have found only a few points at which to carp. Abraham did not pretend that he and Sarah were brother and sister (p. 68); according to Genesis, she was his half-sister. What is said about the roots of von Balthasar's theology of Holy Saturday on p. 130 seems not entirely in accord with the remarks on p. 186. And the statement "In Thomas's theological writings all sense of a personal love for God is excluded" (pp. 110-11) seems to me much too hard on Aquinas.

But these are mere details. Mr. Podles has written one of the most intriguing philosophical works on history to come my way in a long time.

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