On Being a Man - and a Woman

Doug McManaman
Summer 2007
Reproduced with Permission

"Fatti non foste a viver come bruti ma per seguir virtue e conoscenza" (You were not made to live as brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge) --Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

My friend the late Monsignor Thomas Wells once pointed out to me how easy it was to be a Catholic in the 50s. In terms of basic Catholic morality, virtually everyone agreed with you. But the 50s, he observed, did not produce many heroes. Today, however, it is very difficult to be a Catholic, in particular for young people, because almost everyone disagrees with you if you are faithful to the fundamental teachings of the Church, especially moral teachings.

But that is why, he continued, we are living in a glorious time, "an era of Christian heroes". Anyone who stands up for Catholic principles, especially in the area of marriage, sexuality, and respect for life, will do so heroically, precisely because it is so difficult to do so, especially for young people. And indeed, this age is producing heroes, and I am finding it easier to spot the three or four of them at least, in my classroom each year.

One such hero related to me what life is like for him at a typical Canadian secular university. He speaks of his academic colleagues who brag about their almost daily sexual conquests and pursuit of the coveted "V badge", an "honor" they receive for taking a girl's virginity -- some having earned as many as six within the short span of a week. All of them drink to excess, and virtually none of them attend Mass, and many of them simply don't believe in God.

He also pointed out that within his first week of university, he was propositioned four times while at parties with friends. A young girl would approach, kiss him on the cheek, and whisper in his ear: "You'd better take advantage of me now, because I might not be available later".

Every culture develops its own vocabulary, and this rotting university culture is no exception. A student is now considered "sexiled" if he happens to wake up in the night to discover his roommate and his girlfriend-or his latest victim - copulating like beasts.

This young man was rather despondent when telling me this only because he hasn't met anyone new who aspires to anything higher than his own genitals.

Can we reasonably expect much more from a culture in which there are no heroes? Indeed, today's youth, generally speaking, cannot name their heroes. When asked what famous person or celebrity might they consider a genuine hero to look up to, only 28% of my students could actually think of someone, and only 3% of these actually named someone worthy of the designation - unless you consider Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears, and Madonna heroes. In the end, 72% of them couldn't think of anyone.

Hence, our male students have no idea what it means to be a man, and few females have any idea what it means to be a woman. If the 50s did not produce many heroes, it should come as no surprise that the generation of youth of that era has shown itself unable to provide today's youth with any living images of genuine heroes, only rebels.

So what, therefore, does it mean to be a man? And what can we say to our female students about what it really means to be a woman? I offer a few thoughts.

The Latin word for 'hero' is vir, which is also the word for 'man'. A genuine man is a hero. The Latin virtus can be translated as 'courage', 'character', or 'manliness'. From virtus is derived the word 'virtue', which describes a certain nobility, a moral excellence or strength. A true and genuine man, that is, a hero, is a man of virtue, a man of strength, that is, a man of character. Let's consider this more closely.

Man, unlike angels, is a unity of spirit and matter. As a material being, he is the most superior creature on the hierarchy of beings within the physical universe, albeit the lowest creature on the hierarchy of intelligent creatures; for even the lowest angel is exceedingly superior to the most intelligent human being.

As a being of matter, human persons share in the basic vulnerability to destruction that characterizes all material things. We can be killed by the sword, or by a virus, and we can die from a fall, etc. Illness, even one so common as the flu, reveals to us our profound vulnerability to death.

But man is also spirit. He has intellect and will, and it is precisely in this dual power of mind and heart that he exists in the image and likeness of God. Although as material he is vulnerable to destruction, he can use his intelligence to understand the intelligible structures of things, such as metals, chemicals, and other materials, to protect himself from the cold, the heat, and the beasts, and if he has the will power, he can work hard to successfully exercise dominion over what is lower than himself, namely the earth and everything in it, such as minerals, plants, and animals.

His own personal excellence, however, comes from his rule over himself, because there is something in him that struggles against his reason, namely his passions, for example, his fears, his desires, his anger, his sense of daring, his sorrows, his complacency, etc. To govern himself well, he needs the intelligence to understand the demands of reason, and a will stronger than those passions that rebel against reason.

And so a genuine man is a king, that is, one who governs or rules, over himself in particular. He rules over his passions by habituating them to submit to the rule of reason, which in turn is measured by the rule of divine law. And so he cultivates the very earth of his passions through virtue, ordering and disposing the entire network of his emotions to readily obey the higher part of himself.

And so a true man (virtualis: manliness) cultivates fortitude (virtus) so as not to allow himself to be ruled by irrational fear in his pursuit of what is truly good, which is often difficult, and temperance so as not to be ruled by inordinate desire for the comforts of food, drink, and sexual activity, and humility so as not to be possessed by inordinate self-love, patience so as not to be overcome by sorrow, meekness so as not to be driven by anger, justice so as to love the good more than himself, and wisdom and prudence because he loves truth, which he knows to be larger than himself.

The "macho" in hot pursuit of "V" badges and beer is not a genuine man, but a boy who has yet to achieve any kind of moral self-possession. He is ruled by his fear of his own mortality, which is why he tries so hard to stay young looking, and why he flees commitment and the responsibility that is part and parcel of adulthood; for as we move towards old age, we move closer to the grave.

He is too afraid to reveal his true self, which he loathes anyway-for how does an adult have any kind of respect for himself when all he sees in himself is a child who lacks the strength of character to make the sacrifices that love demands? And that is what he is, a child who indulges his every passion. And so he hides behind a well-built body that gives him a sense of power - which he cannot acquire through his character, which is weak and pathetic. His built body is the means by which he attempts to seduce young virgins whom he uses to gratify both his ego and sexual appetite.

Women have a natural integration between their bodies and their own personal intentions; for they tend not to hide their intentions behind a bodily shield, as males tend to do, but are fully expressive of who they are and what they think and feel. And so women dance with much more vigor than a man, and they squeal, laugh, hug, cry easily, etc. They have no fear of revealing who and what they are and what they feel, and this is one of their strengths.

But the metrosexual male exhibits an integration between his body and personal self that is characteristically female. He is ruled by an excessive love of his body, its comfort and its adornment. He is so lacking in fortitude that he cannot step outside the house without carefully coiffed hair, waxed eyebrows, and having showered and applied expensive Sothys skin cream to his facial pours. In short, he has become feminized.

But the characteristic virtue of the male is fortitude (virtus), which is the virtue that moderates fear in the face of a threat of death. The brave man overcomes his natural love of bodily integrity and aversion to death and goes out to meet the danger head on, so that those he loves will be protected from the danger he faces for their sake. It is easier for him to place his body in harm's way because there is less integration between it and his personal self, which is why he tends not to hold grudges and quickly gets over an affront.

Neither is the rebel, who pierces his face, spikes his hair, and looks everyone in the face and spits, a genuine man, for he does not rule, but is ruled by his anger and disgust. He has no humility, but chooses to regard himself as much larger than he actually is and others, such as his parents and those in authority, as much smaller than they actually are. He so lacks a personal identity and is so ruled by his disgust at others that he creates an identity for himself that is outlandish, outrageous, and entirely outside the norm, so as to offend them and attract as much attention to himself as possible. In short, he lacks the strength of character to forgive those who have hurt him in the past, to move beyond it, and so he is cynical, which he mistakes for critical intelligence.

The true man has the strength to forgive, is not ruled by anger, is not reckless, does not needlessly expose himself to danger, nor is he inconsiderate of others, unhygienic and reeking. But neither does he exhibit excessive concern over his appearance, his body, or his own personal comfort level.

In sum, he loves the good, the true, and the beautiful more than he loves himself. He aspires to what is higher and nobler than himself, and like a true king raises what is lower, ennobling it with regal splendor, in particular his own passions. In other words, he is religious, for God is Goodness Itself, Beauty Itself, Truth Itself, and a man's destiny is to know, love, and possess God forever.

What does it mean to be a woman?

A woman is a female man (wiv: female. Old English), and so the secret to being a woman also has something to do with virtue, that is, heroism. The Latin virgo is a young girl, a maiden, a virgin. There is a regal quality (queenliness) to the true and genuine woman. A queen is admired for her beauty, and she too rules over a kingdom.

But all this has to do with virtue, for the Greek term for moral nobility is kalon, from kaleo (attractive), and is best translated as the morally beautiful. A truly beautiful woman is virtuous, and because a woman is a unity of spirit and matter, a morally beautiful or noble spirit manifests in the body, especially the countenance. That is why morally superficial human beings are not attractive for long, although they may be physically good looking, and why persons of noble character, though physically mediocre, become -- when known -- very attractive.

Just as there are virtues that are characteristically male, i.e., fortitude, we can also speak of certain characteristically female virtues. This is not to suggest that men have no need of these virtues. Rather, it means they are more fully exhibited by a woman, and so they inspire others, including men, to reach for them. One such virtue is honesty. Because of that natural integration between the body and her personal intentions, women tend to be more naturally honest. That is why duplicity is more unbecoming of a woman than of a man. Again, this is not to suggest that deception in a man is less serious. It means that a duplicitous woman has fallen farther than a man, just as a man who flees in fear has fallen farther than a woman who flees danger.

Fidelity is also characteristically female. The young woman (virgo or virgin) keeps her womb exclusively for her husband, whom she may not yet even know. But she practices fidelity to him nonetheless. For her womb is the deepest region within her body, and it does not belong to everyone, but to one only. And so the teenage woman (virgo) who courageously keeps her virginity as a token of fidelity and love to the husband she does not yet know, gives witness to a very profound religious truth of the human person; for there is a region deep within every human soul where he is alone with God. I speak of the spiritual unconscious in which each man decides the very direction of his life, whether to choose the moral good for its own sake, or to make himself the ultimate end and center of his own existence. No one is permitted to enter this realm, for only God knows us as we truly are because only God dwells there.

And so the man who takes pride in depriving a young woman of her virginity is a thoroughly perverse human being who invades a space that does not belong to him. He is a symbol of evil in that evil always seeks to usurp the place that belongs to God.

A truly great woman is a nurturer, one who reveres human life, especially the weak, the helpless, the defenseless, such as children, the elderly, and the sick. She shows men a very important side of being a man, for he protects life so she can nurture it, but in nurturing it, she shows him the way to deeper integration.

Moreover, it is her regal beauty that makes her sexy, for a true woman ought to be sexy. The problem, however, is that "sexy" is today confused with immodesty. It is misunderstood to mean revealing as much cleavage as possible, wearing tight pants that leave little to the imagination, piercing one's belly button and exposing it, etc. But sexual energy has less to do with parts than it does with character (virtus). A sexy woman is a beautiful woman, for a morally beautiful or noble (kalon) woman is an attractive (kaleo) woman.

Unlike the queen who by her specifically female virtues raises up all who are in her life, her children, her husband, etc., inspiring them to become more of what they already are, the female seducer is an anti-hero who brings down, lowers, scandalizes, opening her womb to everyone, leading the men she seduces into sin, so that they become entangled in the disordered network of their passions. It is fitting that she begins her work with the kiss of betrayal, like Judas. And the young girl who surrenders her virginity to one who is not her spouse has a long way to go before she becomes a true woman, for she is unastute, gullible, and ruled by an inordinate desire to be accepted by others and loved by a man.

Concluding Thoughts

What is particularly tragic about today's university culture is that good professors who are able and willing to challenge their students to aspire to the possession of truth and the love of the good are few and far between. Instead of guarding the innocence of the young by arming them with good example, enduring principles, and the art of logic, professors are more concerned with molding politically correct Liberal ideologues nursed on the post-modern principle that there is no absolute truth, that those who claim there is such a thing are virtual terrorists, and that the only good citizen is the one who is so tolerant of everything that he stands for nothing, except, of course, anti-Americanism, pacifism, and socialism.

Nevertheless, it is a glorious era indeed. If there is one final word I'd like young people to hear, it is this. Keep in mind that God is not subject to time, but is eternal. Eternity is the simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life. The decisions that we make in time drift into the past, and we eventually forget we made them. But to God, every choice we make is in the eternal present, and so one day our entire life will be gathered up into one eternal moment for us to behold, and it will be a vision that will be either an unending source of shame, or one that will cause us tremendous sorrow which we will demand to repair in the darkness of purgatory, or a cause for joyful tears.

St. Julian of Norwich wrote: "And I saw that every man's age will be known in heaven, and he will be rewarded for his voluntary service and for the time that he has served, and especially the age of those who voluntarily and freely offer their youth to God is fittingly rewarded and wonderfully thanked." It is especially wonderful to be able to offer your youth to God unstained, and not everyone will have that privilege. But it is especially heroic to offer one's youth to God as a gift without rot, because to do so is very difficult. But doing so will be fittingly rewarded and wonderfully thanked, because a young person radiant with the splendor of virtue gives tremendous glory to God and does more good for souls than he is capable of fully appreciating at this point in his life.