When I was newly married, I remember the firm opinion of a wise older friend who stressed the importance of separate retreats for men and women. The problem with sharing such religious activities, she said, is that each tends to listen on behalf of the other (i.e. “Whew, I’m so glad Father mentioned that—I’ve been telling him that for years!”). With that in mind, one might suggest that as a woman I should politely ignore the letter that Phoenix’ Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted has just written to the men of his diocese, but that would neglect an amazing document that has much to teach women as well. The lessons for women are peripheral to the text, but essential none the less, and so abundant that I’d like to take a few columns to unpack the wisdom therein.
Bishop Olmsted begins his work, "Into the Breach," by reminding his readers that we are all engaged in a massive two-pronged battle. The spiritual realm--in which lies assault eternal truths, darkness seeks to quench the light, and death stalks life at every turn--manifests itself in the concrete realities of everyday life. Unfortunately, without understanding the larger narrative, distinguishing both the importance of the struggle and how various choices play into the dichotomy becomes muddled. Only with a true devotion to Christ and the spiritual gifts provided by the Church is a soldier able to distinguish the authentic battle lines.
The Bishop never devolves into stereotypes, but does rely on a key theme: Men are encouraged by the call to heroism. We have noticed this in recent times, as most people were riveted by the firefighters rushing to help those trapped in New York's Twin Towers, are edified by young men who protect their weaker peers from bullies, and are wholesomely entertained by good literature in which a man on a quest perseveres against tremendous odds. The fact that much of our toxic culture has been invested in corroding the ideal through cynicism and deconstruction is telling; furthermore, distracting men through materialism, sloth, and lust is a pernicious tactic in pulling them away from the ultimate battle to which they’re called.
It’s not that women don’t rise in the face of an important challenges, but their inclination is slightly different from that of men, who are usually more mission-oriented. When women act heroically, it usually reveals a dedication immediate to the person himself, and the necessary tasks become relative to the love involved. This establishes a key area of collaboration, for men—who do remarkably well in tactics--benefit by the vision of women, which should be focused on the individual needs of those around them. If he understands where the breach is and how to defend against it, it is often because she has pointed out the harms—particularly as they relate to those entrusted to her care. She senses the urgency and the damage, he flies into action to safeguard in practical terms that which they both believe to have serious moral and practical implications.
There is a long, sordid history of why this template is so foreign to contemporary ears, but suffice it to say that with two generations seriously damaged by the sexual revolution, trust and collaboration between men and women are in shreds. At this point, to suggest that women should simply trust men often invites sneers, ridicule, or outright hostility—but it cannot be stressed too strongly that both are at fault. Each has been guilty of manipulation, betrayal, and failure to love. For every anecdote of men failing to meet their responsibilities is another example in which women have taken advantage of men. Despite monumental damage, the challenge remains: Society is in a death spiral. There is one template that works, and we must return to it or descend further into alienated chaos.
Bishop Olmsted's letter is a lifeline to Catholic men everywhere, and women should trust that it will lift men out of the quicksand of depravity and ruin. Our best response is to be grateful for his wisdom, to pray for its widespread dissemination, and to step back so that men can do what they're called to do--shore up a battered civilisation so that the family can flourish in the task entrusted to it, namely to create a shared life of love and collaboration that gives proper glory to God.