We Need More Catholic Gentlemen
The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2365 says this:
St. John Chrysostom suggests that young husbands should say to their wives: I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us. I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.
Recently, a young woman I’ve known for a few years got engaged. She’s a stellar woman, strong, faith-filled and she has a solid character. I texted her later that day after hearing her good news: “I assume he’s worthy of you or you wouldn’t have said yes.” What I really meant was, he’d better be a Christian gentleman.
Having daughters has, of course, pulled out of me a very protective instinct in regard to guys. I have a funny t-shirt that my daughters, let’s say, dislike that lists the ten things a dad instinctually thinks in regard to any man who might want to date his daughter. I know guys. Guilty until proven innocent. I’ve only worn it once.
After I texted that young lady, I began to think about what I mean — concretely — by gentleman. I know John Henry Newman has a concise description [see here]. Then I thought of the men in my life whom I have tried to emulate, men who in my mind reveal the character of a gentleman. There’s a ton. I thought of my grandfather who had written these words to me before my wedding: “When Nana looked at Patti’s [my wife] face in the photo you sent, she said to me: ‘She has character. I can see it in her face. She’s a lady.’ So, Tom, to be worthy of a lady you must be a gentleman…”
I spent some time later that night writing down my thoughts, thinking of my daughters’ future. My flow’s not great, my thoughts are not so organized, lots is left out, but here’s what came to mind that night. Sorry for the length!
I don’t want my daughters to date or marry just “guys,” but gentlemen. I want my sons to be gentlemen. I want to be a gentleman. What’s a gentleman? Well, here’s what Patti’s taught me over the last 28 years I’ve known her. The man she challenges me to become is a man with redeemed masculinity, which is the theological shorthand for “Gentleman.” As to what it looks like, I’ve learned mostly from men in my life who have exemplified, or marred, this high calling. For the witness and influence of those men in my life, I am forever grateful to God (Prov. 27:17).
I aspire to be this Christian Gentleman. What is he like?
He’s responsible, self-respecting and God fearing. Responsible for his own decisions, responsible with his commitments. Self-respecting because he’s truth-seeking, authentic, not duplicitous; what you see is what you get. God fearing, as he knows justice makes fierce demands on him; demands that effectively reign in his unruly passions so that he can live, like St. Joseph, as a Just Man. God-fear also makes him meek, which means not “weakness” but strength harnessed for good. Gentle-men are gentle when they employ their strength. The meek are also humble, which makes them courageous in standing for the right thing, ready to take the hits that come when doing the right thing. He’s also humble enough to admit when he fails, accept the consequences and press on toward the better.
Gentlemen take criticism on the chin, but can also confront others when necessary. They follow through with promises, are consistent and are men of their word. They speak up for others who are unfairly wronged, and don’t join in talking trash about others. They prefer only to speak criticism to another’s face. They’re willing to sweat hard for the benefit of others. They love to work, but don’t allow their career to become an excuse for avoiding the harder work of relationships. They have a plan for life, know where they are going; or at least are committed to finding a way. They are fixers, but are willing to accept unfixable things and, yes, to just listen if that’s all she wants. Ain’t easy.
Gentlemen persevere, and base their choices not on personal comfort or ease but on what makes, for those they’re responsible for, a better world. Again, they persevere, and even if they can’t achieve the goals they set they don’t despair, but trust God will bless their sincere desire and dedicated effort to achieve them.
They control the tongue, and while their language can be salty, it is never vulgar or crass. And while their humor can be sharp, it is never cutting. Gentlemen know well that words have immense power to build and demolish, to reveal or conceal the dignity of humanity — of the woman.
Gentlemen hold women in high esteem. Not by idealizing or trivializing them, nor by conjuring twisted fantasies that suit the unredeemed elements of their masculinity, but by reverence for the unique, God-given gifts that define womanhood — the “feminine genius.” And for the wholly unique incarnation of that genius in each woman. Gentlemen know that if a woman’s gifts are augmented, they augment all that is genuinely masculine in him. The interplay between masculinity and femininity in a relationship is a source of endlessly creative tensions and equally endless reasons to laugh together. Vive la différence! Et quelle différence!
From what I see in Patti, here’s a snapshot description of the feminine genius I’ve come to revere: other-oriented; nurturing; readiness to suffer hardship for others’ benefit (compare the men of Mark 14:50 to the women of 15:40-41); intuitive; attentive to details; tender; compassionate; an astonishing memory that makes me think I have dementia. Her femininity says to me: to-be-cherished; never-use-or-exploit; I-need-stability; be-solid-in-character; risk-intimacy-trust-vulnerability; I-desire-authenticity; love-me-freely.
High bars, all. I want to reach them all.
Gentlemen are chivalrous, putting her well-being and fulfillment first. Gentlemen let ladies “go first” because that’s the nature of love; and look, guys are dense, and if somebody has to go first it should be her (Phil. 2:3-4). Not because she’s weak, but because love commands respect and putting the other first, and in general guys need that message more than girls. An elder priest friend of mine said to me once, “One of the reasons God became a man and not a woman is because guys had screwed love up so badly, and misunderstood women’s dignity so badly, He had to show them in Person what it meant to be a man who loves like God…”
Like St. Joseph, gentlemen are guardians of a woman’s chastity, the virtue which guards the “garden of love” (cf Song of Songs 4:12), and they do this first by guarding their own. Every gentleman knows that chastity offers a singular opportunity for his heroism in her regard. He knows that by waiting until marriage he shows her he’s ready to be faithful to her for life, can exercise self-control, and if she is ever unable or unwilling to engage in sexual intimacy in marriage he will respect that without resentment and faithfully love her no matter what. A man who will not wait for sexual intimacy until marriage is no gentleman and is not worth another moment of a woman’s time.
The gentleman uses his strength to build a home around a woman’s life, enshrines her dignity and never uses his strength to harm her. Any man who threatens violence or inflicts harm, coerces with fear or intimidation is unworthy of her. Such a man is a despicable coward. A gentleman is never threatened by a woman’s strengths and gifts, but cultivates them, benefits from them and encourages them as if they were his own. He wants to see her personality blossom under his influence.
A gentleman wants to know the fissures and cracks of the woman he loves — as well as his own — and tries every day to learn how to build up the good in her life to protect what is fragile and help heal what is broken. He tries to appreciate her perspectives, wildly different as they can (and should) be from his own, and freely shares his perspectives with her. He is not afraid to be a leader and confront problems with her, when they arise, with a gentle strength that includes her strength. He wants the truth, knows how to argue with respect, seeking to understand more than to be understood.
He looks at her, speaks her name, notices her, compliments her with regularity and works mightily to show small gestures of care and love. He is worthy of her trust because every day he’s ready to die a thousand deaths to gain her heart, even as he gives her his own (Prov. 31:11).
Bloody hard. The fruit of grace begged for with regularity. But this is the way of THE Man, the Christ of the Gospels, of Ephesians 5. Christ is the exemplary Gentleman, and all who wish to take up their cross and be His disciple will also be gentlemen with Him.
When I worked at the Missionaries of Charity home and hospice for AIDS victims in D.C., there was a young woman who had been a prostitute for many years who became Catholic and received the sacraments during Mass one Sunday. She was far advanced in her illness. The Chaplain shared, after she died, that soon after receiving her First Communion she remarked: “That’s the first time a man’s ever come into my body who loved me.”
She’d met her first Gentleman, who loved her with the Redeemer’s masculinity.
Brothers, may we all be protagonists in Christ’s revolution of authentic masculinity. Certainly any prospective suitors of my daughters must be gentlemen or they will have to feel the heat of my cavalry.
Ladies, thank you for challenging us to be gentlemen. Don’t ever let us off the hook.
St. JP2, take me out: “The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine genius which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness”
Kelly Clarkson famously sang about her gentleman-husband, and her baby girl, who both helped repair the damage once done by her father…