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Recovering the Meaning of True Masculinity
Interview with Regnum Christi member Rob Agnelli.

michelangelo david

October 13, 2010. Raleigh, NC. What are the hallmarks of true masculinity? Is there a Catholic vision of true manhood?  If so, how does it differ from the images of manhood we are fed in the media? What makes for an outstanding husband and father?

Rob Agnelli sets out to answer these questions in the interview below. A Regnum Christi member since 2007, Agnelli teaches bioethics throughout the diocese of Raleigh, NC, and speaks to men’s groups on issues related to men and faith. Married and with three young boys, he is currently working on a Master’s degree in Theology with a concentration in Moral Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

Q: Some would say that today’s society has “feminized” men. Do you see this happening?

Agnelli: I absolutely think this is happening.  But at the heart of it really is the push to remove any differences between the sexes at all.  Any differences are merely biological accidents.  There is an equal if not stronger push to make women more like men.  This is exactly what radical feminism is—women acting like men who aren’t real men, but just some power hungry, self-serving, façade of manhood.

For all the uproar that Humanae Vitae caused both inside the Church and out, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic warning about men easily forgetting the reverence due to woman and reducing her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires appears to have been spot on. “Gender equality” created in this fashion does not mean equality in dignity. Gender equality as a goal only serves to lessen the dignity of women.

The point is that the response to the injustice that men for many generations have perpetuated on women is not identity. As Chesterton said, "there is nothing so certain to lead to inequality as identity."

Unbeknownst to feminists, however, they are acknowledging the superiority of the male sex in trying to become like men. They foolishly seek to alter inequality rather than seek truth or justice.

Q: Is there a masculine “vocation”?  If so, how would you describe it?

Agnelli: In the truest sense of the word vocation, I don’t think that there is a masculine vocation per se.  Masculinity is not a special calling, but goes to the very essence of who I am.  I am not just a soul that is trapped inside a biologically male body, but my male body is the visible expression of my masculine soul.

That being said, part of fallen man’s condition is that we have lost our way and God has to call us back.  So in this way there is a vocation to authentic masculinity.

One of my favorite quotes from Vatican II is from Gaudium et Spes where the Council Fathers say that Christ came to fully reveal man to himself.  Now in this context it is referring to all mankind, but I think it applies to men especially. Christ shows all of us what a man looks like.

There is a scene in The Passion of the Christ where Our Lord is being scourged that describes perfectly what it means to be a man. Our Lord has been scourged and is lying flat on the ground.  All of the soldiers are exhausted from inflicting the beating on Him.  Our Lady and John the Apostle enter the Praetorium and Jesus sees them.  He fixes His eyes on them and begins to stand up so He can be scourged some more.  In essence, He looks upon them and says, “I still have more to give.” 

Now that is manhood. That is what all men are called to and it is their means to sanctity.  In that sense men do have a distinctive vocation.  It is a vocation to give until they have nothing left to give.  It is stamped into our very bodies that this is what it means to be a man. 

This is precisely why every man’s heart stirs when he sees the bloodied athlete come back in the game.  This is why everyone looks upon the firefighters who ran back into the World Trade Center, even though they knew it was coming down, as heroes.

Q: What are some common pitfalls or misunderstandings of what it means to be a man?

Agnelli: When 95% of the Western world could not read in the Middle Ages, the Church turned to beautiful artwork and statues to form them in the Faith. In our own day, we are in a similar situation in that most of the Western world does not read and are thus formed by pictures from Hollywood.  So the most common pitfalls and misunderstandings come from Hollywood.

There are two archetypes of men that Hollywood portrays. The first is the weak, sex-deprived, idiot husband who is totally disengaged in every aspect of his life.  Raymond from Everybody Loves Raymond comes to mind.  He is governed by mediocrity and his relationships with his wife and kids are reduced to the level of comedy.  His wife governs every aspect of the family life and all Raymond can do is mess up.

The second is the playboy who does nothing but chases after women.  He conquers one and then moves onto the next.

For every William Wallace, there are 50 characters that model manhood using one of the two archetypes above. 

So, what does a young man conclude when he is fed a steady diet of this, especially if his own father isn’t around much?  He decides he will be one or the other, and more than likely both.  He will live a certain amount of time as a playboy and then end up settling down to live the rest of his life as some woman’s “husband.”

It is starting even earlier now in that popular culture is setting up boys as being in conflict with their parents.  The image of the rude son and the stupid father is everywhere in TV and movies.

Q: What are the most important attributes of an outstanding husband?

Agnelli: Another quote from Gaudium et Spes immediately comes to mind: “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”  An outstanding husband is one who makes a sincere gift of himself to his wife.

This seems so high and out of reach but it really isn’t.  It is extremely practical.  It means things like giving her your full attention when you come home by sitting down and listening to all she has to tell you without doing 20 other things.  It means entering the house and inserting yourself into whatever task she is doing.  It means sending her out to Starbucks with her favorite book while you take care of dinner.  It means taking the time to romance her and take her on a date.  We could insert so many other ways this can play out.

Instead, most of the time, we come home totally focused on ourselves.  We can only think about what a hard day we had at work and how great the recliner is going to feel under our feet.  But we have to ask ourselves, “Is this really all I have to give?”

Some of the best advice I ever got was from a confessor a number of years ago.  He told me, “Do whatever it takes on your way home so that when you open that door you are ready to serve.  That is what you were made for.” 

For me, it means turning everything off in the car my last five minutes and asking Our Lady to help me to be like her and anticipate everyone’s needs in the house. It is amazing how many times she has come through for me.  So many times my wife will say to me later, “How did you know that was what I needed today?”  For others it may mean stopping for a short visit to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Whatever it takes, an outstanding husband is one who is ready to serve.

Q: What do sons most need to see in their fathers?

Agnelli: In his letter to families, Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II said that the role of fathers is to “reveal and relive on earth the very Fatherhood of God.”  Talk about a lofty calling!  We are called as fathers to show them God the Father.

Our image of God is almost always based upon the example of our own fathers.  Much of the spiritual life is spent like Philip in the Gospel of John asking Jesus to “show us the Father” and correcting the places where our own fathers failed to reveal Him.

Many men today are living with their own father wounds. They don´t really know how to be fathers. Rather than holding on to those wounds however, we need to look for ways that God reveals his Fatherhood in our own fatherhood.

Practically speaking, if you can show your sons two things, you will have been a success as a father. 

The first is to love their mothers. We spend so much time focusing on building self-esteem in children.  Don’t get me wrong, this is important, but if you want a boy who grows up into a secure man, then love his mother like Christ calls us to love.

A huge problem is that fathers no longer know how to model chastity to their sons.  So many men are wounded and addicted to pornography.  This is turn leads to many sons following in their dad’s footsteps.  It used to be finding his stash of Playboys, but now it is as simple as checking his browsing history on the internet.  What is so absolutely heinous about pornography is that it wounds a man’s ability to truly love and in that way makes him something less than a man.

The second thing that sons need to see is that their fathers are men of prayer.  This means that we must model prayer for our sons.  It has to be more than simply praying grace before meals.  Your son must see how your whole life is shaped by your prayer life.

There is nothing more manly than a man on his knees in prayer. There is also no greater gift that a man can give his son than to teach him how to pray.



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