What Cardinal Burke Really Said About Men and the “Feminization” of the Church

church, priest, ordination

Chelsea - Mass

To quote a friend of mine, “Trying to understand Church issues through mainstream secular media is like trying to understand global economics through a 13-year-old girl’s Instagram account.”

In short, it just won’t happen. The personnel aren’t equipped, and likely don’t want to take the time to become equipped, to speak well and foster understanding about nuanced issues in the Church. They’re only after eyes, likes, and shares, (and I don’t know that they deny it) so why, OH WHY do we fall for this every. single. time?

A bit of background: Cardinal Raymond Burke, former bishop of the Dioceses of La Crosse, Wisconsin and St. Louis, respectively, and recognized defender of more traditional practices within the Church, gave an exclusive interview recently to a website dedicated to fostering the growth and strength of Catholic men–the New Emangelization. Find the full text of that interviewhere.

What happened next, to quote my wife: “Catholic figurehead says something. Media misinterprets. Internet explodes.”

What people who haven’t read the full text of his interview have heard from the secular media, basically, is this:

  • Girls being allowed to serve at Mass have caused the priest shortage
  • Gay priests are the reason for the sex abuse crisis
  • The Church is too feminine/feminized

Here’s the thing, if that’s what he said, and it was in the proper context, and there’s no way that what he said was misunderstood, there would be a lot of cause for concern about Cardinal Burke being a public figure.

However, that wasn’t the case in the least. What the media wrote, because of their apparent ill feelings towards anyone seen as conservative or traditional in the Catholic sense, was not fully what he said, was taken tremendously out of context, and there’s a huge possibility for what he said to be misunderstood by people who don’t think critically about his words.

For starters, Cardinal Burke was answering questions and talking specifically about the plight of Catholic laymen in today’s society to a guy who runs a Catholic men’s website. He addressed many things that have caused the epidemic of lay men (i.e. not priests, bishops, deacons, etc.) exiting the Catholic Church in the last few generations, and many other things that have contributed to a general underdevelopment of Catholic lay men over the past several decades.

The common theme throughout Cardinal Burke’s entire interview was nuance. It’s complicated. Every issue he addresses can’t be reduced to a sound byte or a sentence, but when that happens, people misunderstand the context and meaning, then are outraged over something that he never said.

I’m suggesting that there’s no cause for concern about Cardinal Burke, because he’s making perfect sense. Maybe the media doesn’t want you to know that.

Here’s what Cardinal Burke actually said, and actually meant, with regard to those three points:

1. Girls being allowed to serve at Mass has caused the priest shortage.

Here’s the full excerpt:

The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. I want to emphasize that the practice of having exclusively boys as altar servers has nothing to do with inequality of women in the Church.

I think that this has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

The first sentence in each of those paragraphs were the money-makers for the media, but they failed to include an explanation for the oh-so-telling qualifying words in his quotes.

If Cardinal Burke had said literally, “Girls being servers has led boys to abandon altar service,” or “Girls being servers is the sole reason for the loss in priestly vocations,” there would be a lot more to talk about. But there were other words included for a purpose–to put conditions on his statement and to indicate a different, and intentional meaning.

The operative words in question in these two sentences are “contributed”,”also”, and “many”. Those three words show the following things: First, the introduction of girl servers is only a part of the problem of fewer vocations. Second, there was something else he had spoken about previously in the interview that was perhaps a greater cause of boys abandoning altar service, namely the experimentation with liturgy and the loss of a robust family life, thus perhaps bringing a demand for girl servers. Third: Many boys didn’t abandon altar service, and are possibly still choosing to become priests based on that experience!

2. Homosexual priests are the reason for the sex abuse crisis.

Here’s the actual quote:

We can also see that our seminaries are beginning to attract many strong young men who desire to serve God as priests. The new crop of young men are manly and confident about their identity. This is a welcome development, for there was a period of time when men who were feminized and confused about their own sexual identity had entered the priesthood; sadly some of these disordered men sexually abused minors; a terrible tragedy for which the Church mourns.

It should be obvious, but nowhere does Cardinal Burke use the word “homosexual” to describe clergy who abused children. Granted, the cardinal was vague in his quote, but to suggest that he was implying that it was homosexual clergy’s fault for the crisis is a big stretch.

What I think he was pointing out instead is the clear indication that a normal, well-adjusted man doesn’t molest children, and that the men who committed those crimes had a disorder indeed. The point of mentioning this, I think, was to lament the sad reality that the Church failed both the abusers and the victims in part by not ensuring better formation for Catholic men.

Unfortunately, “Church remorseful over ill-formed men responsible for sex abuse crisis” doesn’t seem to garner as many clicks as “Cardinal blames gay clergy.”

3. The Church is too feminine/feminized.

Before Cardinal Burke said, “the Church becomes very feminized,” he had just finished outlining in 20 paragraphs (TWENTY!) the state of men in the Catholic Church, so to take this line on its own as some sort of woman-bashing, “antiquated,” chauvinistic point of view is something fit for an entitled college classroom, not an intelligent discussion of reality.

First, to explain a bit what Cardinal Burke spoke about in those 20 paragraphs, he began like this:

Unfortunately, the radical feminist movement strongly influenced the Church, leading the Church to constantly address women’s issues at the expense of addressing critical issues important to men; the importance of the father, whether in the union of marriage or not; the importance of a father to children; the importance of fatherhood for priests; the critical impact of a manly character; the emphasis on the particular gifts that God gives to men for the good of the whole society.

I still instinctively cringe a little whenever someone speaks ill of the radical feminist movement, because I’ve grown up in an American society and sat in college classes that see it as some sort of New Covenant, where women finally took control of the world from the hands of the greasy slimy men that had been holding them back forever and ever.

To be sure, in the United States a lot of what that movement created was a very good thing. With women being in the workplace holding jobs as more than secretaries and nurses, it was indeed an unjust reality that they were discriminated against simply for being women. To that point, believe it or not, Cardinal Burke commented:

Everyone understands that women have and can be abused by men. Men who abuse women are not true men, but false men who have violated their own manly character by being abusive to women.

Interesting that the media refrained from mentioning that quote.

Cardinal Burke is pointing to a crucial problem that occurred with the onset of radical feminism in the 1960s: that the Church addresses women’s issues at the expense of critical issues still facing men. There’s more than two answers to this problem, unlike our dichotomous, you’re-either-Conservative-or-Liberal American society tells us.

See, the Church being too “feminized” is just as big of a problem as if the Church were too “masculinized”. Women make up the majority service roles in the Catholic Church anymore, and the problem Cardinal Burke is pointing out is not that women shouldn’t be doing those jobs. It’s that men aren’t stepping up to the plate to serve their Church!

What the Church needs is to not be “anything-ized”. It just needs to be the Church.

If we all answered the call to serve how God has created us and wants us to serve, this problem wouldn’t exist, and in this case, men would be stepping up despite the societal pressures facing them.

What we have in Cardinal Burke is a man who speaks intelligently and complicatedly about issues that are crucial to understanding the heart of Catholic spirituality, but that in other ways also have a tendency to be hot-button when it comes to the media.

We must be willing to do our homework every time the media comes out swinging at something an unpopular churchman says. Cardinal Burke isn’t stupid, but one can only see that when reading the actual text of his interviews. Otherwise, the potential to mislead others by posting secular reports without prior research is too great.

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18 thoughts on “What Cardinal Burke Really Said About Men and the “Feminization” of the Church”

  1. SnowCherryBlossoms

    People seem to like feeling insulted and will imply an insult where one was never intended. We see this happening with everything now, in all areas. Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis have both had to deal with this, repeatedly.

    1. Thank you for this fine writing – as a mom with 2 sons and 2 daughters serving and a husband in the church council, i understand exactly what

      CB is talking about.

  2. Hi Matt,

    For brevity’s sake, I’ll leave to the side your intro – which fails to give any examples of the media taking Burke’s comments out of context or distorting them. On to the fun stuff!

    RE: 1. Girls being allowed to serve at Mass has caused the priest shortage.

    If Cardinal Burke had said literally, “Girls being servers has led boys to abandon altar service,” or “Girls being servers is the sole reason for the loss in priestly vocations,” there would be a lot more to talk about.

    I mean, he says “The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service”, so how does the ‘many’ qualification significantly change the meaning?

    there was something else he had spoken about previously in the interview that was perhaps a greater cause of boys abandoning altar service, namely the experimentation with liturgy and the loss of a robust family life, thus perhaps bringing a demand for girl servers

    Yes, and it’s interesting to look at what he says:

    The loss of the sacred led to a loss of participation of women and men. But I think that men were really turned off by the loss of the sacred.

    Young men and men respond to rigor and precision and excellence. When I was trained to be a server, the training lasted for several weeks and you had to memorize the prayers at the foot of the altar. It was a rigorous and a carefully executed service. All of a sudden, in the wake of Vatican II, the celebration of the liturgy became very sloppy in many places. It became less attractive to young men, for it was slipshod.

    I’m not sure it’s unfair to characterize Burke here as saying that the loss of the sacred, or the rigor and precision of the mass, was somehow not as big a barrier for girls as it was for boys. The attempt to rescue Burke by saying he lists other factors involves Burke suggesting that woman aren’t as bothered by sloppy liturgies.

    So, we have boys leaving the alter because quality control has gone down the tubes – something that doesn’t bother girls, apparently – leading girls to have to fill in. This influx of girls in turn turns more boys away – because ‘ew’, apparently/naturally – which leads to more demand for women servers. Is that the basic message?

    RE: 2. Homosexual priests are the reason for the sex abuse crisis.

    It should be obvious, but nowhere does Cardinal Burke use the word “homosexual” to describe clergy who abused children. Granted, the cardinal was vague in his quote, but to suggest that he was implying that it was homosexual clergy’s fault for the crisis is a big stretch.

    Well, it’s obvious that the word ‘homosexual’ doesn’t appear in the interview, but it’s not at all obvious that it isn’t what Burke meant when he said some men were “feminized and confused about their own sexual identity”, and went on to abuse children. I mean, what *would* you consider a reasonable interpretation of his words to be? Do you think that Burke isn’t referring to homosexuals? Or, does he perhaps (also?) mean to refer to pedophiles? What does being ‘feminized’ mean and/or how is it linked to homosexuality and/or pedophilia?

    RE: 3. The Church is too feminine/feminized.

    Before Cardinal Burke said, “the Church becomes very feminized,” he had just finished outlining in 20 paragraphs (TWENTY!) the state of men in the Catholic Church, so to take this line on its own as some sort of woman-bashing, “antiquated,” chauvinistic point of view is something fit for an entitled college classroom, not an intelligent discussion of reality.

    First of all, this is a non sequitur – Burke could have gone on for 1, 20, or 500 paragraphs about the state of men in the Church, it would have nothing to do with whether or not he ended up making unfavorable comments about women. Second, Burke begins the interview by immediately talking about ‘radical feminism’ and it’s effects. I mean, in response to the question of how men are currently doing in the Church, he immediately starts talking about a 50 year feminist assault. Virtually every time he mentions feminism it’s in a negative context: assaulting the Church, undermining marriages, and lumping it in with ‘sexual confusion’ and ‘the breakdown of the family’.

    For every passing ‘women are wonderful, of course’ while explaining that men don’t want to participate because of women, we get amazingly tone-deaf statements like:

    These young men were concerned that entering a marriage would simply not work because of a constant and insistent demanding of rights for women. These divisions between women and men have gotten worse since then.

    So yeah, I don’t know, maybe I’m not giving the benefit of the doubt, and these kinds of statements were intended to be taken completely differently. Maybe this will turn into an opportunity for Burke to explain what he means. In the mean time, I don’t see how you can claim to know what he really means.

  3. Permit, Matt… a side bar to this surface feminization: The real feminization that is negative in Church males ( not within women) is the over doing of mercy at the physical level and at the salvation level and Cardinal Burke is not going that deep because it involves the last three Popes. Pope Francis in August wanted us to stop Islamic State but not
    bomb them….”stop them….I do not say bomb.” About a month ago he said he was opposed to life sentences because they were hidden death penalties. Both examples are the female softness gone awry when it enters a male. Thus by his logic, we should release serial killers at some point even if they are still killing in prison. We should stop Islamic State with infantry who’ll suffer lost limbs when we could have ( and wisely did) bombed them at the base of Sinjar mountain…with no loss of infantry. Media pressure of the last five decades has led Popes to try to out mercy image: the Nobel Peace prize judges, the NY Times, the anti death penalty Euro Union etc. etc. We are apologizing for the real sins of the Inquisition by now going to the opposite extreme.

    This mercy over emphasis began with both his predecessors who both stated that we could not be certain Judas was in hell whereas Augustine and Chrysostom said he was in hell because they saw Christ as constantly dire on Judas’ future…ie ” it were better for that man had he never been born”…” those whom thou gavest me I guarded and not one of them perished except the son of perdition”. That last phrase was said by Christ to the Father PRIOR to Judas’ several sins being completed. So Christ used the past tense about something that had not happened yet. Justin Martyr noted that such past tense prophecy is certain not conditional. When Jonah said, ” Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”…it did not come true because Nineveh repented. It was a conditional prophecy posed in the future tense. Now go to Isaiah 53 which has the certain to happen past tense prophecy:
    53:5-6
    ” But he was pierced for our sins,
    crushed for our iniquity.
    He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
    by his wounds we were healed.
    6 We had all gone astray like sheep,
    all following our own way;
    But the Lord laid upon him
    the guilt of us all.”
    Christ used such certain past tense prophecy about Judas…” not one of them perished but the son of perdition”. But Judas had just begun going to his first sin and was no where near his final sin of despair.
    Francis is in line but more ostentatious with the excessive mercy emphasis of his two predecessors.
    They erroneously undermined all death penalty legislation while Francis would overturn life sentences if he could. None of the three mercy Popes seems to have noticed that the two largest Catholic populations…Brazil and Mexico…have porous prisons, no death penalty, murders galore…both 20+ per 100,000. Each Pope seems to have noticed only his own country as to murder…Poland, Germany and Argentina are fine….northern Latin America from Brazil to Mexico are far from fine.

    1. ” This mercy over emphasis began with both his predecessors who both stated that we could not be certain Judas was in hell”

      This is why and where eastern theology has so much nuance and latitude; able to send a
      soul to a place where it would be better never to have been born … but not keep it there
      forever. Christianity can be so black-white – while other theologies have every conceivable
      shade of grey.

    2. Why are you avoiding my question by answering with a question? I believe you have a talent you are neglecting as long as you are here throwing spit balls from the back of the class. I took credits in both Hinduism and Buddhism and I’m sure others here did too. You are not surprising us. If you find the talent you are neglecting, you’ll bring surprise into your world. I have never gone to a Tao or Buddhist or Hindu or Protestant or Orthodox site once….let alone stayed there to subvert their texts. I don’t get it.

    3. ” I have never gone to a Tao or Buddhist or Hindu or Protestant or Orthodox site once.”

      …unlike Pope Francis who just made an impromptu visit to a Buddhist
      monastery. I don’t get it either, Elijah fan so as of now I’m dropping it.

  4. RE: Homosexual priests are responsible…..

    The research actually shows they are. I think you are tying to soften the tone of Card. Burke’s response. He knows, better than we, what is the cause. Take “credible” vs. “uncredible” accusations and you will find those who are guilty are generally adult males preying on adolescent males (homosexual pedophiles).

    Also, I do not think the Cardinal was vague. One can only put grey into that statement if he wants grey there.

  5. You’re leaving out a lot of the completely un-nuanced misogyny the Cardinal expressed. He said, in a discussion of the modern liturgy, which he clearly finds inferior “men are attracted to precision and excellence.” He obviously means that women are okay with sloppy crap, because women are still at church and men aren’t. At another point he says, with approval, that boys naturally won’t participate in activities where there are girls. Why is that natural, and if natural, why does he consider it good? If an activity is important then the genders of the participants shouldn’t matter. I sincerely hope the Cardinal wouldn’t suggest that white kids “naturally” don’t wat to join black kids, or that girls just naturally shun boys. There is no way to rehabilitate what he said. The Cardinal finds the particpation of women something to regret.

    1. Karen, thanks for your comment. The way you presented it is one way to read what he said, but I don’t believe it’s the correct way to read it, and I don’t think it’s how the Cardinal intended it to be taken, either.

      Saying “men are attracted to precision and excellence” is a statement about men, given that the interview was specifically about men, and not about women. A lack of clarification about what he thinks women are attracted to (“sloppy crap” is a BIG stretch) doesn’t mean in the least that he finds women to be lesser than men. He was speaking directly about men, and what kinds of things men are attracted to. His quote was about men only, not about women.

      it’s another big stretch to assume that the Cardinal would say the same along racial lines. Look at elementary school boys–for the most part, they think girls are weird, they think girls have cooties, or whatever. It IS indeed a reality–Cardinal Burke wasn’t saying that ALL boys are deterred from girls at that age, or that it’s the ONLY thing that’s causing a drop in vocations. I believe he only considered it to be a normal occurrence that boys would rather hang out with other boys at that given age, not that it was necessarily good or bad.

    2. I agree that he wouldn’t use racial slurs. He does, however, clearly and repeatedly use “feminized” as a perjorative when he could have used words like insipid, silly, boring, dumb, or trivial. There is no rehab for that. He associates women with something inferior.

      As for the assertion that he didn’t mean to insult women when he said men were attracted to excellence, why not simply say that the quality of the services has diminished and leave gender out of it?

    3. The word “feminized” in this context is only a pejorative insofar as the Church should be balanced. There’s a place for men and a place for women–like I said in my article, “the Church shouldn’t be anything-ized”. It would be the same problem if the Church were too “masculinized”.

      You would have to ask him why he phrased it the way he did, but my guess is because he was speaking to a completely male audience about issues pertaining only to men. The context is of the utmost importance to understand, here.

      This is not to mention that he indicated more than once in his article that “women are wonderful” and that “altar girls were very good” at serving Mass.

    4. “He obviously means that women are okay with sloppy crap, because women are still at church and men aren’t.”

      Not at all. You’re assuming from his words that the opposite condition applies to women. To say women are typically nurturing and caring should not lead one to conclude that the speaker obviously believes that men are incapable of doing likewise. It’s just not worth taking the time to anticipate al the different ways people can take offense because one failed to anticipate hurt feelings by not stating the obvious. It is NOT obvious that women are OK with “sloppy crap” but that typically men are drawn to precision and excellence, far more than women typically are.

      As for boys’ long documented antipathy to activities with girls, it’s an age thing. Their natural interests separate them soon enough but this aversion disappears upon puberty. In the meantime, it is a FACT that if pre-pubescent girls are altar servers, then boys will not wish to be involved in any way.

      Furthermore, why do you think the cardinal thinks this natural aversion is good? I suggest he doesn’t so much approve of it but that he accepts it as true. You are reading into it something which is not there.

      Somehow, your own agenda and personal feelings are blocking your common sense.

    5. I fail to see any significant difference between “women are okay with sloppy crap” and “men are drawn to precision and excellence, far more than women typically are.” The substance of both phrasings is that women will accept crap and men won’t; therefore, if women are involved with something, it will get worse. Burke didn’t scold men for leaving or praise women for staying even when the quality declined. He gave excuses for men leaving and noted that the decline in quality coincided with women getting more involved. Please, go back and read it again and switch genders. Insert women for men and masculinuzed for feminized. See if you still think those sentiments are inncuous.

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  7. Dear Matthew-What you have uncovered is that -to paraphrase Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”-a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Thanks for a fine article. Re feminization, just review the Synod On The Family final document- and note how few words are about good fathers and intact holy families. Guy McClung, San Antonio

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