Esolen’s observations on boys and men and what women cannot give them

This last week I saw the new and well-done Masterpiece Theatre issue of the classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (US HERE – UK HERE).

I wonder if the short series wasn’t in part an inspiration to Anthony Esolen to pen his (latest) super essay at Public Discourse. Esolen wrote about making sure that boys can be proper boys so that they can become proper men: “What Mothers Cannot Give to Their Sons”

Some mothers might be objecting that they give “everything” to their sons. Well, maybe so.  And maybe not.  Nemo dat quod non habet, as they say, or to put it another way nemo dat quod non ‘got’… no one can give what she doesn’t have.

Our sexes are different, with differing needs and abilities to receive and to give.

Esolen points out what always was and today ought to still be obvious but has been obfuscated.  Biology matters.  That’s the starting point for his considerations.

In revving up his presentation, he draws from The Twilight Zone (perhaps an analogy for our times) to George Gilder’s Sexual Suicide (US HERE – UK HERE), to Saint Jose Maria de Escriva’s “Esto vir! Be a man!”, to Kipling’s Captains Courageous, and (here it is at the end) Little Women.



The boy does not simply grow into manhood, for manhood is a cultural reality built on a biological foundation. Womanhood, by contrast, is a biological reality with cultural expression.

I must insist upon the distinction here. Saint Jose Maria de Escriva could understandably say to each of his male followers, Esto vir! Be a man, and we know what the exhortation implies. Even feminists know, and tremble. It implies that at any moment of a man’s life, his manhood is subject to trial, to be won, again and again, to be confirmed or to be canceled. A man can lose forever his right to stand beside other men. He can fall to being no man at all.

Be a man! An analogous command would strike a woman as otiose; a woman may call another woman a bad woman, but her womanhood itself is not in question, not in the public arena to be tested to see if it is real or counterfeit.


For the sake of boys and the families they must eventually lead, we must open our hearts and quit attempting to thrust upon them an unnatural and uninspiring commitment to sexual indifference. What they need, they need. Their needs are grounded in ages upon ages of human development, both physical and intellectual. They are attested to by every culture known to man, and by common observation. There is only one word for those who, for the sake of an ideology, whatever it may be, would consciously deny to either boys or girls what they need to be healthy members of their sex. That word is wicked.

So many ills in our society are born of this indifference.  And not indifference only: there has been for decades now a suicidal society-debilitating war on boys and men.

Just watch the differences in the treatment of men and women in entertainment, such as movies and TV.   Just watch the reduction of men to passivity and effeminacy and the rise of the nasty feminist on the back of the homosexualist activist.  Just watch the effect of fatherless homes.

Esolen’s piece is a good starting point for thinking about society as a whole.  More importantly and immediately, however, it is a tonic for our family homes and for our parishes… indeed our sanctuaries.

Fr. Z kudos.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Sawyer says:

    As an additional related observation, I’ll add that it is very unfortunate that women dominate parish religious education and non-clerical liturgical roles to the tune of about 80% female involvement. (It’s 90% at my parish.) Not that the contributions of those women are unappreciated. My point is that many Catholic boys grow up in parishes, to the extent that their parents take them to Mass and enroll them in religious ed programs, seeing and being influenced overwhelmingly by women as role models in just about every aspect of parish life other than the celebration of Mass, which is of necessity done by a priest who must be male. As a result of their childhood parish experiences, boys are prone to form the opinion that faith, religion and parish involvement are a womanish thing, even assuming that the religious formation they are receiving is decent, which cannot be assumed these days. It’s not taught explicitly, but it’s absorbed through parish experience. Wonder why men aren’t that involved in parish life? Wonder why so many men are indifferent or halfhearted about Catholic faith? It starts early.

  2. MrsMacD says:

    We might not say,”Be a woman, ” but I’m forever telling my daughters to, “be a lady.”

  3. tamranthor says:

    “An analogous command would strike a woman as otiose; a woman may call another woman a bad woman, but her womanhood itself is not in question, not in the public arena to be tested to see if it is real or counterfeit.”

    I posit that this is not entirely accurate. It assumes that being a woman is entirely biological, but what of feminazi lesbians who spend their lives hating men rather than fulfilling their biological and God-given roles, or perhaps the women who unrepentantly murder their babies in the womb? These things are not just “bad,” i.e. sinful, but actually negate any claim to womanhood, I should think.

  4. Moro says:

    It’s worse than that. To the left, anything male or anyone that affirms a male is evil, vile scum. It’s insane.

  5. yatzer says:

    The ratio I usually see is double the number of women for any given number of men, except for religious ed, where it’s about 90% women. My son does teach a class and does things at his parish, for which I’m thankful. I’m not a man, can’t do anything much to motivate men, but I do try to hold up examples of manliness in my class and whenever I can. It puzzles me to hear questions about how to involve women more, as that seems to be a non-issue.

  6. Chuck4247 says:

    To those who are saying that to “be a Lady” is analogous to “be a Man”, I counter that it is more similar to “be a Gentleman”. Man and Woman are matters of essence, whereas Lady and Gentleman are matters of behavior. In order for a Woman to cease to be a Woman in essence, she has to positively act to destroy herself, but a Man ceases to be a Man in essence by merely not positively acting and being what he ought be. If a Woman does nothing, a Woman she remains. If a Man does nothing, a Man he no longer is.

    This is not to say that it is wrong for a Woman to want to be Lady, but merely that it is not the same scale as being a Man.

  7. MrsMacD says:

    Dear Mr. Chuck4247, I counter that to ‘be a lady,’ is analogous to, ‘be a man,’ since to, ‘be a man,’ requires a constant discipline as it does to ‘be a lady.’ If a woman does not cultivate temperance she assumes a brutish and loose air where if a man does not cultivate virility he does not cease to be male but instead is an effeminate and soft male. The gender being in the genetic makeup does not change. We can see the results of the infiltration of a Marxist, demonic, influence in that our current society considers it a virtue for a woman to be loose and a man to be soft.

  8. majuscule says:

    I think a precursor of all this was the “unisex” craze in the ‘70s. Unisex clothing styles were in vogue.

    My kids were growing up then. Parents were constantly told there was no difference between boys and girls, that differences resulted from the way they were treated. I knew this was a load of hooey. We lived out in the country and had no TV. The girls did outdoor things with their brother but they were not the same at all. At least at that time boys were still allowed to be boys at school.

  9. TonyO says:

    Esto vir! Be a man, and we know what the exhortation implies. Even feminists know, and tremble. It implies that at any moment of a man’s life, his manhood is subject to trial, to be won, again and again, to be confirmed or to be canceled. A man can lose forever his right to stand beside other men. He can fall to being no man at all.

    And do you know what happens to a man well along in years who has repeatedly failed to stand up to his trials? He becomes an old-woman.

    Thus, in spite of the fact that women cannot be ordained as priests, so many of our bishops are old-women. We don’t have to wonder how the Church would do if women were in seats of power, we already have old-women there. I suppose that it would be even worse if the old women in the chanceries had started out as young women, (just look at the mess of the Anglican and Lutheran churches), but it’s bad enough with the old-women bishops we already have. Old-women “go along to get along”, and make excuses for failures – like Cardinal Dolan did with the liturgical vestment scandal. Old-women refuse to stop or punish wrongdoing out of feelings mistakenly masquerading as mercy but being mere squeamishness – like the bishops who refuse to stop liturgical abuses.

  10. Carrie says:

    Sawyer, men aren’t interested in those jobs because they’d never accept the low salaries. You can’t raise a family on a DRE’s salary, unless your family wishes to embrace voluntary poverty. And if a DRE or DYM is any good, they know how to recruit, train, and sustain excellent volunteers—women and men—to be catechists, retreat leaders, etc.

  11. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    When the average parish, and thus the universal Church, began treating the non-clerical liturgical roles as gender neutral activities, men young and old packed their bags and stopped participating.

    It doesn’t take a clairvoyant or a clinical psychologist to have predicted or to know why this happened.

    Men, especially men with religious sensibility that bother to go to Mass, know there is a difference between men and women. When some activity or policy presumes a gender neutrality or gender irrelevence, real men find the activity instinctually repulsive and degrading because it obfuscates the masculinity that makes them who they are. If being a lector is a “gender neutral” activity, men wont bother to do it. No 13 year old boy wants to do a job he associates with 45-70 year old women (lectoring) or with 12 year old girls (serving)…its emasculating and he will by instinct avoid it if there are plenty of women available to do what he has unnaturally come to see as “women’s work.” Men will do manly work that is needed. Thats part of what virility is. That’s why on average men still mow the yards, etc, more than women in American home life and why men still predominate in dangerous/labor jobs (mining, etc).

  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Yup, a lot of parishes gave up their school nuns but kept the vow of poverty.

  13. Pingback: Boys to Men: a right of passage - News for Catholics

  14. DavidR says:

    @ Carrie;
    Anecdote: our DRE is a 50 year old female married to a dentist who is making (and deserves to make) a very good living. Their kids are for the most part grown and out of the house, and I doubt that they really need the money.

    I would wager that this situation is not uncommon, so what does salary have to do with too many females in Church life?

  15. defenderofTruth says:

    Its not paid positions only. Most of the volunteers at my parish are women. Those who run the music are women, youth volunteers are women, catechists are women, and the all the “movers and shakers” are women. Go to daily Mass (Novus ordo), and you see plenty of women, and a smattering of older men. Boys are given the impression that religion is a woman’s domain…

  16. Chuck4247 says:

    Mrs. MacD, I still don’t see how Lady is analogous to Man in this situation. Lady is a kind of Woman. Gentleman is a kind of Man. Woman is the only kind of adult Female, whereas Man is not the only kind of adult Male. It is better to be a bad Man than to be a great Guy. The essence of a human person is more than their biology, although biology does have great impact. A Male who refuses to grow into a Man degrades his essence. A Woman who does not choose to become a Lady does not degrade her essence.

  17. LarryW2LJ says:

    Interesting. Just the other day I received an e-mail from our Parish DRE asking for the names of male parishioners that I thought might take part in and would fit in well for our RCIA program. Even she noticed the need for male participation.

  18. MrsMacD says:

    Dear Mr. Chuck4247, There is a fallacy in this argument. Man is being used both to describe a male and to describe a mode of acting, ie ‘being a man’. (ie; Nothing is better than God. A sandwich is better than nothing. Therefore a sandwich is better than God.) What we are disputing is whether the idea that ‘a man who practices virtue becomes a better man and if he doesn’t practice virtue he becomes a lesser man’ is analogous to ‘a woman who practices virtue becomes a better woman and if she doesn’t practice virtue she becomes a lesser woman’. (A man who doesn’t practice virtue does not truly cease to be a man but he ceases to become a good man.)

    I would argue that ‘being a gentleman’ is another step on the ladder of ‘being a man, ‘ and not a separate mode of acting.

    The virtuous life is all upstream if we cease to swim upstream we flounder downstream eventually into the pits of hell.

    Why is it that you think if a woman doesn’t practice virtue she isn’t degrading herself and consequently all womenkind? (St. Andre Basset of Montreal said that if society went to Hell it would be the fault of the women.)

  19. William of Green says:

    Dear Mr. Corb4247 and Mrs.MacD,
    I think I can see where both of you are coming from and have a question for both of you, and really anyone else (perhaps a poll Father Z?) on what ‘kinds of Men and Women’ there are? Corb4247 you mentioned that ‘Guy’ was not as good and that made me wonder.
    If you are not a Man then what are you?
    If you are not a Woman then what are you?
    Are there specific levels of Manhood and Womanhood?
    This may be an unfair comparison since the essence of Womanhood comes from the biological side and Manhood from culture, but I think this may clear some things up and am interested to hear what you all have to say.

  20. Carrie says:

    DavidR–Yes, you offered a perfect example of the point I was making. Your DRE doesn’t need a good salary because her husband is a dentist; their children are grown. Would a man except a salary ranging from $30-50 that is typically requiring a Masters Degree– whether he is single or supporting a family. It hardly ever happens. Most women who take parish positions are taking them out of love for their faith, and because they have a husband who is making as much or more money than them. Or, they are single without children or with grown children, and are choosing to accept a lower salary–again, because they love their faith and want to serve the Church.

    Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda, your post made me sad, for men. If men find it repulsive to work with women, or to do a job that a woman can also do, then– wow. They shouldn’t be working in the Church, I think. Lawn care sounds like a better fit.

  21. Chuck4247 says:

    William, I think you have landed upon the crux of the disagreement between myself and Mrs. MacD.
    I thought I went out of my way to prevent the conflation of the terms “Man” and “adult Male”. Perhaps I am the first to use “Guy” in this conversation as a state of being for adult Males as opposed to being a Man, but the concept has definitely existed before me.

    I would say that there are, for Males:
    Boys: defined by immaturity in age, body, and mentality
    Guys: defined by immaturity in age, body, or mentality, but not all three
    Men: defined by maturity in age, body, and mentality
    Maturity vs Immaturity here defined (for the mental aspect) as the extent to which they seek virtue. Boys generally don’t have the concept developed yet, Men actively seek it, but Guys refuse to either acknowledge it or seek it, in spite of having the capability to do so.

    The nature of a Man is Action, whereas the nature of Woman is Being. This is why to be a Man requires certain kinds of action, without which you are not a Man, whereas Womanhood is concerned with what the Woman is more so than how she acts. Contrary to the recent Batman movies, for a Man, what he does does define what he is underneath (the mask), and those together define who he is. However, who a Woman is is defined by what she is underneath (the mask), not what she does.

  22. frjim4321 says:

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I haven’t been able to find any information regarding Mr. Esolin’s credentials as a doctor of psychology or medicine.

    [And I am sure that quite a few people here have missed your credentials. And yet, her you are!]

  23. frjim4321 says:

    [And I am sure that quite a few people here have missed your credentials. And yet, her you are!] – Our Congenial Host

    I’m not claiming entitlement to defining what “manliness” is for the rest of the human race. I probably have more training in the Social and Behavioral Sciences than the quoted “expert.”

    [We – and you – don’t know that.]

  24. DavidR says:

    No Ma’am. What I have offered is a perfect example of females taking away jobs from men. If a well-provided-for female will come cheap, most parish Finance Councils are only too happy to save the money they would have to spend on a qualified man. Finance=bottom line. Obviously not too concerned about the quality of the product.

    Follow the money. It’s always good advice.

  25. DavidR says:

    I must say that I am familiar with Dr. Esolen’s qualifications; Jim’s, not so much. ;)

  26. William of Green says:

    Dear Mr. Corb4247,
    I notice that you have left out any mention of ‘levels of Womanhood’. I think that after your explanation, I have to say that in my opinion you have rather ignored MrsMacD’s point entirely. I think you forgot that there are different versions of a ‘man’. Different people have different ideas of what it means to be a man: for some it means to sit on a couch and drink beer that some woman (possibly a wife) gets you and for others it means to be a gentleman who treats everyone according to the human dignity that God gave them as best as he can. Her point about comparing a lady to a gentleman makes sense since someone could be considered a man without being considered a gentleman, meaning that it takes a moral action to be the right kind of adult.

  27. Chuck4247 says:

    William, I was kind of hoping that MrsMacD would provide a starting point for a discussion on levels of Womanhood.
    As for the two examples of men that you present, I would argue that the former is a Guy, not a Man. I am fully aware that there are different kinds of men who are still correctly called Man. My point is that Lady vs. other-kind-of-Woman is not a matter of defining essence, where as Man vs. Guy is. Lady and Gentlemen are descriptors of degrees of quality (like the difference between a AA shortstop and an MLB all-star shortstop), not of the essence itself (like a hammer and a screwdriver).

  28. TonyO says:

    Does anyone not find it as enlightening (as well as amusing) that in popular literature and film, in a scene in which a woman needs to buck up and employ a healthy measure of physical or moral courage, another character (especially, a female) who is not particularly sympathetic to the woman comes along and says “Oh, grow a pair! Buck up and just do it already!”

    My point is that even in trying to deny the difference between men and women overtly, they end up paying respect to the underlying fact that freely chosen acts of physical courage can be considered to be distinctively the kind of behavior one associates with being a man. Sure a woman can make such acts, and is called on to do so, but that doesn’t change the social sense that it is distinctively a trait that is associated with men.

    Fr. Jim, if we need a degree to tell us what characterizes being a man and being a woman, then we have failed at being at being either. Any virtuous man can recognize what being a man takes, and what it is like, and (to some degree) can describe it correctly. Any virtuous woman, the same. This has been true throughout the ages. If it takes an advanced degree, then only highly educated moderns could possibly be virtuous – which spells doom for a religion that boasts the virtue of its saints in history.

    While I don’t agree with everything Chuck4247 said, he does have a good a point:

    The nature of a Man is Action, whereas the nature of Woman is Being.

    C.S. Lewis, and many others as well, have pointed to the difference between the masculine and the feminine being that the former is an active principle, the latter is a passive principle. It isn’t – at root – merely a feature of genitalia, but of how one relates to society and the world. The mental framework is different, yes, and maybe there is a a physical element that causes that difference (the testosterone driving different neural development); maybe science can discover the process. But however the difference comes about in actual expression, the FACT of the difference does not need science to discover.

  29. Semper Gumby says:

    Another good article from Anthony Esolen. If a boy is not allowed to be a boy then it will be difficult to produce a man.

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