Almost fifty years ago, when the Catholic Church unveiled its new rite of Mass in the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal John Heenan, then Archbishop of Westminster, remarked that if the Church used the new liturgy in ordinary parishes it would “soon be left with a congregation mostly of women and children.” In 1967, Heenan could proudly assert that in his country “not only women and children but also fathers of families and young men” regularly attended Mass.
Whether or not the liturgy played any role in subsequent patterns of church attendance, Heenan’s predictions have come true, and the drop in male church attendance has not been confined to the Catholic Church. Extensive research on English churchgoing habits, for example, shows that 65 percent of the average church congregation is made up of women and 35 percent of men, with the gap widening. In 1980, congregations were 57 percent female and 43 percent male, and since 1990, almost half of men under 30 have left the Church. If the current rate of loss continues, men will completely disappear from the Church by 2028.
Nor are these trends confined to an increasingly secular and post-Christian Europe. Despite overall church attendance remaining much stronger in the United States, Cardinal Heenan’s predictions have also come true here. 61 percent of the average American congregation is female and 39 percent male. The gender gap is the same across all age groups and therefore cannot be explained merely by the fact that women live longer than men. Although research shows that 90 percent of American men believe in God, and five out of six men identify as Christian, only one man out of every six will attend a church in the United States on any given Sunday.
These facts and figures provide useful background to discussions about the role of women in the Church that we’ve become increasingly used to hearing since Pope Francis ascended to the papacy in March last year. Only last month, the Holy See moved to end a discussion that had begun about the possibility of appointing women as cardinals. “I don’t know where this idea sprang from,” the Pope explained, “whoever thinks of women as Cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.” Responding to the Pontiff’s call for renewed reflection on the feminine dimension of ecclesial life, the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has inaugurated the New Year by beginning a series of articles focusing on the “theology of women.” Lucetta Scariffia, the editor, explained that this “open question” is “central to the Church today.”
In and of itself, reflecting on the prospects for a theology of womanhood is a good thing. As John Paul II noted in his Letter to Women, “women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.” As the Creation narrative in the Book of Genesis suggests, without an adequate view of each gender, we lack an adequate concept of human nature as a whole. It is in his recognition of “woman” that Adam recognizes himself as “man” (Gen 2:23).
But theological considerations do not sufficiently account for the popularity of novel ideas like women cardinals (which, though it may have been slapped down for now, will almost certainly resurface). Evidence shows that the three groups least likely to be active Christians today are men, young people, and the poor. Mutatis mutandis, this means that those most likely to attend church are affluent, educated, middle-aged women. In other words, the same demographic group which dominates almost all church congregations in the English-speaking world is the group most likely to benefit from an idea like female cardinals. If a church has almost no attendees except women, it is understandable that ideas about new theologies of womanhood and new gender-inclusive ecclesial structures are going to seem much more urgent than they would in a Church with a healthier gender balance.
The claim that what the Church really needs at this juncture is a theology of manhood might seem outrageous at first. After all, in many major Christian churches there are plenty of roles that men are free to enter which are completely closed off to women. Surely the last thing hierarchically male-dominated churches need is more men bloviating about their own masculinity?
Yet most boys are not called to be bishops, priests, deacons, or pastors when they grow up. Most boys will become husbands and fathers. The West, and the United States in particular (which has the third highest divorce rate in the world) has been undergoing a crisis of fatherhood for decades, a crisis which appears to be deepening and the consequences of which we have only really begun to suffer. President Obama has spoken movingly about his own fatherless upbringing and has established a National Fatherhood Pledge to encourage fathers to take responsibility for their families. The “first step in piety,” John Calvin once said, is “to know that God is a father to us.” The crisis in religious practice in the Western world is intimately related to the crisis in fatherhood, since it is from God, as St. Paul tells us, that all paternity on this earth is named (Eph 3:15).
A study of Swiss churchgoers commissioned by the Council of Europe found that if a mother attends church regularly but the father is non-practicing, only 2 percent of their children will attend church regularly in adult life. If the roles are reversed, with the father attending regularly and the mother non-practicing, the figure for regular attendance shoots up to 44 percent (higher even than the figure when both parents attend regularly). Another study found that when an American mother converts to the faith, there is a 17 percent chance that the rest of her family will follow. When the father alone converts, this figure rises to 93 percent.
It is praiseworthy that despite falling attendance rates among men, many women have steadfastly kept the faith and have often made valiant (if sadly ineffective) efforts to pass it on to their children. But the way to ensure that future generations of women continue to discover the joy of life in Christ is not by making token appointments. It is by ensuring that the Church has an adequate theology of maleness and of fatherhood, by ensuring that daughters see their fathers going to church and living lives of faith—which, incidentally, is also the way to ensure that future generations of boys might find their way back to the churches that current generations of men are leaving in droves.
Aaron Taylor, a Ph.D. student in ethics at Boston College, holds degrees from the University of Oxford and from Heythrop College, University of London.