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Barron, LaBeouf and Catholic Toxic Masculinity

Recently, Bishop Robert Barron, newly-installed ordinary of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and Catholic media personality, interviewed the actor Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf, who stars in a new film about Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the controversial 20th-century saint, admitted to Barron that he had recently converted to Catholicism. This revelation was predictably highlighted by Barron and others as evidence of the attractiveness of Catholicism (in related ways, perhaps to recent discussions of “Dimes Square” and the church skillfully explored in this forum by Colleen Dulle), but it also exposed several issues. Beyond LaBeouf s apparent attraction (mediated by Mel Gibson) to schismatic traditionalist chapels, the announcement of his conversion came without a public reckoning or other discussion concerning his record of abusive behavior toward women.

Barron’s interview and apparent disinterest in abusive behavior toward women comes in the wake of a series of revelations about his Word on Fire organization, particularly its attitudes toward sexual harassment perpetrated by former high-ranking employee Joey Gloor. Gloor’s background as a bodybuilder highlights Barron’s own fascination in recent years with bodybuilding and other activities that might be termed aggressively masculine. His fixation with Canadian pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson, himself a kind of guru of neo-masculinity, is a piece of this. These initiatives at a high-profile, fairly mainstream organization (right-of-center but not “hard-right” or traditionalist in audience and authorship) point to a crisis of masculinity within Catholicism, though not the kind that might typically be pointed out on Barron’s media channels or at a Catholic men’s conference. The crisis comes not from failure to honor traditional “manly virtue” but rather from a hypertrophied account of masculinity that itself flows from a refusal to address new and developing ways of understanding gender roles in society.

As with many challenges in the church, these issues around masculinity date back decades and centuries, but Barron’s particular iteration of them is of more recent vintage. It dates, I would argue, to the revelations about clerical sexual abuse in the early 2000s and the panic about gay men in the priesthood that many on the right and in the hierarchy fomented at this time. Most infamously, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning sexuality in seminary admissions that effectively took hold at this time encouraged an emphasis on masculinity that, frankly, protests too much. During this same period, increasing societal acceptance of gay relationships and transgender identities fueled this bunker mentality concerning sexuality in the church. All of this while, as Frédéric Martel and others have made abundantly clear, high-ranking cardinals—many of them quite conservative—and other leading clerics in the church have engaged in longstanding gay relationships with little to no known difficulties.

At a recent conference I attended, Dr. John Boyle of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota made a wise remark about the way in which Chrétien de Troyes’ medieval romances demonstrate Christianity’s sublimation of the warrior culture that it converted in Europe. Chrétien avoids showing the battle scenes in his stories of knights, focusing instead on other aspects of the knights’ lives. The “warrior virtues” as some might call them today, have no place in Christianity—rather, Christian living tends to subvert these virtues in favor of others. This is a hard lesson, as Catholic concepts like the “church militant” and organizations ranging from the Society of Jesus to the Knights of Columbus have in different ways drawn on military language, but it is an important one. Following the Prince of Peace ought to mean thinking differently about power and its true use than one will see on HBO.

Clearly the Catholic intellectual tradition exemplified by Chrétien contains important resources for breaking toxic masculinity, but clericalism in church governance makes this hard to attain. It creates a “boys’ club” as described above that is nigh-impossible to breach and that covers up the hypocrisy of its members. That culture spreads to para-church organizations like Word on Fire that have no inherent reason to take on the same organization (and subsequent problems), but nonetheless do. The only solution to these unhealthy organizational cultures is to try to make them into healthy ones, and this ultimately starts with the question of who is invited to be part of them.

The most important thing leaders in the church (whether clerical or lay) can do to begin to break this cycle is to listen—actually listen—to women. It is especially important for them to listen to women who might tell them things they do not want to hear, particularly on controverted issues, and to allow them space to lead. To take seriously Pope Francis’ vision of a listening church requires the church—to listen. Francis himself has modeled this listening as a pastor of souls, particularly in his outreach to the transgender community in Rome, but has been much slower putting this into practice on the level of church governance. The test of his pontificate’s legacy may well be whether this bifurcation can be resolved or whether it falls to a successor to break the “boys’ club” and foster a healthier culture of leadership.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.


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In my experience as a Catholic seminarian who graduated from college theology, was approved to continue, but chose to leave, the catholic priesthood was littered with incels accompanied by all the standard anti-women baggage and a strange form of masculinity.

There was no viable option to choose celibacy over marriage: ordination invalidates the ability to marry (unless you happen to take the circuitous path of Anglican ordination then "conversion" based on your opposition to the ordination of women). It is a requirement of the job, and no amount of hyper religious theological whitewashing can hide that fact.

For the majority of seminary candidates, their underlying sexual orientation (often suppressed or hidden) makes compulsory celibacy even less a "free choice" as the options of gay marriage or relationships and sexual expression with the gender they desire aren't sanctioned by the church. There is no sacrifice "for the sake of the kingdom": it's a logical choice.

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