The Double-Fisted Gospel: A Remedy for Absent Male Catholics

by Steve Wood

Editor’s note: During this Year of Mercy, I thought it expedient to resurrect a modified edition of this article from seventeen years ago which highlights the unique perspective that men have regarding justice and mercy.

Why are so many Catholic men absent from the Church?

The common reply is that men just aren’t as religious as women. Yet, there is no record of a lack of difference in piety between men and women in the early centuries of the Church. And why are there more men than women in synagogues and mosques today?

The absence of men from Catholic [and Protestant] Churches is a crisis that few seem willing even to publicly acknowledge. Perhaps the crisis of absent male Catholics [AMC] is so large and seemingly hopeless that it is ignored. For the good of the Faith and the family we need to ask and answer two hard questions:

Why have men left the Church?

How can they be brought back?

It is too simplistic to attribute the absence of men from the Catholic Church to a single underlying cause. Like any massive cultural or ecclesiastical phenomenon, there are several streams contributing to the main current. Nevertheless, two Irish researchers (F. John Herriott & Joseph Foyle) seem to have uncovered one significant cause for AMC by directly interviewing Catholic men who have quit practicing their faith.

The major reasons AMC give for not turning up at Mass is that they have nothing to fear from God for violating his commandments, such as the obligation of Sunday Mass attendance and the Church’s teaching about sexuality. These men are deceived by a false security that they are going to heaven regardless of how they live.

Single-Fisted Preaching

Researchers Herriott and Foyle trace the root cause of AMC to what they call single-fisted preaching. For the past forty years (with many notable exceptions) Catholics have heard preaching that emphasizes the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God while excluding the fear of God, the justice of God, and the demanding holiness of God. Single-fisted preaching talks about Heaven, but only occasionally whispers about Hell and Purgatory.

The Double-Fisted Gospel: The Cure of AMC

Herriott and Foyle say that the secular world is well aware of the need for motivating men using the “Gain and Pain” factors. Do men respect and respond to a coach who just uses the “gain” approach? Do men achieve their potential in the military with superior officers who just use the reward approach? Of course not, yet the Church has followed this path for the past forty years. The “gain only” approach will not work with men in sports, the military, the workplace, and especially in the Church. The single-fisted gospel has created a hemorrhage of men from the Church.

John Crosby, the former Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville said, “Are we not preparing for a violent rejection of the Faith by men who feel deeply and yearn for something real, when we, who would represent Christ’s Church, embody only ‘languid and unmeaning benevolence’? … If a man asks for bread, we give him only a stone by trying to love him without severity, in portraying God as unfit to be feared… Serious men cannot believe in a God reminiscent of a benevolent old grandfather.”

Men Require a “Kick in the Pants”

I’ll never forget a community breakfast I attended in a southwest Florida community several years ago. The current Chief of Police was there in uniform to present a gold chief-of-police badge to a former chief. Before presenting the badge, the current chief told a story to highlight the practical wisdom of the former chief.

It seems that a couple of teenage boys were caught drinking beer and drag-racing on the runway of this small town’s airport. Today the judicial system may want to send such boys off to a psychologist for self-esteem therapy. This former chief knew these boys and didn’t want them to get an arrest record, but he wanted them to straighten up. So he turned them around and gave them a swift kick in the rear and told them in no uncertain words to hightail it home. Which the boys promptly did! At the conclusion of his story as the current chief presented the gold badge to the former chief, he said with obvious emotion in his voice, “I was one of those boys.”

Most men occasionally need a kick in the pants. In church life a “kick in the pants” comes in the form of preaching the need for repentance, the neglected first fist of the double-fisted gospel. Men need to hear that certain specific sins are wrong (birth control, adultery, pornography, homosexual acts, sterilization, profaning God’s name, willfully skipping Mass, drunkenness, worshipping mammon, a persistent unforgiving heart towards a spouse, family member or any other person).

Men need to be warned that refusing to turn in repentance from such sins can send them to hell. They need to be shown that following such a sinful course will ruin their lives and their family life. Men need to be told forthrightly to stop sinning – immediately – and turn their lives around. They need direct exhortations like Jeremiah gave when he said, “Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings” (Jer. 35:15).

Someone might object to the above prescription saying, “Men will leave the Church if we talk to them like that.” More than half have already left and tens of thousands more will leave this year. The single-fisted gospel is the main reason these men give for leaving. Yes, some men will leave if they hear the double-fisted gospel again, but many others will come back.

Catholic men do not want to be coddled in a soft, childlike fashion when it comes to dealing with the need to straighten up and live a holy life. At Catholic men’s conferences guys come up to me after a challenging call for repentance and say, “Thank you for treating me like a man tonight.”

Finally, men need to be encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Penance, as soon as humanly possible and thus experience a full measure of God’s bountiful mercy.

The Year of Mercy is a perfect time to resurrect the double-fisted gospel. This entire year is to be a pilgrimage of reconciliation back to the God of Mercies. Many men question the need for a return if there are no serious consequences from sin. The double-fisted gospel gives men the necessary motivation to return to the Father of Mercies.

This article first appeared in the 1999 Dads.org E-newsletter, and then again in June 2016.