Muscular Christianity

This is one of my favourite Don Camillo films. In this except, Peppone goes to confession, for the first time since 1918. He has little to confess, and Don Camillo gives him Absolution. Afterwards, he says to himself “I’m going to pulverise him!” Jesus answers, “No question of it. Your hands are made to bless”. Don Camillo replies, “My hands are made to bless. But my feet?” Jesus remains silent and Don Camillo gives Peppone a good kick up the backside. Peppone reacts as if to start a fight, but calms down and says “Now we’re even”.

I doubt this kind of clerical manliness was considered in the article The case for muscular Christianity written in The Portal, which is the periodical of the British Ordinariate. The succinct definition is given: “Muscular Christianity can be characterised as seeking to promote beliefs in patriotic duty, self-sacrifice, manliness, and the moral and physical beauty of athleticism.” In other words – little short of fascism. These qualities, when exaggerated, become the “virtues” of our new political establishment in the UK. No names mentioned… I do believe in my country, for as long as its cause is noble and just. I have already in my life taken risks to rescue persons from danger of death. However, I am not interested in cultivating the image of the Alpha male in myself, nor am I interested in team sports.

The so-called muscular Christian movement might seem to have been influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s If… and British imperialism.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

It particularly developed in the USA. I personally experienced the mentality at my alma mater, St Peter’s School in York, which has become an educational miracle in recent years with enlightened ideas and headmasters. Dr Arnold’s reforming work at Rugby in the nineteenth century was a milestone in humanism and Christian education.

This muscular Christianity was a “belief, which first appeared in British private schools, that competition in games helps instil desirable traits of character and thus qualifies as a legitimate educational activity”.

In its extreme form, the ideology encourages competition, social Darwinism and eugenics. I imagine nothing more opposed to the teachings of the Christian Gospel than this.

This is not the first time I have reflected on this theme. Should all parish priests be as tough and pugnacious as Don Camillo? Perhaps in some parishes. Everyone is called at the most unexpected time to defend himself against an enemy or stand up for what he believes to be right. Anyone can be violent if provoked enough. South America is notorious for priests being killed by Communist partisans or drug cartels. In some parts of the world, nowadays, Don Camillo wouldn’t last two minutes! We now celebrate the third anniversary of the martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel at the hands of Jihadist thugs in France.

I have known some very courageous priests who stood up to their bishops over the liturgical changes and the abolition of the old missal in the 1970’s. I knew one, Fr Jacques Pecha, parish priest of Bouloire in the Diocese of Le Mans. Determined as he was, he was not the stereotype of the English public school rugby player calling for his fag to warm his toilet seat! He was human, humane and sensitive to things like beauty and love. Perhaps those qualities make more of a man than competition, aggressiveness and domination.

My circumstances in life have precluded my being involved in pastoral ministry. My life is identical to that of any layman, except for what I do in my chapel and at this computer keyboard – and when I am with my Bishop and brother priests in England. I do so hate masculine stereotypes like my wife hates feminine ones in some other women. We are men and women according to the way our bodies are made – with tits and a vagina, or a cock and a pair of balls! I have no sympathy for transsexualism and people who get operations and hormone treatment to look like the opposite sex. However, I have nothing against a man who desires to experience something of a woman’s life, the gentle and intuitive approach instead of materialist rationalism. Some men are not made to be dominant, have less body hair, have smooth skin, do not become bald – yet recognise themselves as men with responsibilities to themselves and their loved ones. Is such a man less worthy in the sight of God? As St Paul taught, there are many vocations and many talents in the Lord’s Vineyard. Perhaps if we were less concerned with these gender stereotypes, there would be less of a problem of some people being unable to come to terms with themselves the way they are.

By all means, let us love our countries, be courageous, be prepared to be hurt for what is right, give the best of ourselves. But we are also called to empathy and compassion for the weak and the poor. If that part of the Christian Gospel is airbrushed out, then I see no point in Christianity except as a political aid to control of the population. Bonhöffer gave his life against the assimilation of Christianity by Nazism and “cheap grace” – nothing more manly than to face the gallows!

I am convinced that we are gradually moving towards a new type of fascism with nothing of the trappings of Mussolini or Hitler. The accidents change but the substance remains the same. I have written enough about this sickening subject, but one we face in the coming years. I am just as sickened by the left-wing equivalent and opposite extreme formed by “mass-thinking” and bandwagons.

This kind of labelling and worship of the stereotype male does nothing to foster the nobility of spirit that comes from the teachings of Christ and the most profound philosophers, scientists and artists.

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2 Responses to Muscular Christianity

  1. Caedmon says:

    I watched ‘The little world of Don Camillo’ on youtube last night. I enjoyed it very much. I’d read the book a long time ago but don’t remember ever seeing the film.

    • You can see them in French or Italian, depending on which language you understand better. Gino Cervi who played Peppone was of course Italian and Fernandel was a full-blooded Marseilles man. They spoke each others’ languages. There are 5 Don Camillo films.

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