How to Be a Gentleman
Issue Three / 2019
Sam Guzman, The Catholic Gentleman: Living Authentic Manhood Today (Ignatius Press, 2019).
With The Catholic Gentleman, Sam Guzman lends his voice to a conversation on masculinity at a time when the culture is vigorously involved in a fight (“debate” would be too restrained a word to do the situation justice) over the question of masculinity itself. It could not be more timely. As of this writing, for instance, the cover of GQ’s latest issue, “The New Masculinity,” features a man in a dress of sorts, while a father in Texas is fighting a legal battle against his ex-wife to prevent his seven-year-old son from undergoing gender re-assignment “therapy.” Yet Guzman does not directly engage such specific manifestations of deeper cultural confusion. Rather, he simply presents an alternative way to live and leaves it to his reader to determine which version of masculinity is more joyful, authentic, free, and consonant with human nature.
It is significant that Guzman speaks not of “masculinity,” but of being a “gentleman.” To be a “man” may be a given of nature, but it is not for that reason any less a task of culture or an imperative issued to the depths of conscience. Manhood has always been something learned from one’s father and the other men in the community, who have held out demanding objective standards for the maturing child to reach (Chapters 2, 10, and 12). Yet because genuine culture builds upon, and is an expression of, what is there by nature, these men are not forcing the boy to strive for something the boy himself is not made for. No one wants to stagnate in immaturity and mediocrity; all want a sufficient challenge so as to be able to become their authentic selves. In a word, we want to be true not just to who we are, but to who we should be (Chapter 1). And there is something in this mature masculinity that is simultaneously universal and unique, a harmony between the demands and expectations of the particular community and the particular gifts of the individual in that community (Chapters 9 and 25).
Of course, the “handing on” to and reception and appropriation of mature manhood by the next generation has never been perfect due to Original Sin (Chapter 9). But the fragmentation and dislocation of the family that began in the Industrial Revolution and spiked with the divorce culture has led to a situation today where there are fewer and fewer role models involved in boys’ lives over time, from whom they can learn what it is to be a man (Chapters 3 and 16).
It is precisely to such problems that Christianity offers a solution, proclaiming and safeguarding the dignity of the person called to love (Chapter 25). It is not incidental that Guzman speaks not only of the “gentleman,” but of the Catholic gentleman; for well does he know that one cannot speak of the cultural refinement of the man into a gentleman who radiates virtue without ultimately (and, in fact, at every step of the way) speaking of the ecclesial refinement of the sinner into the saint who radiates Christ. In this, there is a primacy of being over doing (Chapter 18), an idea that is also the driving force of Guzman’s chapter on the role of Mary in the Christian life: to love Mary is to grow in the simple receptivity of the child (Chapter 30).
At the same time, the act of renunciation is key to being a Christian gentleman (Chapter 32). “Becoming a man” requires an integration of suffering for the sake of growing stronger, and for the sake of transforming the world. Christian gentlemen, he says, know how to channel suffering into a creative power, so that suffering is not merely destructive (Chapter 13). Yet here he avoids falling into a kind of Pelagianism, for a large part of that suffering, Guzman suggests, is the suffering of our own weaknesses, which are a constant reminder of our insufficiency. This is for Guzman a word of hope, for Christ, he notes, had a special love for the weak and sinful, and our redemption comes not because He stands far off from this weakness, but precisely because He enters into it. “For God’s mercy,” Guzman writes beautifully, “is like a stream of water. It always rushes to the lowest place” (133).
On the whole, Guzman remains on the level of principles when treating of what it looks like concretely to be a “gentleman.” There is no one “model.” Rather, virtuous manhood can take forms as diverse as General George Patton or Mister Rogers (35). Of course, he says, to be a Christian gentleman one must look to Christ Himself, Who is the model par excellence (Chapter 28). Nevertheless, even Christ was subject to the particularities of his time and culture. If one wants to know what living like Christ “looks like” in another age and place, one can consider all the great saints who embodied Christ in their own way for their contemporaries. While not every attempt to instantiate masculinity is equally viable (36), nevertheless every man embodies Christ uniquely: “What would Christ do now, in this time and place, in your circumstances? You are called to be transformed into Christ, to live his life after him, and to reveal the answer to that question to the whole world” (167).
Still, there are some things we can say of any who could be described as a “Catholic gentleman” (see, especially, Chapters 19, “The Spiritual Offices”, and 23, “What Is a Catholic Gentleman?”). The Catholic gentleman is devout, practicing his faith fully and fearlessly (Chapter 29). By virtue of his baptism, he bears a noble, three-fold mission of priest, prophet, and king. As prophet, he has the primary job of catechizing his children. His role is also “priestly”: he is called to sacrifice for others and to intercede on their behalf. Finally, the manly “priesthood” of self-sacrifice is “royal” because his kingship is meant to be one of service; the strength of his authority is a strength for others. True men, Guzman insists, are called to be “servant leaders” (127) and have a moral duty to protect those who are weaker (Chapter 15). So manliness does indeed mean strength and initiative; but it is the strength and initiative of gentleness and service. “What is impressive is the hulk of a man who can squat eight hundred pounds and still manage to set the barbell down lightly and carefully. His gentleness reveals his strength” (127).
Peppered throughout the text are chapters that are more topically specific. Chapter 11 is a bit of a crash course on the Theology of the Body, while Chapter 27 has some helpful words for those struggling with addiction to pornography. Chapter 6 expounds on the advice of St. Francis de Sales on how properly to dress in a way that expresses respect for oneself and others but doesn’t lead to pride. Similar in theme is Chapter 14, where Guzman argues that courtesy is the outward expression of respect for the dignity of the other even in the smallest details. Such chapters helpfully apply the principles from the rest of the text to some of the key issues that most men will likely confront at some point.
The only criticisms I have to offer of Guzman’s worthy text I am somewhat reticent to mention, as they are aimed at the very things that are the strengths of his approach. His role is not to offer an expansive treatise, but an introduction for those who are perhaps just beginning their own formation in the Christian faith. For this reason, he condenses as much content as he can into chapters of an appropriate length for his likely audience (on average just under five pages). Yet often this left me wishing he would go more deeply into his subject matter or offer a more developed, positive presentation in place of a lament over the present situation. In Chapter 16, for instance, he seems to focus entirely on the overwhelming challenges facing marriage today, while offering little concretely in the way of an alternative, such as expounding on the beauty of marriage as it was made to be “in the beginning.”
One benefit of Guzman’s style, however, is that each chapter can stand rather on its own. A reader pressed for time can choose those chapters that seem most relevant to him, with virtually no impact on his ability to comprehend their content. But this also means—necessarily, I suspect—that the text has little by way of an overarching progression of thought that gives it unity. Still, I recognize that asking this of The Catholic Gentleman is to ask for something quite different from what Guzman is offering. His gift is to distill the riches of the faith into a drink that can be savored in small sips by those who are coming of age at a time of great confusion. I pray his work can help to bring the clarity that is so badly needed.
William Hamant is Assistant Professor of Theology at DeSales University.
Keep reading! Next comes married couple Kristin and Nathaniel Hurd's "Filling Heaven with God's Children: Priestly Celibacy and Paternity."