Thursday, May 13, 2004

"If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." (President Harry Truman)

I've mentioned earlier at this weblog that my son Paul is a recovering alcoholic, at the ripe young age of eighteen. Today is the second anniversary of his "sobriety," the day he stopped drinking. (Since Paul is a Byzantine Catholic, he receives communion under both species. The amount is miniscule, and has not been a problem for him. Besides, as a believing Catholic, the matter in question is no longer wine anyway, but that's another story.) Giving up a life of drinking can cost you some of your friends; in this case, all your old drinking buddies, at least until they too come around. And yet, Paul has been fortunate in having surrounded himself with a group of loyal and close friends who themselves are also in recovery. Some are successful in their professions, while others are unemployed, or even on the edge of homelessness. But all share a common bond.

While some of this circle of friends are female, the great majority are male. I mention this particular fact, in light of a fascinating article (not to mention long overdue) in this month's issue of Catholic World Report. "The Friendship-Deficit Syndrome" was written by Father C John McCloskey III, Director of the Catholic Information Center here in Washington. It begins with an anectode from a recent trip to Rome:

"...I went out to lunch in the Piazza Navona... There was a group of seven or eight Italian men who were eating, drinking vino rosso, and engaging in boisterous conversation, clearly enjoying themselves. I got the impression that this was not a singular event but rather one of frequent meetings of long-time close friends... [U]pon reflection in the weeks afterward, I realized that the strangeness I felt on witnessing that scene came about because I rarely, if ever, encounter similar scenes in my own country..."

In lamenting the loss of authentic male friendship in American society (except for drinking or sporting events, where the focus is the activity as opposed to fellowship itself), the good Father has hit upon an important point, and one which has long been of concern to me. I've lived in Washington for nearly a quarter-century now. For most of that time, I've always said, that I was lucky if the best friends I ever had here return my phone calls within a few days, if at all. If that sounds very sad, it is because it is. Not only for me, but for those whom I might identify as friends. When I serve at the missa solemnis at Old St Mary's downtown every month, it may be the only regular occasion of male cameraderie that I have. Even though I don't know most of them very well, I am often disappointed when, after serving for a wedding of one of my fellow-knights of the altar, they disappear from the sacristy for good.

Father McCloskey blames much of this detachment on the Protestant mentality of individualism that pervades American society, as opposed to much of Europe. But I would go farther than that, to blame the phenomenon of suburbanism that has dominated the American landscape since the mid-20th century. I would invite the good Father to visit a few night-spots around Washington early in the evening, such as those in Arlington, Virginia, along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor where the Orange Line runs. Not all of them are on the make, and not all of them are gay.

Historically, male bonding was a part of being male. The friendships of men would be as important as the relationships with their wives, if not more so. A soldier in battle would have a comrade, known as his "paraclete," or protector, who would be the one to watch his back, while he watched his. This arrangement was often preceeded by a blood oath (which continues today in the impromptu "blood brother" ceremony among neighborhood boys). Even the Church recognized its significance, citing the deep friendship between David and Jonathon. There is even evidence of a blessing ceremony for such friendships. The most famous of them was that of Sergius and Bacchus, two Roman soldiers of the third century, who were discovered to be Christians and so received the crown of martyrdom. Proponents of the "gay lifestyle" have highjacked this friendship, attributing homosexual overtones to their relationship, in a feeble attempt to justify same-sex unions being blessed by the Church. A case in point is Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, a book by John Boswell, which lays claim to the approval of such unions by the Church during the height of the Byzantine Empire.

Unfortunately, Boswell neglects to mention that the penalty for sodomy at that time was castration.

This over-attachment of sex to friendship clouds the true significance of male bonding (especially for those who struggle with same-sex attraction), to the point of dissuading some men from stepping outside their shells altogether. I cannot begin to do justice to Father McCloskey's writing, so I invite the readers of MWBH to obtain a copy of CWR this month -- not only men, but the women in their lives.

I'm using this occasion to inaugurate the "comments" feature on MWBH.

Maybe I'll find out if anyone's listening.


Anonymous said...

Fr McCloskey has, unfortunately for regular visitors to the CIC, moved on to the Faith and Reason Institute.

David L Alexander said...

Yeah, and he's got his own website too. I knew he was away from the CIC for now, but didn't know he was assigned elsewhere. His replacement has yet to be officially announced. Besides, Father Stetson seems like a good guy; I say we give him a chance.

Anonymous said...

Someone at Mark Shea's blog commented on this after he posted the link.

You might find the discussion interesting. I would especially like to hear if anyone can coroborate my observations.

Anonymous said...

In Australia we make a big fuss about mateship, which extends beyond friendship into sacrifice. The thing is, every Aussie is supposed to be a good mate, take it on the chin, look out for your mates and they'll look out for you. So you can be mates with someone you don't know that well. (It comes from the ANZAC experience at Gallipoli in WWI).
Sometimes mates are friends, sometimes they're not.
At the school where I teach, my students often describe 2 boys being friends as gay, which is sad, but there's even a move away from being mates, which is even sadder. Even the appearance of friendship is becoming an unacceptable thing.

Maybe we need a theology of friendship?


Fr. Kenneth Allen said...

It's interesting that som eof your commenters spoke of the 'rugged individualism' of the American male. I've heard (well, ok,, I knew already) that Thoreau was a big proponent of that, as was Emerson.

It's interesting to note however, that Thoreau lived in alone and individuallistically the midst of what is basically a country club setting, off of an inheritance , and was it the Alcott sisters(?) who brought him his meals regulalry? Whoever it was who lived nearby as he lived his idyllic, ruggedly individualistic existence.

Which of course relied heavily on the community with which he was associated.

A more interesting person to study would be Josiah Royce, who speaks of communities and the way we need to be fully integrated not only as individuals, but within the communities to which we belong.

He spoke prophetically on American thought when he claimed some 100 years ago, that if we kept on the path of rugged indiviualism, the family would disintegrate, Americans would no longer want to pay taxes... etc...

Sort of OT... sorry it's been a long few weeks.