It was conventional wisdom, in the Middle Ages, that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts "while few men do," as a Dominican priest observed.
Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: "During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!"
Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men "never attend church" at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.
What about today? To see what is happening in Catholic sanctuaries worshippers just have look around.
"You may have noticed that in many Catholic churches everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful. I remember a 50-year-old priest with a page-boy haircut," observed author Leon J. Podles, speaking at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.
"Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services. ... There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending."
The three-lecture series by Podles, a former federal investigator with a doctorate in English, served as an update on his controversial 1999 book "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity." His remarks ranged from medieval theology to the "Jesus is my boyfriend" school of contemporary Christian music.
Some religious traditions do not fit this pattern, such as Islam, some forms of Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Christianity and other churches in the East. Podles said Western church leaders -- Catholic and Protestant -- urgently need to back research into why this is the case.
During his lecture on the history of this issue, Podles kept returning to two themes. First, in the Christian West faith increasingly focused on emotions and feelings, as opposed to action, service and sacrifice. Then this approach soaked into worship and sacred art.
"My theory is: men distance themselves from church because they think church, and maybe Christianity in general, is feminine, and they want to be masculine and don't want to be feminine," he said.
Throughout history, men have been willing to make great sacrifices to defend the faith and spread the faith. The list of laymen recognized as martyrs and saints was long, Podles explained -- until the late Middle Ages.
What men have never been willing to do, he noted, in a follow-up interview, is meekly follow leaders they do not believe are strong and inspiring.
"The idea got around" in the medieval church, he said, "that women were supposed to be docile and obedient and willing to do whatever they were told to do by priests. Then the idea got around that being a good Christian -- period -- meant that you needed to be docile and obedient. ... Then these two ideas became intertwined."
This eventually affected hymns, theology, art and literature. The bottom line: It's hard for priests to tell young men -- take lacrosse players at Catholic schools, for example -- that they must become "brides of Christ" to find salvation.
"Only if men become like women can they become Christian. That is the message that was long given to men," he said. Meanwhile, "masculinity values risk-taking; religion is for those seeking security. Masculinity is tough-minded; religion is for those seeking comfort. Masculinity accepts reality; religion is a fantasy. Masculinity is independent; religion demands obedience."
These mixed theological signals have made many men uncomfortable.
Consider, for example, this prose by English Puritan leader John Winthrop, in which he tells Jesus: "O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable are thou! Lett him kisse me with the kisses of his mouthe, for his love is sweeter than wine: how lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embracings."
Podles was blunt: "One does not have to have read Freud to find such language suspicious. Many men have found it objectionable. But some women still respond to it and make dates with Jesus."
NEXT WEEK: Parish strategies to appeal to men.