[Editor’s Note: Sam Guzman is the founder of The Catholic Gentleman, an apostolate designed to inspire men to follow Christ, pursue holiness, and be servant leaders in the Church and in the world. Married with four children, Guzman has recently written The Catholic Gentleman: Living Authentic Manhood Today, which comes out on May 13. He spoke about his apostolate and book with Charles Camosy.]
Camosy: You have an interesting and provocative new book coming out. Can you tell us a little bit about your basic thesis?
Guzman: The basic thesis is this: Between a completely lack of cultural norms on the one hand, and claims that masculinity is toxic on the other, men are more confused than ever about what it means to be a man. Men are caught between the extremes of either effeminacy or exaggerated machismo. The Catholic faith, however, shows us a different way. It reveals how we can live an integrated manhood, revealing the path to both true masculinity and true sanctity.
Ultimately, it shows us that the true model of manhood, far from the exaggerated caricatures of our culture, is Jesus Christ. Christ is the truest man that ever lived. He is a prophet, a priest, and a king. He is wise, strong, and fearless, and yet he is also gentle, humble, and filled with a heart of compassion for the downtrodden and weakest of all. We find the truest expression of our masculinity when we imitate Christ and understand that strength is found in service in laying down your life in ways big and small.
I imagine, given that it is very unpopular to say that there is anything at all like “manhood” these days, you are bracing for significant criticism?
I think some criticism is inevitable, but that doesn’t bother me. I believe men are hungry for a different model of manhood. There is something deep within us that knows that manhood is not being a violent and unfeeling brute, nor is it being a wilting milksop wallowing in self-pity. Yet, for many men, those are the only alternatives they see.
I think men are drawn to the word “gentleman” because it captures a different way of being a man between these two extremes, one that our culture has lost and nearly forgotten. Gentlemen are dignified, mature, and confident. They follow a clear code of conduct and serve something higher than themselves. They represent an ancient and venerable tradition of manhood. They choose duty rather than expediency. They know who they are and they know what they are about. Yet, a true gentleman also cares for the good of others. He is not self-absorbed but selfless. He builds up rather than tears down, and ultimately lives by the highest law of love.
That is what men are hungry for, I believe, and while some people may not like that message, I also think it will be attractive to many, many men who are hungry for more than our culture offers.
Can you say more about the “Catholic” part of the book? What does the tradition and teaching of the Church add to these questions that might not be obvious to those not steeped in the faith?
Philosophers like Aristotle and ancient traditions like Stoicism were able to achieve a high degree of virtuous human development using reason alone. That is admirable and we should take that into account. But reason can only take us so far. We need revelation. It’s ironic, because living a life of virtue and peak human performance can become oddly selfish, albeit unconsciously.
I want to be the best that I can be, and be my best self so I can live a good and happy life. That is good, but even in this admirable process of growth, it can be easy to lose sight of the needs of others. So what dimension does the gospel add? I believe what Catholic Christianity adds more than any other is the law of love. What the Gospel teaches us is that true success is almost nearly inverted from the definition of the world. The world says, “Be virtuous so you can rise to the top of the heap and reach peak human potential.” Expediency and power are still the ultimate goal.
But what the Gospel says is, “Be virtuous so you can give it all away. It’s better to be poor and enter the kingdom of heaven than to be king of the whole world.” Sacrifice, self-gift, laying your life down, emptying yourself for the good of the other—these are things that the world has never fully grasped. Christ embodied both paradigms. He was the most perfect man that ever lived. He embodied every virtue and human ability to its fullest extent. And yet his whole life was consumed with giving. It was one long sacrifice. I think of those moments when the Gospels describe Jesus as utterly exhausted from healing and preaching and teaching. He’d escape for a moment to recover, but the crowds would find them. But never, not once, did he turn them away. He would give even more, even when he was completely depleted.
This is the logic of love that the world doesn’t grasp. The saints were on fire with love, and in love with sacrifice. They couldn’t give enough. Like Christ, they were consumed with laying themselves down for others. The world thinks this is pure insanity. But this is what the Gospel calls us to. Peak performance is admirable, but God’s heart lies with the broken, the weak, and those who cannot give anything but their hearts. How do we treat such people? The measure of a man is not the level of his attainment or what he can do, but it is rather found in how much he gives. This is what the faith teaches us.
The cover of your book (as well as your own personal promotional shots) seem to indicate that part of what it means to be a gentleman is to be sharply-dressed in a modern Western sense. Clearly you have a strong sense of style! But what is the message you are trying to send with using such images in your promotion of the book? What about men from different social classes who can’t afford nice clothes, or non-Western cultures which have a very different sense of style? Can they still be Catholic gentlemen?
I fundamentally disagree with the adage, “Clothes make the man.” I would reverse that to say, “The man makes the clothes.” The reason I often use imagery of sharply dressed men is for the same reason I use almost exclusively vintage photos. Men have culturally lost their way, and sometimes the only way to find your way forward is to look back. Fundamentally, dressing well has nothing to do with being a good man. And yet, our clothes, like our body language, are a form of communication. Like it or not, they say something.
You go to the store now and it is not uncommon to see people shopping in fuzzy slippers and pajama pants. Because of the extent to which our culture has lost any and all moorings, dressing with dignity can represent a code of conduct, a higher standard. It’s a call back to respect for yourself and respect for others.
Now, those who know me know that I don’t actually dress that fancy. I can’t really afford it myself, and while I like bowties, it certainly isn’t my typical style of dress. Yet, I still think as Catholic men we should dress with dignity, but also simplicity. It’s not about looking like a peacock, but it can be an act of respect for others. What that looks like will vary dramatically based on context, and I’m not advocating we dress to the nines everywhere we go, but the principle is simply that we shouldn’t sink to the lowest common denominator. Clothes communicate, so take that seriously.
Recent studies show that young men in particular are already deeply unhappy and trend-lines for the future don’t look good. Does your book cover anything in terms of hope for young men caught in a sense of despair?
Yes, men need hope desperately. Much of men’s hopelessness, I believe, arises from the fact that we don’t know who or what we are supposed to be. We need purpose to thrive, and yet we are denied that by our culture. We have instincts and drives and desires that we are told at every turn are at best illegitimate or downright toxic.
I think of a photo I saw recently of a strong young man carrying a young woman out of a flood zone. It was a beautiful photo, and in times past, this would have been praised as an icon of authentic masculinity and service. Now our culture sees such example of masculine strength as wrong, oppressive, or downright dangerous. That’s simply one example of many.
Culturally, young men who want to lead or who want to use their strength in the service of others are told they should be ashamed of themselves; ashamed of who and what they are. Men can’t win these days. So many men are deeply depressed and are even committing suicide.
My book is practical and accessible, and it shows another way of being a man. I hope men can find hope in this message and can find a way to live authentically as men. Following Christ is not easy. It is a call to take up your cross and lay down your life. But I firmly believe that deep down every man wants to sacrifice for something beyond himself, and I believe that if men embrace the message of the book, they will find the purpose and joy they are seeking.