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Gendering Prayer: Millennial-generation Catholics and the Embodiment of Feminine Genius and Authentic Masculinity



This article examines the relationship between prayer practices and gendered subjectivity among a group of millennial-generation Catholic men and women. Drawing on ethnographic work, this case study illuminates the role of prayer in shaping how, why, and with what sorts of struggles young and culturally-savvy women and men embodied gender complementarity in the twenty-first century U.S. This article proposes gendering prayer as an analytic for understanding how prayer cultivated these Catholics in the habits of feminine genius and authentic masculinity. By comparing women’s and men’s practices, I argue that these young adults were flourishing in the modern world, even as they rejected egalitarian gender roles in favor of multiple modes of submission within gender essentialism. This work contributes to anthropological scholarship focused on gender performance in daily Catholic life.
Vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), 1-17 | DOI: 10.18352/rg10160
*Correspondence: Springfield College, 263 Alden Street, Springfield, MA 01109, USA.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (3.0)
Religion and Gender | ISSN: 1878-5417 | | Uopen Journals
Gendering Prayer: Millennial-generation Catholics
and the Embodiment of Feminine Genius and
Authentic Masculinity
Katherine Dugan*
This article examines the relationship between prayer practices and gendered subjectivity
among a group of millennial-generation Catholic men and women. Drawing on
ethnographic work, this case study illuminates the role of prayer in shaping how, why,
and with what sorts of struggles young and culturally-savvy women and men embodied
gender complementarity in the twenty-first century U.S. This article proposes gendering
prayer as an analytic for understanding how prayer cultivated these Catholics in the
habits of feminine genius and authentic masculinity. By comparing women’s and men’s
practices, I argue that these young adults were flourishing in the modern world, even as
they rejected egalitarian gender roles in favor of multiple modes of submission within
gender essentialism. This work contributes to anthropological scholarship focused on
gender performance in daily Catholic life.
prayer; gender; millennials; U.S. Catholicism; religious subjectivity.
Author affiliation
Katherine Dugan is Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College in
Springfield, MA (United States). She studies American religions with a special-
ization in contemporary Catholicism in the United States.
Pray with me. Lord,…you’ve given us the amazing gift of being a woman. May
we see that and recognize that for what it is….Give us the courage to live out our
feminine genius, Lord.
– Laine Coopley, ‘GATHERing the Truth about Womanhood’
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
2 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
Make a steady foundation through prayer;
Ask God for forgiveness in Confession;
Never fear Satan, find strength in the Lord;
Ultimately, it’s about holiness;
Pray to change the world.
– Simon Pickler, ‘Esto Vir!: Reclaiming our Culture through Authentic
In early January 2013, I joined over six thousand millennial-generation Catholics
for a five-day conference called GATHER2013. The conference was hosted by
a Catholic organization I call DIRECT, which hires recent college graduates as
missionaries on college campuses across the U.S.1 Designed as part retreat, part
catechesis, and part party, GATHER2013 attracted college students and recent
graduates from around the country. Each morning, we divided into ‘Men’s Ses-
sions’ and ‘Women’s Sessions.’ A conference-long ‘Battle of the Sexes’ provided
an energizing start to the day and a crash course in Catholic gender essential-
ism. The final day of the battle featured a quiz show between DIRECT’s founder,
Charles, and his wife, Melanie. Charles was quizzed about hair styles, Disney
princesses, and blow dryers. The males in the audience cheered and laughed
when he answered each question correctly. Melanie fielded questions about
James Bond, sports, and hunting knives as the emcee encouraged applause.2
Beneath this light-hearted atmosphere was an entire system of Catholic gen-
der complementarity. These missionaries articulated how to be men and women
– what they called ‘authentic masculinity’ and ‘feminine genius’ – by interweav-
ing gender essentialism, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s writings on gen-
der complementarianism as well as anxieties about changes in gender roles in
contemporary U.S. According to these dictums, women with feminine genius
were expected to submit to men’s decisions, focus on interpersonal relation-
ships, and be emotionally attuned to the needs of other. Authentically mascu-
line men were expected to ‘step up’ and lead in their romantic and professional
relationships with women. Both were understood as God’s instructions.
In this article, I analyze how and why and with what kinds of struggles these
millennial-generation Catholics performed these complementary gender roles.
Drawing on fourteen months of ethnographic work,3 I argue that gender-
ing prayer forms created the conditions under which young men and women
inhabited gender subjectivities.4 These millennial Catholics embodied multiple
forms of submission that critiqued cultural norms and became modes of human
1 DIRECT (Disciples in Relationship Evangelizing Catholics Together) is a pseudonym, per
my written agreement with the organization’s executives. DIRECT did not request the
pseudonym, but I offered it in the course of establishing an ethnographic relationship.
Names of all missionaries and speakers are also pseudonyms. Because this research was
classified a case study, it fell outside the official purview of my university’s Institutional
Review Board. Nonetheless, I followed protocols of informed consent.
2 Fieldnotes, January 5, 2013.
3 From mid-2012 through early 2014, I conducted participant observation and sixty-
three semi-structured interviews with fifty-two DIRECT missionaries and staff.
4 A sincere thank you to the anonymous reviewer who pointed out that my original
choice of ‘gendered prayer’ would be more accurately be described as ‘gendering prayer’
because of the ongoing nature of these prayer forms and missionaries’ subjectivities.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17 3
The young adults in this article learned how to embody the feminine genius
and authentic masculinity from a variety of sources. My focus here is on their
prayer practices because they were a pervasive yet subtle form of subjectivity
formation. These missionaries spent several hours a day engaged in a wide range
of prayer forms, including daily Mass, rosaries, Adoration, and Bible studies. Amid
this flurry, some of their prayer practices were divided along gender lines. Women
tended to pray with prayer journals while men tended to pray daily examinations
of conscience. These forms of prayer, I argue here, shaped how women inhabited
the feminine genius and how men took on authentic masculinity.
This article makes three intertwined contributions to the study of religion
and gender in the contemporary world. First, it posits ‘gendering prayer’ as an
analytic for interpreting the relationship between prayers and gendered subjec-
tivities. Second, this article argues that these men and women were flourishing
in the modern world. This flourishing was made possible through their prayer-
based submissions to God and each other, as well as their rejection of contem-
porary gender norms. Third, in order to understand how and why submission
could be a mode of human flourishing in this world, men’s and women’s gen-
dering prayers have to be studied comparatively. Because they were mutually
informing and interdependent, analyzing one without the other lacks context.
In a recent special issue on Catholicism and gender in this journal, Mary
Anne Case deftly argues that the gender complementarianism lived out by
these young adults was an invention of the twentieth century. She challenges
rhetoric of the kind I encountered throughout my research that insisted gen-
der essentialist roles have been Catholic teaching since the Genesis story of
Adam and Eve.5 Instead, Case asserts convincingly, the ‘invention of comple-
mentarity’ was a twentieth-century response by papal authority to feminism,
wide-ranging acceptance of artificial contraception, and calls for women’s
ordination (Case 2016: 156–157). In that same volume, Sara Garbagnoli argues
that ‘gender ideology’ is a rhetorical devise used by the Vatican to ‘delegiti-
mise feminist and LGBTQ studies’ and undermine broad acceptance of gender
as constructed ( Garbagnoli 2016: 187). Taken together, Case and Garbagnoli
challenge the Vatican-propagated assumption that gender complementarity
is divine prescription.
My article is concerned with the fact that millennial-generation Catholics
looked to gender complementarity for instructions on how to be men and
women. This work examines how those norms, invented or not, are translated
into contemporary life. As such, this work also contributes to the anthropology
of Catholicism. While scholarship like Maya Mayblin’s (Mayblin 2017) centers on
how Roman Catholic Womenpriests movements challenge Catholicism’s gender
prescriptions, my work focuses the ways millennial-generation women and men
adapt to these prescriptions. As the editors of The Anthropology of Catholi-
cism collection attest, ‘few key texts within the more recent anthropology of
Christianity have focused on the question of gender’ (Mayblin et al. 2017: 22).
This article’s attention to how rigid gender roles are learned, practiced, and
5 These young men and women assumed gender complementarity was divinely
ordained. They loved when Pope Benedict XVI, in 2012, reminded Catholic men and
women of their ‘ontological complementarity’ and called modern ‘gender ideology’ a
‘falsehood’ whereby ‘the Maker himself is denied’ (Benedict 2012).
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
4 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
discussed within daily Catholic life contributes a complementary perspective to
this recent scholarship on Catholicism and gender.
This article begins with an ethnographic description of the feminine genius
and women’s prayer journals. Women’s prayer journals created the conditions
whereby women were able to inhabit the feminine genius, which involved well-
managed emotions, seeing God in daily life, and inhabited feminine submission
to masculine leadership. I then turn to authentic masculinity and men’s daily
examinations of conscience. This self-examination taught men to submit to the
needs of others and act as servant-leaders. Their prayers of daily examinations
of conscience set the conditions under which men to evaluate and recommit
their actions to God’s will for their authentic masculinity. The article concludes
on a comparative note. Held side by side, these gendering prayers illustrate
how prayer practices participated in the subjectivity formation and critique of
cultural norms by young adults who navigated modes of flourishing as Catholic
men and women in the twenty-first century U.S.
Prayer Journals: Inhabiting the Feminine Genius
The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the femininegenius which
have appeared in the course of history…she gives thanks for all the charisms
which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God.
Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 1998
There’s a reason women go to the bathroom in groups: that’s how God made them.
– Laine Coopley, ‘Why Do Women Do That?’ 2013
As the Battle of the Sexes concluded, Laine Coopley took the stage for our
final Women’s Session. Laine was almost thirty years old, pregnant, and in her
eighth year with DIRECT when she spoke to 3,500 millennial-generation Catho-
lic women about the ‘feminine genius.’ She smiled to the eager audience and
described women as naturally endowed with emotional intelligence and an
ability to recognize others’ needs. These qualities were essential, she explained,
and part of how God made women:
We see people as people, and we respond with compassion and empathy. We
notice when people need uplifting…Yes, that makes us a little more emotional.
Our world tells us that emotion needs to be suppressed…[but] God gave those to
you for a reason; that is part of your feminine genius.
Laine went on to explain that the ideal of womanhood comes from Genesis,
where God made Eve as Adam’s ‘helper.’ This, she nodded, was God’s pre-
scription for women’s different but still important role in relation to men.
She paused and, looking out at the sea of well-educated and culturally savvy
women, assured them that this had been troubling to her when she first learned
it. Imitating her former disgust, she exclaimed ‘Really, God?…You made woman
to be man’s helper?! Like, I’m a special helper who doesn’t really have a job, but
you give them a job to make them feel validated?’6 Laine shook her head as the
6 Laine Coopley, ‘GATHERing the Truth about Womanhood,’ (presentation, GATHER2013,
January 2013).
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17 5
crowd laughed. She dropped the act and told us that reading Pope John Paul
II made her appreciate what it meant to be a ‘helper.’ She read from his ‘Letter
to Women:’
The creation of woman is marked from the outset by the principle of help. A
help which is not one-sided, but mutual…God chose two unique genders to com-
plement; different strengths, different gifts that help us to become more fully
human…It is thus my hope, dear sisters, that you will reflect carefully on what it
means to speak of the ‘genius of women’. (John Paul II: 1995)
She looked up from the text and summarized: ‘Your uniqueness as a woman is
so good that JP2 [Pope John Paul II] calls it a genius, “the feminine genius.” Isn’t
that awesome!? By virtue of being a woman, you have a genius about you.’7
The audience applauded and Laine turned to the practical matter of how to do
this. Cultivating their feminine genius required young women to inhabit three
dispositions. They had to submit to male leadership as an enactment of Vatican-
prescribed gender complementarity. They also had to have the right balance
of emotion – too much mean they were undisciplined women; too little meant
they were not attuned to their natural capacities. Women living out their femi-
nine genius also made decisions about their lives’ paths that reflected God’s will.
Mia and Jenna were two missionaries who spent a lot of time striving to
embody these prescriptions. Mia was twenty-four years old and in her third
year as an on-campus missionary. She always had her iPhone nearby and taught
me all sorts of millennial-generation slang. It was easy to imagine her as the
party-loving sorority girl she told me she had been before she, as she described
her conversion, began to ‘love Jesus.’8 Jenna was two years younger than Mia
and in her first year as a missionary. Slightly more reserved and a self-described
Type A personality, Jenna loved making lists and spoke nostalgically about her
leadership experiences in college. One morning, Mia and Jenna were laughing
about how ‘stressed out’ and ‘über-busy’ Mia had been in the week prior. Mia
explained to me that things were ‘just a disaster.’ In the midst of the chaos, Mia
had raced home to grab her forgotten Bible study materials only to discover
that her room had been cleaned and a note from Jenna claiming responsibil-
ity. This was feminine genius in action, Mia smiled, because Jenna ‘saw what
needed to be done and did it.’9 She and Jenna high-fived at the memory.
More than knowing when to clean up after her roommate, Jenna explained
that the feminine genius was about how she saw herself in relation to God and
to men: ‘We are created in God’s image – [our body] reveals God to us…[W]e
just lead in different and complementary ways.’ Jenna loved that her feminine
genius allowed her to see what needed to be done. But, she cautioned, that did
not necessarily mean she ought to do it. Her natural ability to recognize others’
needs had to complement – not override – what she called men’s ‘hard-wiring’
for action. Jenna told me the Virgin Mary was the ‘perfect example’ of femi-
nine genius because ‘she saw that there was a need that needed to be filled…
So she looks at her son and is like, “You need to do something about this.” ...[S]
o then he’s like, “Well, okay. You’re my mom.”…That’s…being submissive.’ This
7 Coopley.
8 Fieldnotes, December 3, 2012.
9 Fieldnotes, January 31, 2013.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
6 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
was the goal, Jenna smiled, submission to men’s actions in a way that ‘affirm[s]
a man’s masculinity by letting him lead you, while at the same time being
Just because this feminine genius was essential to women’s God-given nature
did not mean that women knew how to perform it instinctually. Jenna, for
example, said she was still learning when to lead and when to ‘allow’ herself
to be led. Jenna admitted that this was hard for her, but she was learning that
men did step up to act if she waited. She chuckled, ‘I don’t have to always give
my two cents!’11 Men and women do not have the same strengths, she went
on, ‘We have a complementary relationship.’12 Jenna shrugged, ‘I don’t fully
understand what it looks like to be 100% submissive, either. But it’s one of those
things – if you pray about it, God’ll give you an opportunity to do it.’13
To ‘pray about it,’ meant that Jenna both asked God to remind her to not
always give her ‘two cents’ and turned to her prayer journal to practice the sub-
mission required of the feminine genius. Prayer journals were ubiquitous among
female missionaries: they were for sale in the DIRECT bookstore, missionaries
blogged about how to use prayer journals and tweeted their love of prayer jour-
nals. During missionaries’ daily hour of morning prayer, Mia usually prayed-wrote
in her prayer journal for several minutes. Jenna so relied on her prayer journal
that when she forgot it at home one morning, her entire prayer session was off.
A third-year missionary named Jackie echoed Jenna’s love of prayer jour-
nals and shared Jenna’s struggle to embody the daily discipline of submission
required by the feminine genius. She described how important journaling was
for her in learning how to stop taking charge of all aspects of her life: ‘I would
write things I was thankful for or praying for. And I was like, it was so amazing,
I’m just so much more peaceful throughout the day, giving time to the Lord.’
Journaling taught her to put her daily life under the guidance of God and sub-
mit her will to God. This practice of submitting to God in her journal, she said,
eventually made it easier for her to know how to submit to men’s leadership
in her ministry work and in her dating relationships.14 Journaling was one way
women recruited help embodying the feminine genius.
Tabitha was a second-year missionary who made the emotional work of gen-
dering prayer journals clear. In her experience as a missionary, she said, ‘a lot
of the women…really love journaling.’ She was thoughtful as she explained,
’women tend to be more into journaling… [because it’s] a little more relational
and emotion-based.’15 We sat on lumpy couches in a Newman Center as she told
me about growing up in a large, Catholic family who never missed Sunday Mass.
Away at college, Tabitha became ‘lazy,’ and stopped going to Mass. During
her sophomore year, she met DIRECT missionaries, and over the following few
months, they showed her what she called ‘fun’ Catholicism. But it was when one
of the women introduced her to prayer journaling that her Catholicism went
from fun to ’real.’ She explained that praying with her journal tempered her
need to ‘feel’ God’s presence and taught her to, instead, know God’s presence:
10 Jenna, interview by author, March 8, 2013, transcript.
11 Fieldnotes, January 30, 2013.
12 Fieldnotes, January 31, 2013.
13 Jenna, interview by author, March 8, 2013, transcript.
14 Jackie, interview by author, April 5, 2013, transcript.
15 Tabitha, interview by author, February 12, 2013, transcript.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17 7
At first everything is fun and exciting….But, then…prayer [can be] really dry, and
I’m not feeling it for like a month at a time…That’s why I love journaling, because
I’ll go back and read reflections from when things were [going] really well. And
relive that…[good prayer] experience.16
Tabitha’s prayer journal was a template whereby – and the ground whereon
– she disciplined her excess of emotions. Journaling kept Tabitha aware of the
reality of Christ, despite how close or distant from God she might feel during a
particular prayer session. One of the dangers of being a woman, as missionaries
taught each other, was that emotions threatened to communicate lies. Through
prayer journals, women learned and were taught which emotions came from
God and which ones were unreliable.
Tabitha also turned to her prayer journal to discern God’s will for her life,
which involved submitting to God’s plan instead of her own. She told me that
when there were ’big things going on…typically, I journal about them….[I’m],
like, “Okay, God, this is where I’m at. ’’ ‘ She would read her past journal entries
because they could show her how God was speaking. Tabitha explained:
[S]eeing over time, over the course of a few months, the way that He [God] leads
me and, [I can see] what things are constant and what things continue to run
through, and what things are, like, ‘God, today I think I should be a teacher. I
really really think that.’ And the next day, ‘I don’t want to teach – I hate that.
That sounds terrible!’…[T]hose up and down, all over the place things, they kind
of come and go. But, what are the constant threads that stay throughout and
that keep.17
The journal recorded her own thoughts, which were inconsistent; this was the
undisciplined emotion of womanhood. But intermingled in her journal’s record
were God’s words. God wrote with a ‘constant thread’ throughout her jour-
nal. Journaling was how Tabitha submitted big and small decisions about her
life – whether or not to be a missionary for a third year, questions about her
new dating relationship, debates about how to help a particular student – to
God’s instruction. This was the co-construction of the feminine subject: mission-
aries and God worked together in prayer journals to develop women’s feminine
These women’s gendered subjectivities emerged through forms of submis-
sion they inhabited in the affective practices of their prayer journals. ‘Submis-
sion,’ as Laine, Jenna, Jackie, Tabitha, and other female missionaries used the
term, constituted a multivalent framework in the feminine genius. The young
women in my fieldwork were well-educated, culturally savvy women. They
were self-aware enough of their gender ideals being askew from contemporary
expectations that they teased one another and shared funny memes about their
feminine genius via social media. And submission was a mode of human flour-
ishing among these women. They reported that the feminine genius offered a
model of womanhood that challenged what they learned in college about how
to be a woman. Jenna shook her head as she told me about her college experi-
ences of chasing men and hooking up in college. She had not felt empowered,
she said; she just felt lonely and used. Likewise, Mia told me that her business
16 Tabitha, interview by author, April 30, 2013, transcript.
17 Ibid.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
8 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
major in college prepared her to be a ‘baller’ businesswoman, but she just felt
exhausted by competing with men in business situations. These women seemed
relieved to not have to lead in romantic relationships or compete with men
The feminine genius enabled women to inhabit an alternative form of
flourishing that did not square with contemporary expectations of gender
equality. Anthropologist Sylvia Frisk insists that the logic of some religious
women’s actions can ‘not be understood solely with reference to arguments
for gender equality or resistance to male authority. The logic…had more to
do with women’s fundamental desire to submit to God’s will’ (Frisk 2009:
187). This, Frisk argues, demands scholarly attention to women’s desires, not
only their political impact. Building on this reexamination of religious wom-
en’s lives, anthropologist Sirma Bilge points out that feminist scholarship on
religion tends to emphasize agency and discourse. Bilge’s work resists this by
reinterpreting the relationship between agency and submission within the
context of a religious worldview: ‘agency in the context of submission (to
the divine) can be thought of…without translating pious moves into some-
thing extra-religious’ (Bilge 2010: 23). Journaling, in this case study, was pious
action in the world whereby these female missionaries struggled to know and
inhabit God’s will. They submitted to men, to God, and to their interpretation
of complementary Catholic womanhood. As they did this disciplined work of
subjectivity formation, these women discovered they were happily thriving
within this framework.
Significantly, women’s feminine genius was only half of Catholic personhood.
Women’s and men’s gendering prayers were interdependent. As these young
women submitted to male leadership, they expected a reciprocal submission
from men. Men’s submission – framed as authentic masculinity – was different
in content and form, but similarly committed to gender complementarity, sub-
mission, and following God’s will.
Daily Examinations of Conscience: Enacting Authentically
[Man and woman’s] equal dignity as persons is realized as physical, psychologi-
cal and ontological complementarity, giving rise to a harmonious relationship of
– Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic
Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church
and in the World,’ 2004
When you face obstacles and challenges, how do you respond?…[M]en with vir-
tue roll up their sleeves and work hard.
– Emmitt Singer, ‘Will you be the Hero of your Life? ’
While Laine delivered her the keynote address at the Women’s Session, Mark
Fammer took the stage in the Men’s Session. Mark was a self-described Catholic
apologist in his early thirties when he delivered his ‘Man Talk’ to 2,500 mil-
lennial-generation men. Mark began his presentation on authentic masculin-
ity with a question, ‘What kind of man do you want to be? What kind of men
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17 9
do you respect? How do you want to be remembered when you’re dead?’18
He paused before answering his own question with the story of St. Maximil-
ian Kolbe, a Catholic priest killed at Auschwitz after volunteering to take the
place of a Jewish man with children. ‘That’s the kind of guy I want to be,’ Mark
explained. ‘I want to live in a way that I give my life for other people, for my
wife, for my children, for my friends, for strangers.’ ‘Authentic masculinity,’ as
Mark described it, meant taking actions that submitted to God, friends, and
women by putting their needs before his own.
Authentic masculinity required very active submission; a submission full of
verbs and difficult choices: a man must fight for ‘the faith,’ defend women’s
dignity, maintain physical chastity, ask women on dates, develop male friend-
ships, participate in Catholic sacraments. If ‘relational’ and ‘emotional’ defined
the nature of women’s feminine genius, ‘action’ and ‘physical’ defined men’s
natural authentic masculinity. According to these prescriptions, authentic men
do the hard things, make commitments, and subordinate their desires for the
benefit of others, especially women.
While Mia and Jenna were high-fiving over correct habits of feminine genius,
the two men on their missionary team worked to enact authentic masculinity.
During daily prayer, Jenna filled the pages of her prayer journal as, nearby, her
teammate, Allen, sat so still that I was not always sure he was awake or asleep.
He was a serious young man who and often posted quotes from C.S. Lewis and
G.K. Chesterton on his Facebook feed. As he prayed in the morning silence, his
facial expressions ranged from thoughtful to worried. When he did move his
body, it was to twirl his hair or play with his beard. After about twenty minutes,
he would pull the Handbook of Prayer from his backpack. Allen told me he used
the book to guide his daily examination of conscience. The Handbook listed
self-reflections: ‘Did I make good use of my time?…Did I try to make life pleas-
ant for other people? Did I criticize anyone?’ The guide then instructed Allen
to ‘[m]ake a specific resolution for tomorrow.’19 Explaining this to me, Allen sat
back and sighed, ‘[T]hat’s been…really helpful, just helping me think about my
daily activities and my daily structure of my life, just, in a more strategic way.’
‘Strategic,’ here, described how this examination shaped Allen into an action-
oriented man who could be relied upon to make good decisions. This was not
emotional prayer:
I’d say – more often than not, it’s not that kind of emotional thing…[I]t’s very
reflective…[I]t’s an examination of conscience…and trying to hear God speak
through that – places where I feel like I wasn’t living up to, maybe my own stan-
dards for myself. Or maybe I wasn’t living up to, you know, some virtue that I was
trying to practice. Or maybe I let somebody down. Just trying to think through
those situations and asking for God to help me to progress in that direction.20
In their examinations of conscience, men recounted the previous day’s actions
and committed to corrections for the current day. As women’s prayer journals
were co-written with God, Allen’s prayerful examination also relied on God’s
guidance. Action was in their nature; but in excess and without reflection, it
18 Mark Fammer, ‘The Man Talk,’ (presentation, GATHER2013, January 2013).
19 Handbook of Prayers (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 3rd Edition 1995), 57.
20 Allen, interview by author, May 7, 2013, transcript.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
10 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
led to selfish men who lacked concern for others. Praying a daily examination
of conscience trained men in the habits of submissively active Catholic man-
Allen’s team leader, Daniel, told me that he usually began his daily prayer
with an examination of conscience because it helped him make the right choices
throughout the day. Daniel was in his second year as a missionary and tended
to be quite pragmatic. ‘It’s good because it’s hard,’ he smiled a bit ruefully.
‘It’s like looking at the parts of you [that] you don’t like and want to pretend
are not there. But it’s so good to be aware of what’s really going on your life.’
Daniel had been praying a daily examination of conscience for several years,
and reported, ‘[Y]ou think to yourself, man, I was really judgmental during that
conversation or I didn’t treat that person with charity or I was too lazy, then you
can make a daily resolution to work on that.’21 Examining his conscience trained
Daniel to make hard decisions and submit to others’ needs – skills required of
authentic masculinity.
There was an intimacy to this prayer form that missionaries seemed to both
crave and fear. In his study of male confessions, Björn Krondorfer points out
that when men confess – to oneself, to God, to others – it ‘rescues and reconsti-
tutes a subject that perceives itself at the brink of loss and despair’ ( Krondorfer
2010: 21). Turning one’s gaze inward, Krondofer argues, forces the man at
prayer to confront himself through a series of interrogations. Similarly, mis-
sionaries’ daily examinations of conscience required men to engage in this kind
of vulnerable self-examination and confession followed by a recommitment to
the ideals of Catholic authentic masculinity. That self-reflective gaze worked in
tandem with God. Daniel claimed because God helped him see his inaction or
poor choices he was able to make a plan for correcting them. Like Tabitha and
Jenna did, Allen and Daniel relied on God to act as partner in their gendering
Examinations of conscience also informed men’s abilities to judge right from
wrong. Daniel, for example, explained, ‘I can tell if something is not legit. I think
I have a pretty well-formed conscience at this point.’22 Men’s rightly formed con-
science became a tool of Catholic manhood. In a world that seemed, according
to these missionaries and others within DIRECT, to be asking less and less of men,
authentic masculinity envisioned men as leaders, decision-makers, and action-
takers for the good of others. Like the women, these young men struggled
with ‘worldly’ expectations, which seemed to cast men as primarily interested in
hooking up, parties, and video games. Finding these things lacking, Daniel and
Allen turned to authentic masculinity as an alternative mode of action in the
contemporary world.
One way authentically masculine men countered these cultural modes was
with the promotion of ‘servant-leadership.’ One of DIRECT’s Bible study, Christ-
like Leadership for Men, detailed this style of authentically masculine leader-
Man is to lead by [protecting] everything God entrusted to his care – including his
bride, Eve. This is what ‘his dominion,’ his authority over the realm, means. He is a
21 Fieldnotes, May 9, 2013.
22 Fieldnotes, April 11, 2013.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17 11
king, but not of the tyrannical variety. Rather, he is a servant-king, ruling in order
that every subject in his kingdom may flourish.23
Being a servant-king (in conversations, missionaries used ‘servant-leaders’)
meant emulating Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice comfort or desires for the good
of others.24 Godly male leadership was the hard work to guide and serve, as
they understood Jesus having done. Leadership required, one former mis-
sionary explained, the practice of a complementary submission wherein men
began ‘rolling up their sleeves and working hard.’25 Servant-leadership taught
men to lead with a disposition of submission to God’s plan and in service to
Imbedded in this model of servant-leadership is what sociologist John
Bartkowski has described as ‘neopatriarchal masculinity’ that exists in an
‘uneasy tension between patriarchal convictions and egalitarian sensibilities’
(Bartkowski 2001: 159). A similar tension pervaded DIRECT’s thinking about
authentic masculinity. These men grew up and were coming of age in a cul-
ture where women are assumed to be their equals. Women were outpacing
men in college attendance (Diprete and Buchman 2013: 1–3). DIRECT always
had more women apply to be missionaries than they could hire and struggled to
hire enough men to meet the demands of their campus commitments. Women
did occupy fewer executive leadership roles within DIRECT, but plenty of male
missionaries could expect to be on one of nearly half missionary teams led by
Behind a sometimes-bombastic tone of masculinity lurked insecurity about
what, exactly, it meant to be a man in this landscape, amid the twenty-first
century gender expectations. Sociologist Michael Kimmel named this unease
‘male malaise.’ Kimmel argues that rapid shifts in gender roles in the twenti-
eth century created two to three generations of men ‘increasingly anxious in
an economic and political arena that erodes their ability to be breadwinners,
and confused by new demands about emotional responsiveness’ (Kimmel 2010:
2). The evaporation of clear expectations about how to perform manhood led
to male malaise. ‘Authentic masculinity’ responded to this malaise with clearly
defined, high expectations for men.
The daily examinations of conscience were a solitary process of inculcat-
ing oneself in this discipline of active submission. But male missionary life also
valued relationships with other men. ‘Authentic masculinity,’ taught DIRECT,
‘can grow through spending time with other men…who call you to something
deeper.’27 One missionary described how important this was:
[I]t’s all about men! And how to be a man! Everything is about how to be a virtu-
ous man. We need more men to lead…[W]omen can call men to a higher form of
themselves, but only a man can teach a man how to be a man.28
23 DIRECT, Christ-like Leadership for Men, Leader’s Guide, 9.
24 DIRECT, ‘Launched into Leadership,’ (presentation, DIRECT Conference, January 2014).
25 Emmitt Singer, ‘Will you be the Hero of your Life?’ (presentation, DIRECT Conference,
January 2013).
26 During the 2013–14 academic year, thirty-four teams of eighty-three teams had women
team leaders.
27 DIRECT, ‘The Truth About the Sexes: Men’s Edition,’ Video Bible Study, 2013, 2.
28 Josh, interview by author, April 8, 2013, transcript.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
12 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
As the women did, these men relied on other men to learn authentic mascu-
linity. Men built communities of accountability wherein they encouraged each
other to articulate and live up to the expectations of authentic masculinity.
Despite this swagger, these homosocial groups were mired in ambivalence. In
his study of male-only groups of evangelical Christian men in Promise Keepers,
Bartkowski argues that intimate community of men, who shared openly with
one another, threatened to be too emotional (Bartkowski 2000: 43–44). Men
were simultaneously taught to be vulnerable with their ‘brothers in Christ,’ and
to perform as confident leaders (Williams 2001: 9). In their all-male Bible stud-
ies, men confessed their struggles with pornography, sexual impurity, concerns
about dating, and fears about careers. Missionaries learned to hug one another.
But missionaries were also warned against being too emotional. In a presenta-
tion to male missionaries called ‘The Genius of Man,’ the chaplain of DIRECT
instructed, ‘Emotions are a sign of manhood. Christ wept at the sight of Laza-
rus…We cry as well, and it’s part of our humanity. To ignore our emotional life
is to ignore something that enables us to love with compassion and with ten-
derness.’ But in the next breath, he told them that if they are crying too much,
there might be something wrong with them.29 Authentically masculine mission-
aries had to walk a careful balance between becoming a ‘guy’s guy’ while also
being just the right amount of emotionally attuned.
Daily examinations of conscience disciplined what missionaries understood
as men’s natural capacity for action and decision-making. This form of prayer
shaped their subjectivity as authentically masculine – and cultivated men in
their roles as partners with God and leaders of women who submitted to others’
Multiple Submissions
As I set ‘the feminine genius’ alongside ‘authentic masculinity’ in this article,
it becomes clear that Catholic gender formations expected multiple layers and
directions of submission. In both forms of gendering prayer, missionaries worked
to submit to the Vatican’s vision of gender complementarianism, to God, and
to one another. Through prayer journals and daily examinations of conscience,
young men and women articulated their subjectivities as modes of submission.
Missionaries were smart and culturally savvy young adults. They threw black-
light parties, had tattoos, and liked to tailgate college football games. They
did not cultivate submissive dispositions of feminine genius and authentic mas-
culinity because they had no other choice. Instead, they felt like the twenti-
eth-century women’s movement had damaged men’s leadership capacities and
short-changed, rather than liberated, women. I heard story after story about
dating relationships gone bad and the horrors of hook-up culture. Women told
me about absentee fathers, cheating boyfriends, and the traumatizing guilt
of having abortions. Men talked about pornography addictions and the col-
lege party scene. They blamed widespread participation in these things on con-
fused gender roles. Women took control of situations they were not naturally
29 DIRECTEquip, ‘The Genius of Man.’
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17 13
endowed to manage because men refused to step up. Men failed to take on
leadership roles because women were assuming those positions.
From this perspective, the challenges of twenty-first century gender relations
were not things like unequal pay or glass ceilings or patriarchy placing lim-
its on women or assigning men to conscripted roles. The problems were much
more intimate – women forgot to manage their emotions; men made selfish
choices and failed to lead. Frustrated by their experiences of secular gender
equality, these millennials inserted themselves into an alternative vision of
divinely ordained gender essentialist norms, which required multiple forms of
submission. They turned to their prayer practices to learn how to inhabit these
As they embodied these multiple submissions, missionaries participated in
the making of what sociologist Sarah Bracke has called a ‘pious modern.’ A
‘pious modern’ collapses the binary between agency and resistance in inter-
pretations of women (and, I add, men) in religious communities. Missionar-
ies’ expectations of feminine genius and authentic masculinity placed these
Catholics at odds with the college-educated world in which they traversed.
And yet, missionaries were leaders of their peers and self-assured young adults.
Religious actors do not stand outside of the modern world; they participate in
making it. Bracke urges scholars to study ‘the ensemble of modes of percep-
tion, affect, thought, desire, fear…that animate acting subjects’ in order to
more fully study the lives of religious men and women in the modern world
(Bracke 2008: 64).
In my work with these missionaries, that ensemble included a fear of ‘the
world’s’ ’ definition of how men and women ought to co-exist and a desire to
submit to an alternative vision for gender performance. The complementary
gender expectations involved mutually dependent forms of submission. This
submission shaped how missionaries moved in and through the modern world,
not outside of it, as Catholic men and women.
Gendering Prayer, Gendering Millennial Catholics
‘Gendering prayer,’ as an analytic lens, describes how these young adult Catho-
lics learned to embody their gender ideals in and through the modern world.
To reference Butler, their prayers were repeated performances that disciplined
their gender formations. Prayer journals and daily examinations of conscience
enacted ‘the mundane and ritualized form[s]’ whereby the feminine genius and
authentic masculinity could be embodied (Butler 1990: 140). Prayer participated
in the gendering of twenty-first century men and women.
Prayer journals did not draw a straight line from a millennial-generation
Catholic to a woman with feminine genius; nor did daily examinations of con-
science necessarily create authentic masculinity in the men. Rather, these prayers
challenged young men and women to work diligently to embody an essential-
ist gender performance. The construction of subjectivities required on-going
discipline of oneself, within the missionary community, and in relationship with
God. In this way, prayer journals and examinations of conscience instructed and
encouraged gender construction. Thus, prayer both created a space for and
became an act of subjectivity formation.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
14 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
Examining these missionaries’ complementarity through the lens of gender-
ing prayer points to two implications of this case study. First, this work rein-
terprets how women and men thrive in the modern world. Gendering prayer
practices were foundational to how these missionaries negotiated their ability
to flourish in the contemporary world. Missionaries’ prayer journals and exami-
nations of conscience empowered these millennials to reject what they saw as
oppressive expectations of gender equality.
This claim builds on previous work by scholars of religion and gender who
have reinvestigated how ‘illiberal’ women – women who reject feminist ide-
als of gender parity – flourish. For example, Saba Mahmood’s work on Muslim
women in Egypt argues that the force of liberal feminist norms has occluded
the ‘agentival capacity’ of women striving to embody religiously prescribed
gender expectations (Mahmood 2005: 14–15). Women were thriving in ways
unexpected. Instead of rejecting patriarchal norms, some religious women
were ‘retraining sensibilities, affect, desire, and sentiments’ to more fully
align their dispositions to submissive gender prescriptions (Mahmood 2005:
188). The millennial-generation Catholic men and women in my research
were similarly flourishing because of (not in spite of) the rigid gender roles
that they inhabited through training their emotions and affective prayer
Among millennial-generation missionaries, the question of agency – defined
as liberal freedom to act on one’s own autonomous accord and ‘seek[ing] to
locate the political and moral autonomy of the subject in the face of power’ –
proved to be an unproductive framework for interpreting missionaries’ gen-
dered subjectivities (Mahmood 2001: 203). It did not have cache because
missionaries were not seeking autonomy; they did not care about freedom
of choice nor equal positions in boardrooms. Instead, they sought to embody
their interpretation of divinely dictated and papal-blessed gender roles. The
agentic capacities of male and female missionaries emerged within their strict
interpretation of Catholic teaching; not as a rejection of it. These gendering
prayer forms enabled – sometimes demanded – the habits of feminine genius
and authentic masculinity.
Second, gendering prayer also expands scholarly interpretations about the
agents of gender performance. As this case study illustrates, even these very
private prayer forms of prayer journals and examinations of conscience were
never only solitary. They were prayed within (and instructed by) multiple com-
munities – of men, of women, of missionary teams, of Catholic ideology. The
process of becoming these men and women was endlessly excessive, as Butler
articulates: ‘When the ‘I’ seeks to give an account of itself, it can start with
itself, but will find that this self is already implicated in a social temporality that
exceeds its own capacity for narration.’ (Butler 2005: 7). Other Catholics and
papal prescription participated in gendering prayer.
But missionaries also relied on God’s instructions in performing gender.
They interpreted God as partner and guide. Medievalist Amy Hollywood has
recently urged scholars of gender and religion to consider, again, how to
study women’s religious lives. Hollywood points out that ‘the dilemma – how
to take seriously the agency of the other…when the other seems intent on
ascribing her agency to God… – remains unresolved’ (Hollywood 2016: 124).
In this case study, Catholic manhood and Catholic womanhood work required
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17 15
God’s agency. This is not a theological point. Rather, the framework of gen-
dering prayer attunes scholarship of gender construction to the importance
of divine interaction in the lives and prayers of religious actors. This does not
resolve Hollywood’s question, but it does mean that the sources for significa-
tion are expansive. Gender performances draw not only on cultural expecta-
tions and communal compulsions, but also on God at work in these worlds.
The performance of feminine genius celebrated and then tempered what mis-
sionaries understood as women’s ‘natural’ nurturing abilities and their emo-
tionality. Authentic masculinity valued and then trained their understanding of
men’s active nature. These two gender constructions defined Catholic person-
hood through contrasting locations of action and submission. Women’s prayer
journals monitored and disciplined missionaries’ emotional responses to people
and situations. Men’s daily examinations of conscience taught and expected
men to take action in daily life. Through these prayer forms, these millennials
learned how to submit to one another and to the Catholic vision of feminine
genius and authentic masculinity.
Gendering prayers required the endless repetition of norms within the mis-
sionary worldview. As Butler describes this process, male and female mission-
aries were the ‘doers’ who were ‘invariably constructed in and through the
deed’ (Butler 1990: 142). Their subjectivities were prescribed by the Catho-
lic teachings of the popes and by the subculture of DIRECT. However, mis-
sionaries also made (sometimes difficult) choices to excise themselves from
cultural expectations that surrounded them as white, middle class, edu-
cated millennials. Disappointed by their experiences with twenty-first cen-
tury efforts toward gender parity, these millennials prayed their way into
alternative habits of gender performance. As these young men and women
rejected cultural expectations of equal gender roles and secular descriptions
of gender construction, they struggled to embody what they understood as
their divinely inspired gender roles. These missionaries’ gender performances
cannot be understood only as passive participation in the norms provided by
their Catholic ‘social temporality’ (Butler 1990: 140). There was, instead, a
constant negotiation of agency and actions here – between the devout, God,
and the community.
This article proposes gendering prayer as an analytic framework that attends
to the social construction of gender complementarianism, as well as the over-
lapping roles of women’s and men’s and God’s agentic capacities in subjectivity
formation. Gendering prayer created the conditions within which missionaries
to lived and thrived. It was how they flourished and moved within multiple
binaries – between agency and submission; between secular prescriptions for
gender roles and Catholic ideals of gender complementarity; between mission-
ary and God; between men and women. Gendering prayers opened the condi-
tions under which these young men and women could reject social norms and
then worked to inhabit the feminine genius and authentic masculinity in the
contemporary U.S.
Dugan: Gendering Prayer
16 Religion and Gender vol. 7, no. 1 (2017), pp. 1–17
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