Joseph, Francis, and a Church Open To Alternative Masculinities: The Solemnity of the Feast of Saint Joseph

“When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” (Matthew 1:24A)

"The Holy Family With a Little Bird" by Murillo
“The Holy Family With a Little Bird” by Murillo

Two years ago today, on the solemnity of the feast of St. Joseph, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was installed as the first Roman Catholic pope named Francis. His election and pontificate—and the circumstances surrounding them—are widely regarded as historic shifts in tone and organizational structure. With Francis at the helm of this ecclesial ship, one sees his desire for, in his own words, “a church that is poor and for the poor.” In his installation mass homily, Pope Francis cites Pope John Paul II’s 1989 apostolic exhortation Redemptoris custos, acknowledging Joseph as the custos, the guardian, of Jesus and Mary and with them the entire Church.[1] Francis invokes Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, as a model for all Christians in how they ought to live out their Christian vocations: by caring and protecting those entrusted to us, those who are most vulnerable. Echoing John Paul II’s development of Joseph’s redemptive role in the story of salvation, Francis sees Joseph’s life calling out to Christians to nurture the redeeming love of God in their lives to that they might better serve the divine by serving others: “Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!”[2]

Without reifying notions of masculinities that see men as de jure and de facto protectors of the weak and vulnerable, calcifying binary essentialist conceptions of maleness and femaleness, or assuming the common trope that all men want to be fathers[3], we can see with John Paul II that Joseph is for Christians a model who breaks paradigms of patriarchal domination within families. Joseph as an example of an alternative masculinity, while not uncomplicated, bears fruit for feminists who seek to mine the tradition for examples of male figures who foster kinship, care, and community in the praxis of God’s kin-dom. In her paradigmatic work, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, theologian and member of the Josephite order, argues that when male images for the divine are used exclusively, literally, and patriarchally, it diminishes not only women but also men, particularly those who do not fit the classical Western cultural paradigm that men are by nature rational, dispassionate, powerful, singular leaders.[4] In She Who Is, Johnson asks how to speak rightly of God in the face of women’s suffering and in doing so offers feminine images for the divine drawn from scripture, highlighting Sophia, the feminine personification of God’s wisdom. I offer that, germane to the project of such explicitly feminist theologizing is the work of liberating masculinities from the same idolatries and attendant views of the human person that would see God as exclusively, literally, and patriarchally male.

The Holy Family
The Holy Family

One of the most significant ways in which Joseph bucks the reins of classical masculinities is the corporate nature of his life’s work: he alone shares with Mary a unique role in God’s redemptive plan as members of the family of Jesus, as parents and partners. This view, along with recent attention to proclaiming married couples and parents and children as saints (c.f., the canonization causes of the parents and sister of St. Therese of Lisieux)[5], reflects a growing trend to recognize in new ways an ancient truth of the Christian faith: salvation does not happen alone but is a communal, corporate, and historic event. Salvation and liberation require new ways of knowing people and the divine across boundaries. With Joseph we can begin to imagine fresh symbols for understanding gender expression in our day.

By lifting up Joseph as a model alternative masculinity, the Church acknowledges there can be many ways of being a man for whom care, egalitarian kinship, and relationality are central to one’s life. Such work is already being done by African theologians addressing HIV/AIDS on their continent by engaging Jesus, Joseph, and Jairus as such examples of alternative masculinities.[6] Despite even recent landmark events in Church-Women relations, such as the Voices of Faith event held in the Vatican on International Women’s Day[7], the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis himself still have a ways to go in doing justice to the humanity of women.[8] While that work is ongoing, Josephology may provide a helpful entry point into the larger ecclesial conversations on gender expression and gender as a social construct by drawing on something the church has traditionally done very well: acknowledging Joseph as the humble and loving father and worker who helped to make the future possible for his family.  Who knows?  Maybe even one day the Roman Catholic Church will have its first pope named Joseph and the meaning of the historical Joseph’s life will be renewed in the hearts and minds of Catholics and the wider world.

[1] John Paul II, Apostolic exhortation “Redemptoris custos” (15 August 1989); Available online at

[2] Francis, “Homily of Pope Francis” from Mass, Imposition of the Pallium and Bestowal of the Fisherman’s Ring for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome, 19 March 2013; Available online at

[3] You know, you’re right: that stereotype doesn’t hold when transferred to the dominant gender.

[4] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).

[5] Cindy Wooden, “Pope Francis recognizes miracle needed in order to declare French couple saints” Catholic News Service (18 March 2015); Available online

[6] See Ezra Chitando and Sophie Chirongoma, eds. “Redemptive Masculinities: Men, HIV, and Religion,” World Council of Churches Publications, 2012); Available online file:///Users/christine/Downloads/RedemptiveMasculinities.pdf.

[7] Christine Schenk, “Women Speak Up About Equality in the Church,” National Catholic Reporter (12 March 2015); Available online

[8] Candida Moss and Joel Baden, “Pope Francis’ woman problem” Los Angeles Times (7 December 2014); Available online