The Forgotten Vice of “Effeminacy”: What St. Thomas Aquinas Says in His Summa

Public Domain, Wikipedia

“Effeminacy” in men is a vice. Or at least it used to be considered as such.

Grab a copy of the great St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and open it up to II-II, question 138, article 1. The topic is: “Whether effeminacy is opposed to perseverance?”

First, he explains what he means by “perseverance,” namely when “a man does not forsake a good on account of long endurance of difficulties and toils.” In other words, the virtue of perseverance is when you don’t give up doing something good just because it gets difficult!

By Thomas’ understanding, the vice of “effeminacy” is the opposite, namely when a man is “ready to forsake a good on account of difficulties which he cannot endure.” He explains further: “This is what we understand by effeminacy, because a thing is said to be ‘soft’ if it readily yields to the touch.”

Now, if you thought effeminacy was associated with homosexuality, then you anticipated one of the objections he includes.

The first objection quotes Scripture and a traditional gloss:

“It seems that effeminacy is not opposed to perseverance. For a gloss on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, ‘Nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind,’ expounds the text thus: ‘Effeminate—i.e. obscene, given to unnatural vice.’ But this is opposed to chastity. Therefore effeminacy is not a vice opposed to perseverance.”

And here’s how Thomas responds:

“This effeminacy is caused in two ways. On one way, by custom: for where a man is accustomed to enjoy pleasures, it is more difficult for him to endure the lack of them. On another way, by natural disposition, because, to wit, his mind is less persevering through the frailty of his temperament. This is how women are compared to men, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 7): wherefore those who are passively sodomitical are said to be effeminate, being womanish themselves, as it were.”

In other words, the connection to homosexuality is only one possible meaning of “effeminacy.” But Thomas wants to make it broader to moral “softness” in general.

He also points out that some men can be soft due to habit, others due to natural disposition. But either way, all men are called to build the virtue of perseverance.

One might object to a vice being compared to one of the sexes! Women are of course also called to the virtue of perseverance. The point is that women are naturally both physically and in temperament generally “softer” than men. This is good for women. But when a man acts “soft,” given that men are naturally more “hard” both physically and in temperament, then it’s a particularly bad thing for the man.

In other words, men should act manly! Hard to disagree with that.

So what do you think? Do we need to bring back an understanding of the vice of effeminacy in the Church today?

[See also: “Poison in the Bloodstream of the Church”: Robert George Nails the Heart of the Sex Scandals]

[See also: The American Church Is on Fire and Has Been for Decades: A Priest Writes What He Really Thinks]