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The Friendship-Deficit Syndrome May 01, 2004

Father C. John McCloskey III

Not too long after a glorious liturgical event in St. Peter’s Square, I went out to lunch in the Piazza Navona with several American couples. During our conversation and enjoyment of Italian pasta, I took a close look at the next table. There was a group of seven or eight Italian men who were eating, drinking vino rosso, and engaging in boisterous conversation, clearly enjoying themselves. I got the impression that this was not a singular event but rather one of frequent meetings of long-time close friends. For some reason it seemed strange to me, and at the same time appealing.

Now I am not encouraging the ideal of men whiling away the hours with wine and song while their wives slave away with the cleaning and the cooking. However, upon reflection in the weeks afterward, I realized that the strangeness I felt on witnessing that scene came about because I rarely, if ever, encounter similar scenes in my own country. Virtually the only time I see groups of men meeting together on a regular basis is in front of a television—at home or at a bar or restaurant—watching a sporting event. The drink is there (beer rather than wine); the food is there (stacked sandwiches rather than pasta) but something is missing. More often than not, they are enjoying not each other, but rather the game. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying sports, together, whether as participants or as spectators. Nor is there anything wrong with most of the other hobbies and social activities that American men enjoy together. Still there often seems to be a deeper dimension of friendship that is missing.

Suddenly, as I reflected on my observations, there came to my mind a suspicion that there is a heretofore-undiagnosed disease common among American men—a disease that could be responsible in part for some of our societal ills, and could even be a grave deterrent to an effective new evangelization in our country. I have named this disease the Friendship Deficit Syndrome (FDS).

The purpose of this essay is twofold. First, I mean to describe some of the causes and symptoms of the syndrome, and offer some possible therapy. Second, I hope to offer some background on the importance of friendship, both human and supernatural, as a principal means of spreading the Gospel of Christ. We need to work out a new and better approach to developing friendships in America: an approach that is precisely American and respects the strength of American culture. This article is meant to provoke the reader to offer his own suggestions and solutions, because I believe we Americans are all facing a serious problem.


Friendship, for a Christian, can be an effective form of evangelization. In this context, evangelization means simply sharing our relationship with Christ—cultivated through prayer, meditation on Holy Scripture, and the sacraments—with our friends. This entails a friendship that is sincere and authentic, and certainly does not look upon friendship as a tool. Friendship is, and in a natural way must be recognized as, an end in itself. There are many examples in history and in literature of admirable friendships, and these examples do not necessarily involve religious faith. However friendship can be can be uplifted and supernaturalized when it reaches its highest level in sharing the ultimate good: God himself. To introduce or re-introduce Jesus Christ to another man is the greatest good of human friendship.

Throughout the history of the Church, starting with our Lord himself, Christianity has been spread principally through the one-on-one encounters that (along with procreation) have caused the Church to grow, so that the early Church of the 12 apostles now embraces 1 billion Catholics today. But we cannot rest. There are still billions more people waiting to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and his Church.

I hope that this article will help readers to understand the Friendship Deficit Syndrome and how damaging it can be for the human and supernatural development of men’s personalities. With time, self-knowledge and God’s help, if need be, men can be cured of it. They will be holier, happier, and more apostolic.

As you can see, I am addressing men, particularly Catholic men. But women who care about men—mothers, sisters, wives, and prospective wives—are encouraged to take a peek. After all, they should take strong interest in the true Christian manliness of the males in their lives. Their own livelihood and happiness, and that of their children, may depend on the ability of the men they love to cope with the increasingly perilous culture in which we find ourselves.

Women must remember that before the Christian faith exerted its influence on the laws and morals in the ancient world of the Mediterranean, wives and children were often viewed as mere chattel at the absolute disposal of the paterfamilias—to the point that the man often assumed the right to put unsatisfactory women and children to death. Those ancient attitudes are not completely dead, even today; there is similar treatment of women and children still on display in some cultures. This sort of tyranny could repeat itself even in Western cultures, or we might see the development of new forms of what Pope John Paul II has called the “new totalitarianism" which increasingly envelops us in the West. The witness of strong men, willing to be confessors and martyrs for their faith, may be best possible protection for marriage and the family.

Moreover, in coping with the Friendship Deficit Syndrome, wives can play an important role by encouraging their husbands to spend more time with their friends. In today’s society there always will be tensions in balancing work, family, and social life. Those women who work outside the home and still have to take care of the domestic chores understandably want their husbands home as much as possible in the evenings and on weekends. However, if a wife insists that the husband always be at home when he is not at work, she may be denying him the opportunity to make himself a better husband and father—and at the same depriving other men of the good example and influence her husband could provide. Although friendship is always personal, a wife should desire that her husband have the opportunity to make as many friends as she has.


The FDS actually may be among the causes of what is perhaps the greatest plague affecting modern-day American society: loneliness. The causes of this plague are multiple: small families (brought about through contraception and abortion); absent fathers and mothers (attributable in large part to legalized divorce and to the pressure for women to work outside the home as a result of a tax system that does not favor the family); frequent family moves that bring about a lack of stability and loss of touch with one’s roots (attributable to individuals and corporations that rate economic profits more highly than family concerns); a tendency to value material possessions above human relationships; the worship of youth. This disorder is indeed grave.

As one author put it some years ago, “the average American male has one good friend, and that is his wife.” Anyone who has spent an appreciable time in a country with a Catholic cultural background (regardless of the current level of religious practice in that country) should notice that American men have been deeply affected by the overwhelmingly Protestant culture of our own past, with its emphasis on individualism. There is a very powerful image of the strong, isolated male figure in American culture: the autonomous adventurer who rides off into the sunset, fleeing the confines of civilized life; the man who hides his private feelings behind a crusty exterior, impervious to forces outside him; the man who is ultimately answerable only to his own conscience.

Of course there is also another, very different popular image of the American man: the shallow, fast-talking, "man on the make," constantly ogling women and looking for a way to make a fast buck. His every thought is known, perhaps because he has so few and they are spoken out loud. Now I exaggerate somewhat here to make my point, but I think these two cultural images can be readily recognized. In fact they are embodied in two icons of American films in the 20th century, John Wayne and Bob Hope. (It is interesting that both actors happily ended their days by asking for reception into the Catholic Church.)

Now when I criticize the image of the autonomous male, I hope it is understood that I am not trying to turn the average American Catholic male into a slobbering, emotive, weakling. A healthy man must grow in, maintain, and practice all the masculine virtues that we find in nature and that are augmented by the effects of supernatural grace. He should glory in all that makes him truly virile. In short I am not turning around the question made famous by Henry Higgins to ask, “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?” I am simply (I don’t say it is easy) saying that the very definition of what it means to be a Catholic man should include the capacity to “make a sincere gift of self”— to use the phrase from the Second Vatican most often quoted by that exemplary model of Catholic manhood, Pope John Paul II. This “gift of self" is made primarily in holy matrimony, but it is made as well in the male friendships that he has throughout the course of his life.


Apart from their participation in the more rugged sports (and even that traditionally male enclave is now subject to feminine encroachment), many young men have relatively little opportunity to enjoy exclusively male company. The decline in single-sex colleges and high schools, together with the shrinking of such former bastions of American boyhood as the Boy Scouts, have made it more difficult to form deep and lasting friendships from an early age. Many formerly all-male clubs and fraternal associations are now open to women. Even the military services have come to be increasingly integrated (with sometimes disastrous results, including a great relaxation of discipline and esprit de corps, and the sexual promiscuity that prudent observers should have recognized as inevitable). It has also become increasingly rare for a man to work for only one or two employers in the course of his career. As a result it is less likely that his fellow workers will become and remain close friends, and more likely that they may be seen as competitors for continued employment or advancement. Finally, the extraordinary mobility of the contemporary American family—ready to relocate from coast to coast and state to state in response to economic forces—can cost a man the time he needs to form and sustain the neighborhood relationships that turn into friendship.

As things stand today, for many Catholic men “friendship” can mean a largely artificial tie, based on a common interest in beer, cars, sports, hunting, fishing, or even an unhealthy interest in the pursuit of young women. (In fact I hesitate to use the word "friendship" to describe this relationship; would "acquaintance" be a better term?) A real male friendship is a deep and lasting bond that goes to the very core of what a man is or can be.

To complicate matters still further, in today's society many male relationships are openly homosexual, based on the use of each other as objects of pleasure. Many forms of public entertainment—films, television, and the theater—have accepted homosexuality as normal, and begun to portray heterosexual males as fools who love under the sway of domineering women. One of the many unhappy side effects of this open public perversion is the fact that when any small group of adult males is seen together, at least in some urban centers, they are assumed to be homosexuals.

At the same time, the growing number of young American men who come from broken families—where a man has cast off his wife—suffer from the absence of virtuous male role models. The enormous defection from the Catholic priesthood over the last 30 years and the ensuing sex-abuse scandals have also played a role in undermining strong male friendships. Having been disillusioned by paternal abandonment, or the example of priests' infidelity to their vocation, they find themselves incapable of giving or receiving the trust and healthy affection that is essential to forming deep and lasting friendships.

These, in brief, are some of the causes and symptoms of FDS.


Before considering a cure, we should give at least some quick consideration to the essence of friendship, how the ancients saw it, and how it became elevated by Christianity to a still greater good that is a necessary and natural means of evangelization.

Friendship, of course, is a natural good in itself, inasmuch as man is a social creature. "It is not good for man to be alone.” That Biblical observation applies not only to marriage but also to man's relationships with his fellow men. Any human person, formed in the image of Holy Trinity, exists in relation to others and indeed is defined by his relationships. For the vast majority of men, aside from his marriage and his family, the most important relationships will be friendships with other men. (There can also be forms of friendship between men and women outside marriage, but for the man committed to a life of apostolic celibacy or for a man already committed to one woman, these friendships normally have to maintain a certain distance and reserve.)

We might say that friendship is a social relation that is distinguished by mutual affection. Love does not necessarily demand reciprocity, but friendship requires it. It takes two to form a friendship. The bond thus formed without question represents one of the most noble aspects of human life; it both presupposes and fosters other human virtues, such as selfless giving, understanding, compassion, and the spirit of collaboration. True friendship carries with it an “exchange of gifts.” John Paul II has also used this expression to describe “dialogue"—which, he reminds us, is one of the principal means of creating a friendship. There can be no friendship without communication—normally a simple conversation of some sort, verbal or written.

Two of the greatest writers of classical antiquity placed the highest value on human friendship. Aristotle tells us in the Nicomachean Ethics: "Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods... it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend of many people; love ideally is an excess of friendship and that can be felt towards only one person; therefore great friendship too can be felt towards few people." Yet Aristotle could not imagine how the added power of divine grace would enable men such as the saints, to love each other with the infinite power of the heart of Christ.

Cicero, in his treatise On Friendship, tells us, “Friendship can only exist between good men. For there is nothing more loveable than virtue,” and also, "I can only advise you to prefer friendship to all other things within human attainment.”

The Christian philosophers and theologians also speak to us of the importance of friendship. St. Augustine tells us in a startlingly direct way, “No one can be known for who he is except through the friends he has.” St. Augustine’s mentor, St. Ambrose, says that “a friendship that can end was never a real friendship." St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, writing in his treatise On Charity, tells us: “Perfect friendship is not directed toward many... but inasmuch as friendship toward one becomes more perfect as regards that one, the more perfect the love we have toward one, the better we are able to love others.” He also adds, in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, “It is proper of a friend to do good to his friends, principally to those most in need."