In a recent essay about the German theologian Romano Guardini, I read this quote: “As long as men are unable to control themselves from within … they will inevitably be ‘organized’ by forces from without.”

Appropriately enough, it is from Guardini’s “The End of the Modern World.” Written in the 20th century, it would certainly be an apt epigram for “Brave New World” or “1984” or other predictions of dystopia of that era.

But it made me think of a very 21st-century problem in our country: The problem of men. Men and boys, actually.

The statistics about the decline of my gender are now commonplace and ubiquitous. There are fewer young men than young women at the top of their class, and more young men at the bottom. We are told that fewer young men are going to college, going to law school, going to medical school. Men kill themselves at four times the rate of women. They are far more likely to die of “deaths of despair,” suicide, or drug overdoses.

Too many of my gender seem increasingly rootless, unfocused, unable to make a commitment. And if we were raised without a father or father figure in our family, it is much more likely to impact us negatively than our sisters.

Books and articles are coming fast and furious on this topic. One article even bemoaned the lack of sexual activity among young men, because sex, it argued, leads to relationships, which leads to marriage, which leads to stability. This decline of sexual activity isn’t due to a rediscovery of the virtue of chastity, but rather to a lack of interest in the work of dating or relationships. I know of at least two professors at Catholic colleges who are holding seminars on how to date, but the complaints of young women suggest it is still pretty slim pickings on the dating scene and only gets worse as time passes.

The solutions are as varied as the problems. In our increasingly gender-fluid society, some would suggest a reversal of the “My Fair Lady” dictum: Why can’t a man be more like a woman? The obvious excesses that are labeled “toxic masculinity” suggest the solution lies in a retreat from masculine stereotypes. Others go in the opposite direction, encouraging a more aggressive or martial masculinity, a nostalgia for the “king in his castle” days. There’s even the self-pitying Incel movement, angry young men who describe themselves as “involuntarily celibate.”

All of which brings me back to Guardini’s quote. “As long as men are unable to control themselves from within … they will inevitably be ‘organized’ by forces from without.”

If men, young or old, are bereft of discipline, virtue or at least some self-control, then others are willing to take advantage. These days, the forces that seek to organize from without are often nothing more than entertainment and distraction. Porn replaces relationships. Gambling and gaming replace adventure and accomplishment. Political movements also exploit the male drift, offering community, identity, and purpose in the service of radically simplistic ideological causes. Proud boys, loud boys, but not men.

Perhaps we are simply seeing the end times of a self-indulgent market economy. John Steinbeck, in a letter to Adlai Stevenson, wrote: “If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much, and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.” To which we might add, divided, resentful, and self-obsessed.

Too many of us are miserable, sick with consumerism and self-indulgence. The uber-rich buy themselves a one-way tourist ticket to take pictures of the Titanic or ride a billionaire’s rocket into space, while too many of their fellow citizens struggle to make ends meet or give up trying.

A couple I know who were concerned about their son and his future life goals went to a counselor. The counselor told them: If your children have books in the house and both parents live with them, they already have a huge leg up.

That is how low the bar is set these days.

The Church has always taken its role in the formation of the family and the next generation seriously. It bolstered families and created community and provided role models in parishes and youth movements. It held up ideals of fortitude and prudence, of saintly heroism or lives dedicated to serving others. Today, in many places, the Church seems weary and divided, distrusted and distrustful in the culture it finds itself adrift in.

Yet the Church is the guardian of the virtues and the values that are now in short supply, a shortage that is impacting the Church itself.

We need to create a new culture of masculine virtues, not nostalgic, not toxic, but ennobling, self-controlled, and self-sacrificing. Our boys need worthy models of masculinity if they are ever themselves to become men.