Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Quick Hits: religious freedom and the limits of politics; the priest as a man set apart

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 03, 2017

In an excellent National Review article, Ryan Anderson explains why the political battle over same-sex marriage will continue—with dangerous implications for religious liberty—even though according to conventional wisdom the issue has been decided. All fifty US states now recognize same-sex unions, and there’s no realistic prospect for changing that reality in the foreseeable future. So why should the battle continue? Anderson observes that the sexual revolutionaries now intend to “weaponize” the new status of marriage: to force Christians (and others) to accept their new definition of marriage.

It’s a perceptive essay, which should be read in its entirety. But I call attention to just one of several good points that Anderson makes:

As Maggie Gallagher has noted numerous times, social conservatives have largely ignored actual politics. We talk about politics and we litigate to keep the courts from deciding issues against us, but we rarely engage in the actual electoral and political process.

Amen. As the essay shows, in this case the political process requires not only backing candidates for office, but also putting public pressure on the large corporations that have, to date, sided almost exclusively with the campaign for radical change. Why? Because corporate executives fear that if they offend the “gender lobby,” they’ll risk damage to their brand; if they offend Christians and other social conservatives, they won’t suffer adverse consequences.

As a follow-up to the Anderson essay, see Ross Douthat’s New York Times column on the Civilta Cattolica “ecumenism of hate” article. Like every other intelligent reader, Douthat remarks that the Spadaro-Figueroa shows a woeful ignorance of American politics. Still he finds the essay “important as well as incoherent,” because in spite of themselves the authors touch on an essential question about the relationship between Catholic faith and secular liberalism. For several generations Catholics—especially in Europe—have grown accustomed to working within the context of a liberal democratic secular order. Today in the US some Catholics and Evangelicals are questioning that consensus. Douthat argues:

What Spadaro and Figueroa do not grasp is that the tendencies that they see at work in American Catholicism, the religious votes for the cheerfully pagan Trump and the growing interest in traditionalism, radicalism and separatism, are not the culmination of the Catholic-evangelical alliance but rather a reaction to its political and cultural failures — and the failures of liberal religious politics as well.

If Douthat is right (and Spadaro-Figueroa are wrong, which is a safe bet), then the Civilta Cattolica essay is based on a vision of the Church as “a moderate pillar of the establishment in a stable and permanently liberal age.” Ironically, Douthat argues, these close advisers to Pope Francis are far more inclined to defend the status quo than the “conservatives” they denounce.

Not every important public issue is political: a truth that is underlined by Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow in a thought-provoking meditation on the priesthood that appears in First Things. Mention the priesthood to most people, the archbishop remarks, and they will think first about celibacy. “The world’s focus on celibacy is short-sighted, but it reflects a correct spiritual intuition. Celibacy is a powerful sign of being set apart.”

But look beyond the issue of celibacy, Archbishop Tartaglia urges his readers. “Priests are consecrated and set apart—this is fundamental to the priesthood. It means we invariably embody the scandal and the allure of the divine.” So the real question is: For what purpose are priests set apart? For the ministry of the sacraments. For the service of the altar. For the Eucharist.

Why are we facing a shortage of priests in the western world? A significant part of the problem lies in the fact that we don’t treat our priests as men who are consecrated and set apart. Too often we see them (and worse, they see themselves) as ordinary men like us, who happen to play a different role in the parish. For that unfortunate way of thinking, Archbishop Tartaglia provides a useful antidote.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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