If Catholics rally round Church teaching, they can see off the technocratic-liberal Consensus
The Consensus has it out for priestly celibacy and chastity in Catholicism. Which means we the faithful, lay and clerical, are called to rally around these teachings and practices of the Church, to double down on them, to defend them articulately and winsomely. Because at stake is nothing less than the power of divine grace to transform human nature.
But first, as to “the Consensus”. That’s my new preferred term for the liberal-technocratic ideology that has emerged as Christianity’s chief rival – enemy, really – in our time, much as Arianism contended with the faith from roughly the 4th century to the 7th.
The good news: the demands the Consensus makes on the reason and common sense of ordinary people are far more exhausting than any made by the Arian heresy. Which is why it’s a narrow consensus among media-academic-corporate elites.
A decade ago, for example, the Consensus still viewed transgenderism as a mental disorder. Today, it holds that “contrasting transgender people with ‘real’ or ‘biological’ men and women is a false comparison. They are real men and women”, as the Human Rights Campaign puts it. To accept these propositions, you have also to agree that men can have babies and women can have penises. Exhausting, as I say.
The bad news: our elites have ways of helping you conform your reason and common sense to that of the Consensus. Among these are social media algorithms (such as “shadow banning”) that cleverly screen out dissenting views; campus speech codes; senatorial inquisitions (targeting membership in deviant groups such as … the Knights of Columbus); and so on. To fulfil the promise of maximal individual autonomy, particularly in matters sexual and reproductive, the Consensus must, paradoxically, destroy your autonomy.
But not all of the Consensus’s methods are coercive. A gentler method is to relentlessly spotlight the sins of Christians, the aim being to prove that the law of Christ itself must be defective if so many of his followers fail to obey its precepts. The Consensus delights in crowing “Aha! Aha!” whenever Christians, our pastors especially, fall. “Aha! Aha! You can’t live up to your own rules – why not be honest and change them?”
Which brings us to the recent uptick in the war on priestly celibacy and chastity. Last weekend saw the publication of not one but two lengthy articles in the New York Times concerning the allegedly impossible demands the Catholic Church imposes on its ordained members.
One of the two was a typical piece of propaganda masquerading as reportage, to be expected from the Times, one of the leading organs of the Consensus. It profiled several activist priests, who bemoan the “cage” in which the Catholic Church expects them to suppress their homosexual inclinations. The other, about children born to priests who violate their vows with women, was a more serious piece of reporting.
The timing, just as bishops gathered in Rome to discuss the abuse crisis, couldn’t have been accidental. The article on children born to priests wondered out loud, for example, “whether it is time to make the requirement optional, as it is in other Christian churches”. The other article, on gay priests, closed with a quote from one of them, a Fr Gregory Greiten, musing: “What if every priest was truly allowed to live their life freely, openly, honestly? That’s my dream.”
If that dream means dispensing with the Church’s sacred traditions, then may it never become reality. Fr Thomas Petri, of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, responded to Fr Greiten et al on Twitter: “ ‘Being gay’ and ‘coming out’ may seem to you, Father, as being true to your authentic self, but that’s contrary to your ordination, which makes your authentic self a person in persona Christi in the service of the people of God.” If you can’t act in persona Christi, Fr Petri added, “leave the priesthood”.
Fr Petri, and other faithful priests like him, are a reminder that the Church still has many strong barriers against the intrusions of the Consensus. Then, too, we’ve been through all this before, in dealing with theological rivals more potent than technocratic liberalism. The Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos had to defend celibacy for the sake of the kingdom in his famous debates with a Persian Muslim scholar.
“The extraordinary and supernatural things [such as celibacy] that, you say, are beyond human virtue because they seem to you above human nature,” Manuel II tells his Muslim interlocutor, “are merely beyond a man. On the other hand, they are very accessible and easy for men, if they wish. That may seem to you like a puzzle, but it is completely the truth. If we consider our strength, or rather our weakness inherited from Adam, these points may seem above every virtue, but not when you consider the support and power of him who calls us to them. He doesn’t encourage men in order to abandon them without his aid, but invisibly the hand of God helps them with their actions.”
To abandon priestly celibacy and chastity, and thus reject the aid “of him who calls us to them”, would be to trade a divine birthright for a mess of pottage.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the just-published memoir, From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)