"It's nothing new." That's the judgment widely expressed in response to the instruction from Rome excluding from the seminary and priesthood men who engage in, or are deemed likely to engage in, homosexual acts. It is nothing new. The teaching is as old as the Church herself, but the sense of urgency and the context is new. The instruction might be paraphrased as saying, "And this time we mean it!"
The days of wink and nod are past. A few bishops and seminary authorities who have a reputation of being "gay-friendly" have already indicated their hostility to the new document. There is room, inevitably, for prudential judgments, and some will abuse that by looking for loopholes.
But the context of the sex abuse scandals has put the fear of the Lord into the leaders of the Church. One might say that it is more the fear of trial lawyers, an adversarial press, local prosecutors, and insurance companies, but they are, in Catholic parlance, "secondary causes" in inducing a greater fear of the Lord. God works in mysterious ways . . .
Will the instruction result in a collapse of priestly vocations? Only if you believe vocations depend upon the three percent of the male population that identifies itself as gay or is afflicted with strong or exclusive same-sex attraction. The instruction will, I expect, make the priesthood more attractive to those who are in the other 97 percent of men and who discern a call to the priesthood, which includes the admittedly difficult discipline of chaste celibacy.
These questions will, of course, be examined in greater detail in the pages of FIRST THINGS.
William F. Buckley, Jr., turned 80 on Thanksgiving Day. George Will concludes his encomium with this: "Buckley, so young at 80, was severely precocious at 7 when he wrote a starchy letter to the king of England demanding payment of Britain's war debts. Seventy-three years on, Buckley's country is significantly different, and better, because of him. Of how many journalists, ever, can that be said? One."
I'm not sure there is only one. There is William Hazlitt, for instance, and G.K. Chesterton, who described himself as a working journalist although, like Buckley, he authored much else that hardly fits in the category of journalism. And I'm in a minority that might include Walter Lippman on the list. But Bill Buckley is surely one of the very few.
Last week there was a big and fancy bash for Bill's birthday at the Pierre Hotel. Father George Rutler was in fine form, delivering what eventually turned out to be something like an invocation. (His remarks are on the National Review website.) John O'Sullivan, who more or less succeeded Bill as the second editor of NR, was graciously witty, as were many others who spoke between videos of highlights of Bill's life lived at cruising speed. The evening was very ably emceed by Christopher Buckley, son of Bill and Pat.
I was seated beside Priscilla Buckley, who is my candidate for the most charmingly hard-nosed woman in the world. She has recently published a memoir, Living It Up With National Review, which is aptly described as "revels with a cause." She concluded her remarks by describing Bill as "my lifelong boss and best friend."
Everybody who knows Bill Buckley speaks of his gift for friendship. I first got to know him when I was viewed as a man of the Left. In an essay in the now-defunct Worldview magazine, I criticized something he had said about the civil rights movement. He got in touch to complain, ever so gently, that I had misquoted him. He was right.
After that, I was many times on his television show, "Firing Line," and served several years as religion editor of National Review. That position has been vacant since then, which may be a reflection of the quality of my service.
The story of Bill's life is inextricably tied to the story of what is called the conservative movement. The fantasies of Garry Wills and others aside, I have never thought of myself as an agent of the conservative movement. Although I am usually described as a conservativeor, as some prefer, a neoconservativeI am still a registered Democrat. Apart from an occasional New York primary, I don't vote Democratic very often. As I explain to friends, you can't go along with the party on everything.
FIRST THINGS pays relatively little attention to electoral politics. We are not a political magazine. But I am aware that the intellectual arguments made in its pages are generally viewed as impinging upon that many-faceted, and sometimes many-splendored, thing that is the conservative movement, a movement that is inexplicable apart from the labors of William F. Buckley, Jr.
I don't know whether the Pierre Hotel will be there ten years from now, but, if I'm still around, I look forward to the bash celebrating Bill's 90th and NR's 60th, for which an appropriate spot will no doubt be found.
Among the many other benefits in being a subscriber to FIRST THINGS is that you receive the annual appeal that is now in the mail. Consider the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping to support a very lean enterprise that is reaching hundreds of thousands of readers (although, alas, we do not have hundreds of thousands of subscribers). Gifts may be sent to the address given at the "Contact Us" button above.
I will be speaking Monday, November 28, on "The Catholic Politician" at the Church of St. Thomas More, 65 East 89th Street in Manhattan. 7:15pm. Admission free.