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There is the ameliorative left and then there is the transformative left. The former wants to work for reform that is possible, while the latter will settle for nothing less than everything and therefore ends up with nothing. This is the argument of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in Nation of Rebels , a book discussed by William Voegeli in the Claremont Review of Books . Voegeli writes:

To express this hope, however, is to extinguish it. If, back when the problems were easy, the transformative Left’s constituents disdained the dull, necessary efforts needed to secure dull, necessary improvements, is it plausible they’ll get serious now, when everything is more complicated and less rewarding? Complex problems are apt to make greater political engagement both more necessary and less likely.

The 2004 election results triggered dismay and incredulity across the Left. Liberals have begun saying, " We’ve got to get serious." A 2004 article in the radical journal LiP , for instance, echoed the Nation of Rebels thesis: the Left has been undone by its own "activistism," an ideology combining "moral zeal" with "political illiteracy." The antiwar movement, for example, understands "success" to mean that "actions take place, conferences are planned, new people become activists," even though "it’s no longer clear what war we’re protesting." Details, details. "[It] turned out to be important to have something to say to skeptics who asked: ‘What’s your alternative?’"

Is an ameliorative Left possible? Heath and Potter are participants in an interesting experiment. If liberals’ self-marginalizing narcissism is an accidental quality, one that can be cut away to leave behind a stronger determination to enact a better reform agenda, their efforts might succeed. If it’s an essential attribute that can’t be removed without killing the patient, then the task is hopeless.

For conservatives, the easy part is to agree with the book’s devastating critique of countercultural inanities. The hard part is to know what to think of its authors’ political project. A serious Left could be: a welcome change from the gassy self-righteousness of the transformative Left; a newly formidable adversary; or people one can do business with, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s remark about Mikhail Gorbachev. Of course, a serious Left may turn out, instead, to be simply impossible—a contradiction in terms.

Father Raymond de Souza, chaplain at Queen’s University and a frequent F IRST T HINGS contributor, offers additional and insightful comment on the much-discussed instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education:

Even more to the point, a man would not be ordained if he was known to have a girlfriend on the side. There are some ordained priests who do in fact have mistresses or girlfriends. While it constitutes a grave sin and a source of scandal, we know from experience that some of those priests do outstanding work and are praised for the fruits of their ministry. But the fact that such priests might also do good work does not mean that priestly candidates should not be held to the standard of celibate chastity.

The false criticism that the Instruction constituted an attack on the good work done by "gay priests" was made by Andrew Sullivan in a dramatic fashion. He posted on his website the famous photograph of Fr. Mychal Judge at the World Trade Centre, adding a caption to the effect that Pope Benedict had judged Fr. Judge’s work to be of no social value because he was gay (a matter about which there are competing claims).

I have a certain attachment to that photograph myself. It hangs in my office. In fact, I ordered several copies and had them framed as ordination gifts for my classmates. In the photograph I saw a priest who emptied himself to the very end. I thought it Providentially important that the first registered death at the World Trade Center was that of a Catholic priest. The photograph, so evocative of the deposition from the Cross, spoke vividly about the priest acting in persona Christi .

Mr. Sullivan sees a gay man first. I saw a priest. I didn’t even know that some claimed he was gay when I ordered the photograph. When I discovered that afterwards, it did not change my mind about the value of the photograph, or of Fr. Judge’s witness. To say that this Instruction puts that in question is tendentious.

Tendentious is one of several words that come to mind. But then, Father de Souza is very much a gentleman.

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