One of the sad things about writing my annual contribution to the First Things end-of-year appeal is that there is always some news headline that indicates why the print magazine and its online content are important. And this year is no exception, with the news that a Roman Catholic priest in Wisconsin has come out as gay, to a standing ovation from his parishioners.
Debates about whether or not same-sex attraction is sinful rage on in Christian circles—but that is not what interests me in this story. Rather, I am interested in the blithe way in which many of the present age’s heterodoxies concerning human personhood are widely accepted as normative.
For starters, the fact that the sentence “I am gay” means anything at all when uttered by a man who has made a promise of celibacy points to a profound shift in the significance our society accords to sex. What can it mean for a celibate man to come out as gay? Indeed, what would it mean if he had come out as heterosexual? Or bisexual? Or asexual? No longer is sex something you do. Nowadays, it is something you are. Indeed, it is the most important element of who you are. It is foundational, such that other ties can be sacrificed to it when they start to inhibit it. This is a dramatic and relatively recent change in the meaning of sex and the nature of identity, one that needs to be examined and critiqued.
That brings me to the second problem. The idea that I am what I think I am—or perhaps more precisely, what I feel I am—lies at the heart of the modern concept of personhood, and is on full display here. To deny that this priest is who and what he thinks he is would be, in his words, to prevent him from “liv[ing] in truth and authenticity.”
But it is, of course, more complicated than that. He did not receive a standing ovation simply for revealing his innermost convictions about his identity to the watching world. He received a standing ovation for disclosing a sexual orientation that is regarded in the present age as a virtue in itself, almost the definition of “authenticity.” Had he declared another identity—say, that he was a passionate collector of string, or someone who had voted for Donald Trump in order to make America great again—it is doubtful that he would have received an ovation, let alone favorable coverage in the national media. Similarly, people who dump spouses and children to run off with a same-sex lover are rarely presented by the media as delinquent and irresponsible. They are more often heralded as heroes of the truth, and as courageously breaking with a life of lying to themselves and others.
The priest’s language of “authenticity” is as significant as it is predictable. Though no doubt well-intentioned, it is newspeak, deceiving both the priest and those he addresses. “Authenticity” is one of those trendy words which embody the fashionable piety of the postmodern ethos (a bit like “journey,” which also makes an appearance that is as unsurprising as it is irritating). Those who use such clichés may think that “authenticity” is about being true to oneself while on one’s personal “journey”—but really it isn’t. It’s about conforming to the canons of contemporary cultural taste. Tragically, this priest, in his no doubt genuine desire to help his parishioners, has chosen to operate within the framework of personhood and ethics that fosters the very problems he hopes to address. He has not done what a Christian should do: offer a prophetic counter-voice to the aesthetics of the politics of recognition and the canons of postmodern moral taste.
And that brings me to First Things. Why do I write for it? Because it strives to avoid two errors into which religious conservatives often fall when facing our postmodern situation. First, First Things refuses to treat the symptoms of our current maladies as if they were the cause. This priest’s declaration to his congregation and their enthusiastic reception are indicative of much wider problems in the contemporary politics of human personhood, problems that need to be addressed and critiqued if they are to be resolved and replaced with something better.
Second, First Things refuses to attribute all problems to some general and insufficient cause. Just as it is not enough to understand the laws of gravity if we wish to explain why the Twin Towers fell, so it is inadequate to treat all social and political problems as the result of innate weakness and wickedness, whether of society or of individuals. Every problem has a genealogy, which must be understood if the problem is to be solved. Helping readers to understand that is a major part of what First Things does.
That is why First Things is important. Please consider a donation to support its efforts.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.