It was quite a communion of saints that tried to take down the Rev. Erik Richtsteig, Catholic priest and longtime Ogden pastor, for the alleged sin of “hate speech.”
The Salt Lake Tribune blared its outrage in a headline – “Utah Catholics protest priest who’s shared posts that are anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman and pro-assault rifle” (which was also published in the Standard-Examiner via AP) – and a 2,100-word broadside with room only for accusers.
Never mind Richtsteig’s successful 16-year stewardship of St. James the Just Parish and his decade-long ministry at St. Joseph’s Schools in Ogden – or even his staunch Catholicism. A protesting clique at his new parish in Salt Lake City didn’t want a devout priest, just a Roman-collared liberal.
He had to go, before he even got there. So, a campaign was orchestrated at St. Ambrose Parish and its J.E. Cosgriff Memorial School, claiming Richtsteig posed a threat to children and parish faithful because of his social media posts, deemed “homophobic,” “misogynistic,” “hateful,” “hurtful,” “bigoted,” “intolerant,” “horrifying,” “hate speech.” And whatever “pro-assault rifle” means.
The effort was intended to come across as conscientious social justice. It revealed something else – a political hit against a traditionalist Catholic; sanctimony as performance art; the shallowness of progressivism; the left’s need to obscure Catholic teaching; and the astonishing spectacle of a news organization turning against free speech in subservience to an ideology.
This was all in bad faith.
Fr. Erik’s true sin was being a defender of the faith who does not shrink from Catholic teaching.
What’s more, he had the audacity to be a conservative Catholic in the public square on social media, sometimes irreverently and sarcastically, and to be outspoken about politics and culture, not just religion.
That’s what was unforgivable to this group, the real reason he had to be silenced, shamed, removed or re-educated.
They admitted it eventually, way down in the piece where the parish and school were described as having “carved out a space for more liberal ideas and more welcoming views and more diverse voices.”
In this particular welcoming liberal space, one parent wondered if she could even shake the pastor’s hand.
Some of the group’s suggested correctives were that Fr. Erik be made to apologize, ordered to never speak of guns or LGBTQ individuals, and have his homilies checked in advance before every Mass.
Checked by whom, the Ministry of Truth?
All this, after the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City was entreated twice to reassign Richtsteig – and refused. This, when the strongest evidence amassed against him was a post showing a cartoon character spewing a rainbow, a welterweight jab about Gay Pride Month.
In Fr. Erik’s case, the act of merely following or sharing a page constituted punishable wrongthink. Among the charges against him was the revelation that he once approved of a page advocating, “Obama has to go.” Ah yes, hate speech.
The newspaper never questioned the pretense or pushed back against the notion of coercing a faith leader’s silence. Instead it affirmed that Richtsteig “promoted hate,” editorial opinion stated as objective fact.
Were this not just a hit job, other viewpoints would have mattered, like those from St. James the Just and St. Joseph’s, who knew the priest best. Or maybe a Catholic with more than hashtag awareness of Catholic doctrine and catechism.
Fr. Erik called same-sex attraction “a disorder,” the story offered vaguely, as if it were a concept in isolation. No, it is straightforward from the Vatican, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law.”
Homosexual inclination is “objectively disordered,” according to the faith, which distinguishes between act, inclination and individual. Gay individuals must be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
The church also states that “distant neutrality” in regard to Catholic teaching is not an option for those in ministry, and pastoral care that departs from church teaching or silences it is “neither caring nor pastoral.”
Pope Francis had to be parsed carefully in this episode. The Tribune pronounced him “accepting of gay individuals,” but kept his repeat denunciations of gay marriage and gender theory far from view.
The Vatican secretary of state called the 2015 vote legalizing gay marriage in Ireland “a defeat for humanity.” That was the faith’s top diplomat speaking religious truth to secular power – and to pastors, parishes and Catholic schools.
Such voices demolish narrative and have to be suppressed. So do inconvenient facts. Nancy Essary, principal of St. Joseph’s Elementary, was invited to a meeting of the Cosgriff school board to talk about her nine-year association with Richtsteig. Her insights went unreported.
Children at St. Joseph’s “loved him and enjoyed seeing him in the building,” according to the school board’s minutes. “Not one of her faculty members ever had an issue with Fr. Erik.” No one did.
He frequently visited students, led faith instruction for middle schoolers as well as teacher in-services, and had many requests to hear confessions. He also baptized the adopted son of a gay couple.