Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, Scotland

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, Scotland

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, Scotland gave three addresses at this year’s convocation for priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia held May 30-June 1 in Hershey, Pa. Read’s coverage of the convocation here. Following is the first of the talks.


Thank you, Archbishop Chaput, for your warm and gracious welcome. I’m pleased to be with all of you men as a brother in these days together.  I need to say to you that I think you have the most outstanding Archbishop. We met at the second Synod on the Family in 2015. I was staying at the North American College because it is quite convenient for the Synod Hall at the Vatican. The American bishop-delegates to the Synod were staying there too and they were all very hospitable and welcoming to me.  Among them was your own Archbishop, Charles Chaput. I think I can say that we became friends quite quickly and I hope that it will be a friendship which deepens and endures.

And when he asked me to come to the Philadelphia Priests’ Convocation to address you, I felt very honoured. I was quite daunted but I said yes anyway. And, not quite believing it, here I am. And as I begin, I just want you to know of my admiration and respect for your Archbishop. I’m sure that you share that same feeling.

My task, in my three talks, is to offer some thoughts and encouragement on following Jesus Christ as priests in the twenty-first century.  I’ll try to do that by speaking from my own experience and drawing from what I hope is your experience.

The Church is thriving and growing in many places around the world.  That includes quite a number of new young priests, lay leaders and renewal movements in Europe.  But overall, the Church in Europe is facing some very hard times.  You should know from the start that as an outsider, I look at the Church in the United States with a certain amount of envy.  Compared to the UK, you’re stronger and more blessed than you probably know.  So you men of Philadelphia have a vocation to build on those strengths for a renewal of the Church not just in Philadelphia, but also well beyond your city.

Despite the distance between our two countries, we share many of the same challenges.  So we need to understand and support each other for the sake of the people God puts in our care.

I want to focus, in this first talk, on the realities we face in Scotland because they offer some lessons for the Church in America. So let me give you some background on the nation I come from.

Scottish Catholic history goes back a long way.  It starts with the missions of St. Ninian to the Picts, an ancient Scottish people, in the fifth century. We usually trace the arrival of Catholic Christianity in Scotland to St Ninian, who came from the southern part of Scotland and who apparently went to Rome, was ordained a bishop there, and returned to Scotland to evangelize in what is now southern Scotland. You will perhaps have heard more of St. Columba, who travelled in his legendary coracle from Derry in Northern Ireland across the sea to the west coast of Scotland to found his famous monastery on the island of Iona in the sixth century; and St. Mungo, who founded the city and bishopric of Glasgow and whose fortieth successor I am.  Like other early missionaries in Europe, they planted seeds.  And, with the help of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland in the 11th century, the seeds grew into the vigorous faith of the High Middle Ages.  The medieval Catholic Church began the great Scottish universities at St. Andrew’s, at Glasgow, and at Aberdeen. The medieval Catholic Church, through the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, was instrumental in confirming Scotland’s status as an independent sovereign state.

The Scottish Reformation changed all that.  It completely suppressed the country’s Catholic religious and cultural patrimony. The early years of that period gave us our only canonized Scottish saint, the Jesuit priest John Ogilvie, who was martyred in Glasgow on 10th March 1516. The Church was outlawed and persecuted for more than 200 years, although the Catholic Church never ceased to exist in Scotland through that time. Rather than the ancient dioceses, the Church was divided into 3 districts and was served by very courageous Vicars Apostolic and priests. The faith was very thoroughly suppressed but never extinguished.

By the end of the eighteenth century, barely a dozen Catholics lived in Glasgow. But factories need workers, and with the Industrial Revolution, immigrants began to arrive from Ireland and also Italy.  The Tartaglia family, as you might have guessed, is not an ancient Scottish clan.  As Catholic numbers grew in the nineteenth century, restrictions on the Church began to ease. The Catholic Emancipation Act was passed at Westminster in 1929. And Pope Leo XIII restored the Scottish Catholic hierarchy in 1878.

As in Philadelphia, Catholics in Scotland have faced quite a lot of bigotry. That old-style religious hostility still exists here and there throughout the country. Catholic schools have always been a target for anti-Catholic sentiment.  In the job market, there was a time, perhaps up until about 1980, when the answer to the question, “What school did you go to?” could define your employment chances. And, while that kind of old-style discrimination has largely faded, and you find Catholics in every stratum of society and in every profession, there is still the residual feeling or vague suspicion that Catholics don’t really belong, and if they are there, they should not make too much noise about their faith.

Today there are around 750,000 Catholics in a Scottish population of 5 million. We’re about 17 percent of the census.  That’s the same as the proportion of Catholics globally.  And since Protestant Churches have declined very sharply in Scotland over the past fifty years, Catholics are now, ironically, the most active religious community in the country, in the sense that more Catholics worship on a Sunday than any other Christian denomination, including the numerically dominant Church of Scotland.

Now that may sound odd.  But it’s worth examining.  On the surface, Britain has always seemed like a deeply Christian — and since the time of Elizabeth I, a deeply Protestant – nation, with the Church closely supported by the state.  In fact, at the end of World War II, religion in the UK had about 15 years of very strong revival.  When Billy Graham preached in London in 1954, nearly 2 million people turned out to hear him.  When he led a crusade in Glasgow the next year, another 1 million heard him speak, and 100,000 filled the football stadium for a single worship service.

Then, in the 1960s, it all started to collapse.

In his book The Death of Christian Britain, Callum Brown of the University of Glasgow sums it up quite well: “It took several centuries … to convert Britain to Christianity, but it [took] less than forty years for the country to forsake it. … The cycle of inter-generational renewal of Christian affiliation, a cycle which had for so many centuries tied the people however closely or loosely to the churches and to Christian moral benchmarks, was permanently disrupted in the [1960s]. Since then, a formerly religious people have entirely forsaken organized Christianity in a sudden plunge into a truly secular condition.”[1]

Brown’s data are now more than a decade old.  But things haven’t improved in the years since.

Brown notes that “[Less] than 8 percent of people attend Sunday worship in any week, less than a quarter are members of any Church, and fewer than a tenth of children attend a Sunday school. Fewer than half of couples get married in church, and about a third of couples cohabit without marriage. In England only a fifth of babies get baptised in the Church of England, and in Scotland one estimate is that [only] about a fifth are baptised in either the Church of Scotland or the Roman Catholic Church … If church participation is falling, all the figures for Christian affiliation are at their lowest point in recorded history.”[2]

All of these trends are very recent.  It’s not just that people have stopped going to, or getting married in, church. There’s been a collapse of the basic Christian beliefs and Christian culture that were internalized by nearly all individuals in the UK for centuries, forming their identities whether they attended church often or not.[3]  We’ve had a widespread loss of old certainties that served as a kind of moral banister persons could lean on when climbing or descending stairs.[4]

Why did it happen?  There’s no single reason.  Britain suffered huge losses in men and resources in the First and Second World Wars in a way that America did not.

That kind of suffering leaves a very deep cultural wound and a kind of moral exhaustion in the life of a nation.  It leads to bitterness toward settled beliefs and institutions.  And if you combine that spirit with a new postwar generation and very rapid technological and economic development, massive change in the role of women in society role, the change in sexual behavior from the 1960s, you get something of a revolution in the way a nation thinks.  You get not just a loss but a repudiation of old certainties.

For the Christian Churches in Scotland and England, that’s been a very big problem.  But the even bigger problem is this.  Human beings are instinctively religious creatures.  When we discard one religion, we put another in its place – even if we call it something other than a religion.

The new “religious” consensus in the UK is a combination of skepticism, consumer appetite and political intolerance.  It masks itself with progressive vocabulary, but its targets tend to be practicing Christians.

To list just a few examples:  A teacher in the UK was fired for praying for a sick child — which her managers defined as “bullying.” A Christian health worker was disciplined for harassment for asking a co-worker if she’d like a prayer (the co-worker said yes), and for giving the co-worker a book about Christian conversion. A couple was barred from serving as foster parents when they wouldn’t disavow certain Scripture passages. A delivery driver lost his job for leaving a crucifix on his dashboard.  A pre-school teacher was terminated for refusing to read a book about same-sex parents aloud to three-year-olds.[5]  I could go on, but you get the idea.

Within the UK, Scotland has a lot of autonomy.  So the laws, culture and experiences differ somewhat between Scotland and England.  But the basic reality is the same.  Scotland is dominated by an energetic secularism and a general antipathy to Christian sexual morality.

Our Catholic schools are a particular case in point and symbolize one of the pressure-points for the Catholic Church in Scotland today. Catholic schools in Scotland in many ways are unique in terms of systems of Catholic education across the world.  Since the Education Act of 1918, Catholic schools have been part of the public provision of education and are entirely funded by public money and they are managed by the local Authority under government supervision. By statute the bishops can set the Religious Education programme and have a role in the choice of teachers on the basis of religious belief and character. Catholic schools are in general very much appreciated in Scotland both for their academic performance and for their nurturing ethos. Their primary client group has always been the local Catholic community, but more and more people of other faiths are seeking to place their children in the Catholic school.

Catholic schools in Scotland are a particular target of the secularists who attack Catholic schools more and more on the grounds of equality.  I have paused on Catholic schools to demonstrate that the anti-Catholic sentiment of today has different roots from the past. The discrimination based on old-fashioned Protestant “No Popery here” has practically faded. It’s much more sophisticated now.  Atheists and secularists in the 1960s and 1970s were content to ignore or mock the Catholic Church.  Today many see her as the single most formidable threat to their notions of justice and equality, particularly when it comes to matters of human sexuality.

This hostility shows itself in different ways in the UK and in the States. Your campus protests are worse than ours, but your Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of expression much more concretely than ours.

Nonetheless, some version of the problems we face today in Scotland will be heading your way tomorrow – and frankly are already here in situations like the HHS mandate and the Little Sisters of the Poor.  Think of the UK as the canary in a coal mine, and you get my point.

The chief errors of our time are anthropological, and when a culture becomes global, so do its problems.  If the Church dissents from today’s new rulebook for the human person – and she must — then she should expect rough treatment.  And that means that those of us who are priests need to see reality as it really is.  It’s the only way we can bring Jesus Christ to the faithful, and even to those who misunderstand or hate the Church, whose own lives are so often in disarray.

So what are the strengths of the Church in our current environment and what are her weaknesses? Where do we need to rebuild the Lord’s house? Let me first focus on areas in need of renewal. The Scottish philosopher John Haldane, formerly of St. Andrews University in Edinburgh but now at Baylor in Texas, sees three common features in today’s Catholic life that need to be remedied for the Church to grow stronger.[6]

First, too many believers no longer act like they really believe in anything supernatural; in anything they can’t see or touch or experience; or in anything beyond modeling and encouraging decent behavior.  Too many believers no longer talk about Jesus winning salvation for the sinful but instead point to him as a moral ideal of what humans should strive for. This is good as far as it goes. The trouble is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  The Catholic faith teaches that we’re saved by the grace of God.  Any merit in our works is itself the fruit of a free, unmerited gift of grace. But how many believers today can even define that word “grace”?

Second, Haldane sees a chronic sentimentalism in how we deal with moral matters that actually demand clear, exacting thought.  There were problems with scholasticism and the old moral manuals, but we used to preach on morals from training in rigorous moral argument.  Haldane writes: “As Chesterton once observed, we can either rely on thought that has been thought out or on thought that has not. Today we have lost the habit of philosophical thinking and substituted a sentimental advocacy of causes without critically assessing their relationship to the faith that saves.”

Finally, for Haldane, too many of us have become “preoccupied with means of forestalling secular criticism, rather than engaging confidently with it, in part by means of ingratiating ourselves with dominant groups and classes.”  We accommodate.  We compromise.  We avoid conflict – even when conflict is the only proper course. We are too wishy-washy, as we would say in Scotland.

Once upon a time, Catholics longed for and worked for the conversion of others, including a nation’s cultural elites. Now many of our Catholic leaders, intellectuals and academic institutions bend over backwards to assure the gatekeepers of culture and prestige that they’re just as right-thinking as they are.  For Haldane this results in “the displacement of Catholic faith and sacramental practice understood in terms of a rigorous theology of grace and salvation, and their substitution by good works, identified and sustained typically through emotive rhetoric, with an eye to seeking approbation or at least minimizing exposure to criticism from secular critics of religion.” It’s a kind a virtue-signalling.

So having said all that:  Is there any good news?  Or should we just take “the Benedict Option” and head for a religious bomb-shelter in the mountains?  I have two answers.  First, there’s quite a lot of good news.  And second, Augustine is a much better model for our times and our work as pastors than Benedict.

Augustine stayed with his people.  He loved them and fed them and led them like the great pastor he was, even while the Roman world fell apart and even with an army of barbarians at the gates.  The Church in the United States is in vastly better shape than anything Augustine could have imagined.  But his life is still a lesson.  A good shepherd never leaves his sheep.  He loves and defends his people, even when some of them don’t love him back.

As for the good news: I wonder if Catholics in your country know how exceptional their circumstances really are.  In Europe, in the so-called Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Ireland, and parts of what we call Germany — the Church often dominated society.  She also too often tied herself to the state.  Over time that did three things.  It invited an abuse of Church privilege.  It created resentment and indifference among many of our people.  And it allowed the state to use and misuse the Church for its own purposes. (This may have been the case in Scotland and England before the Reformation but probably not since.)

In America, Christianity is still a living force.  It can be attacked, but it can’t be ignored.  Christians still practice their faith at high levels of participation.  Christians still matter – sometimes decisively — in the political, economic and social life of the nation.  Catholics were always a minority, but they were always renewed by immigrants, always building, always growing, never dominant, and never captured by the state.  The result is that you have the resources, organization, freedom under the law, and breadth of imagination that exist almost nowhere else in the Christian world.

And frankly you also have the talent.

Priests are often skeptical of their bishops – I know I was at certain times in my priestly ministry — and sometimes they have good reason to be.  I was a delegate to the synods on the family in Rome in 2014 and 2015.  I saw the best and not-so-best of bishops from around the world every day, up close and personal, for three weeks each time.  The Church in the United States has leaders who are among the very best anywhere.  And those bishops come from men exactly like you; from priests and presbyterates that have built the Church in this country to be what she is.

As I was getting ready for these talks, a friend sent along some results from the demographic study the archdiocese did among your people a couple of years ago.  What struck me most weren’t the weaknesses the study found, but your strengths.  For 15 years in this country, your mass media have hammered away at the Church on the abuse issue, many times fairly, but many times not.  I know that Philadelphia has gone through some especially tough times at great cost to all of you men as priests.  But your people haven’t wavered.  They love you.  The data don’t lie.  They support Catholic schools.  They support your Catholic charitable ministries.  They love their parishes, and they trust and respect their pastors with a high degree of confidence.  That doesn’t stop them from complaining, unfortunately.  But people complain when they want to belong and believe that it’s worth staying.  It’s part of a normal family life.

Here’s the point I hope you’ll think about before we gather for the next talk.

The Church in the United States, like the Church in Europe, faces some very serious challenges in coming 20 years.  But for all of its challenges, the American Church’s strengths and energies give it a unique ability to influence the life of the Catholic Church in a deeply positive way and on a much wider level. That kind of opportunity also carries a responsibility.  People on the other side of the globe know Philadelphia because of the World Meeting of Families.  You and your parishes made that event a success despite the cost and when many outsiders thought it would fail.  And people who know the Church in the United States know that the Church in Philadelphia is and always has been central to the American Catholic experience.

I was telling my own priests this no less recently than at our Mass of Chrism before Easter. Your fidelity to Jesus Christ, his Church and his people matter.  They matter beyond this meeting and beyond this diocese.  Revival comes from parish priests like yourselves equipping the faithful through preaching and the sacraments so that they can live as salt and light to the world.  The task of these days together is to realize and to own that vocation, low in the eyes of the world but necessary and urgent for the salvation of souls.

So let’s use these days to grow closer to our Lord. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to move our hearts with a deep and genuine love of him, so that the word we preach will not return void and that by our ministrations, and his grace, God will renew the face of the earth.


Editor’s note: John Haldane teaches full time at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, while also continuing part time as a professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews University in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is currently writing.

[1] Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800–2000 (London: Routledge, 2009), 1.

[2] Ibid., 3–4.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (New York: Harper, 2016), xv.