A letter from an editor at blogs4God.com recently responded to a piece by me in these cyber pages on Andrew Sullivan’s eclectic Catholicism. This coincided nicely with a stunning post on Sullivan’s very own celebrity website, which admitted that his type of faith (“post-Vatican II Catholicism”; note the “post”) may be doomed in this next century. The global South — Africa, Latin America and Asia — is likely to become the center of Christianity, which will reintroduce a kind of folk traditionalism in piety and social mores which Sullivan finds hard to swallow.
I don’t want to get into Andrew Sullivan bashing mode here or to paint myself as more righteous than he. I’m not and Sullivan seems like a nice enough guy with whom I agree about a great number of things. But in reading his alarmed response to the future of his religion, certain words and word clusters stuck out: “fundamentalist,” “arch-conservative,” “orthodox and severe rump,” “highly traditional.” These were all seen as bad and menacing, especially, in Sullivan’s telling, to women and homosexuals.
On the first, he’s dead wrong. Christianity, on balance, has tended to carve out a large place in society for women, and to invest them with a moral status that isn’t matched by any other world religion. (The possible exception is Judaism, but that is a tricky case which I haven’t the room to go into here.) This may not be equality, in the strictest, most legalistic sense, but the advance of Christianity is unlikely to be a tragedy for the fairer sex.
Homosexuality is a tougher issue. In my experience, many Christians (along with plenty of the non-pious) tend to dislike and be sickened by gays, and gays usually return the favor. In interviews, I’ve asked several Christian leaders about this dynamic and been met either with a resounding silence or with shoot-from-the-hip speculations. They either don’t know or don’t care.
I think it boils down to an issue of recognition, in a Hegellian sense. Historic Christianity — firmly rooted in the Old and New Testaments and the Church fathers — has said that the impulses that gays organize their lives around are sinful and disordered and should therefore, at the very least, not be encouraged by governments. Gays are understandably put off by this, and, drawing on past experience, not just a little bit worried about possible ramifications. Consequently, they tend to overstate the cunning and sinister motivations of such groups as the Christian Coalition and Opus Dei. In his recent attack on U.S. foreign policy, Gore Vidal spent a whole chapter arguing that, by boycotting Disney, the Southern Baptists were veering dangerously close to the Salem witch trials.
Then you have the quandary of gay Catholics like Andrew Sullivan. If he were a Protestant in the U.S., the future conservative drift of Christianity literally wouldn’t be a problem. We Protestants — and that may be the one and only time I use that particular phrase — are schismatics to our very bones. Sullivan would have no difficulty finding a niche or a cubby hole in the myriad of mutations that continue to spew forth from the revolution that Luther and Calvin started and would no doubt be aghast at. You want to handle snakes? No problem. Bark for Jesus? Hey, make a joyful noise unto the Lord. You swing both ways? Well, there is this really happening church downtown…
However, Sullivan doesn’t want to be a Protestant. The fact that Catholicism is the religion of his birth plays a part in this but he is not, I think, merely a genetic Catholic. Sullivan believes — and, if I have read him correctly, believes with some intensity — that his church is the church — the one that Jesus started, complete with sacraments, smells and bells, holy orders, and with a Scripture and Tradition that, in the Catechism’s words, form “a single deposit of faith.”
But he’s also gay and therein lies a huge problem. His church has said that this constitutes a “disorder” and is supported in this by Scripture and by thousands of years of unbending Tradition. Rome regards gay sex as a sin and a life ordered around such activity as something approaching a sin against the Holy Ghost — that is, while the church might not take the trouble to actually excommunicate gays, there is an understanding that they are living in something approaching mortal sin. In the dust-up over the priest sex abuse cover-ups, it is instructive to note that the response of many conservative Catholics, including several in the Vatican, has been to say that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to take holy orders.
And so Sullivan responds by lashing out at Rome, by charging the Catholic Church with “institutional” sins including sexism (he just noticed?) and other Very Bad Things, and with one of the most blinkered ahistoric readings of the Bible possible. He wants his church to change to accommodate him rather than the other way around.
But that isn’t likely to happen and, as I said previously, his is a very Protestant — or liberal Protestant — approach. I think he recognizes this. It will be interesting to watch what happens as the two pegs of Sullivan’s identity are stretched further and further apart.
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