Near the beginning of David Frum’s social history of the 1970s, “How We Got Here,” Frum discusses the problem of women’s ordination for the more High Church churches in America in that decade. The sticking point, surprisingly, was over communion. The holdouts “believed that the officiant of communion stood in the place of Christ, and that since Christ had come to earth as a man, the figure who represented him must likewise be a man.”
Traditionalists feared that a change might have the effect of “cast[ing] away the most visible symbol of the old doctrine that Christ was both divine AND human, a doctrine ratified more than fifteen hundred years ago in the Nicene creed and held to this day by almost every Christian sect and faction.”
On the other hand, the advent of feminism as a political force left the more liberal old-line denominations grasping for what to do to avoid charges of sexism. As Frum puts the dilemma: “Hmmm. The Nicene creed, the equality of the sexes; the equality of the sexes, the Nicene creed…”
I mention Frum because the way he framed the issue reminds me a little bit of Andrew Sullivan’s recent reactions to the American priest sex scandal. Angered of late by what he perceives to be the Catholic Church’s scapegoating of gay priests for the explosion of child molestation charges, Sullivan, a Catholic who is openly gay, has taken to posting long rants on his website about how the Church MUST CHANGE. His demands are simple: “I want married priests, women priests, and openly gay priests,” and he wants them yesterday.
Sullivan has compared his Church to the Soviet Union and called his Pope a tired old man who “doesn’t get it” and implied that the pontiff must go. He has accused the Church of systematically betraying the Gospel it is supposed to proclaim. Since there is “no profound theological reason for the exclusion of women from ecclesiastical power,” the Church is guilty of “denying the fundamental dignity and equality of the human person” of half the human race by failing to mint priestesses.
One needn’t be a liberal Catholic to realize that the Church has a serious problem. National Review’s Rod Dreher, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, and Michael Kelly, who needs no introduction, have all spoken out against the current American Church hierarchy in emphatic terms. According to Kelly, “This is about the [American] church as a hierarchy and a whole betraying the faith and the faithful in the most serious fashion imaginable.” They all, like Sullivan, call for what Noonan characterized as a “time to clean out the stables.” But there the agreement ends.
It comes as little surprise to those who have paid attention to his writings that what Sullivan wants to toss out while they’re all shoveling is normative Catholicism. What is surprising, at least to me, is the way Andrew is framing the debate. Roughly speaking, it’s me and Jesus. versus the rest of you ninnies. To wit, he recently wrote that the Gospels have little to say on the subject of sex: “Jesus seems utterly uninterested in it. So why is the Church so obsessed with it? … Why cannot the Church be as neutral as Jesus was about this issue?” The “dark and difficult realm of eros” should henceforth be excluded from the Church’s “fundamental moral teaching.”
First, the Jesus that Sullivan speaks of — whom he has previously characterized as a “hippie” — might be a nice guy but he’s a different Jesus than I’m aware of. The Jesus of the four Gospels railed against divorce, argued that even entertaining lustful thoughts counts as de facto adultery and set adulterers kindly but firmly on a different path. This is a very un-neutral neutrality.
Second, Sullivan’s approach is in many ways a very Protestant — or, to appease my evangelical friends, “liberal Protestant” — one. He is criticizing not so much the current Church hierarchy as 2,000 years of developed tradition, setting himself as its authoritative (re)interpreter in the process. In so doing, he is setting himself above and outside of Catholicism.
I write this not as a member of the Church but as a Baptist who has come to the edge of the Tiber and is currently feeling out the water with his toes. I have the sinking feeling that I’ll meet Sullivan about midstream.