Note: In the May 2, 2005 issue of Time magazine, Andrew Sullivan published an article entitled "The Vicar of Orthodoxy: The Pope's dogma is a circular system that's immune to reasoned query" (also published in the Time online edition in the foregoing link). The following is a parody and a critique.]He is an intellectual opposed to questioning the intellectual assumptions of that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment, the New York Times. He is a critic with scant experience in critically reflecting on his own presuppositions. He is a product of post-Vatican II Catholicism, deeply opposed to the Catholicism of Vatican II. In these seeming contradictions, you can begin to see the contours of one of the most predictable and ordinary, moderately well-educated, liberal, self-styled gay Catholic men to become a journalist and a critic.
For the young Andrew Sullivan, struggling out of the spiritual abyss of England in the 1970s, acting provided a guiding light. At Harvard, he was best known for his acting, he once wrote, "appearing as Hamlet, Alan in Peter Shaffer's 'Equus,' and Mozart in Shaffer's 'Amadeus.'" In the summer of 1985, he travelled through thirty of the United States. While he also devoted himself to political science, finishing his doctorate at Harvard in 1987, and to writing for various journals, in the early 1990s Sullivan tested positive for HIV and became known for being openly homosexual and for pioneering such issues as same-sex marriage. His 1993 essay, "The Politics of Homosexuality," was credited by the Nation magazine as the most influential article of the last decade in gay rights. His 1995 book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, was greeted with positive reviews and became one of the best-selling books on gay rights. Sullivan grieves that the Church has not kept pace with the times, especially on sexual morality. "Does this mean that the Church should take a poll on its doctrines, or change its rules on celibacy or sex overnight? Of course not," he writes. "Obedience matters. But real obedience requires respect; and until the hierarchy listens ... obedience will be difficult, if not indefensible." Obedience, thus, dies the death of a thousand qualifications.
For Sullivan, faith is an acquisition, not a gift. In Christianity, humankind comes to itself not through what it accepts, but through what it does. The Christian identity is not simply received and passed down through tradition, but appopriated, throught through, and re-made by each generation. It is constituted and revisioned through "dialogue." Because it is not simply received, it can be altered. Failing to bring its sexual teachings in line with contemporary society, Sullivan suggests, may well imperil the Church's future. "This crisis is all the more appalling because it rests on differences about doctrines that are not central to the faith," he writes. None of these sorts of things--contraception, masturbation, homosexuality--he suggests, are part of a fixed revelation that has been consigned to us, which we have no right to reconstruct as we choose.
Alas, the Gospels do not tell us everything, he says. Jesus never mentions, say, abortion, homosexuality, or celibacy. Well, but of course St. Paul and early Church tradition do. But what if they didn't? Neither do they mention cannibalism, pedophilia, or torture. How do we know what is "revealed" about them? According to Sullivan, only "dialogue" with contemporary culture can decide that, a dialogue in which those like Sullivan have the last say as to what does or does not constitute the "essentials" of Christian doctrine. "Those who say the church can never change are simply wrong," writes Sullivan. "It has always been pragmatic about the nonessentials, accommodating itself to new cultures ... and to social change." Because truths concerning cannibalism, pedophilia or torture--like those concerning abortion, homosexuality, or celibacy--are not simply received from God and therefore nonnegotiable, we are free to follow our consciences with respect to them. Imagine ... Cannibalism in the privacy of your own home ... Who could possibly object as long as it was consensual? Faith, according to Sullivan, comes not from simply regurgitating what has been heard, but from reflecting upon it (as in philosophy) and dialoguing about it (as in politics). No wonder Sullivan, in his role as journalist and critic, has been so willing to criticize the guardians of the Church's Faith who have been so benightedly ignorant as to defend her unrevised traditions.
Sullivan has thus been emboldened to make several claims. Take the question of women's role in the Church. Their inclusion in the ranks of the ordained priesthood, he suggests, is within our power to change, under properly enlightened leadership. Never mind that in making this claim, Sullivan is claiming more authority than the Catholic Church has ever claimed for herself: the authority to change doctrine. The Catholic Church did not invent the priesthood. God did. The Catholic Church claims less authority than any other Christian church in the world; which is why she is so conservative. Protestant churches feel free to change the "deposit of faith" (e.g., by denying Mary's assumption, though this was passed down from the beginning) or morals (e.g., by allowing divorce and remarriage, though Christ forbade it). Sullivan claims authority that Pope John Paul II explicitly denied having himself in his Apostolic Letter On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) when he declared "that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." Further, if Sullivan claims these things are not matters of faith and morals, but merely "inessentials," he is still claiming more authority than the Church by assuming the competence to judge what is matter of sacred tradition.
Women in society? The Church approved vocations of motherhood and virginity, says Sullivan, imply that a woman is less of a woman if she is a scientist of Prime Minister. Says who? What is there to prevent a mother or virgin from becoming a scientist or journalist or Prime Minister? Nothing. "What happens when nature suggests that some women are not cut out for motherhood or virginity?" asks Sullivan. But this is a red herring. When has the Church ever forced a woman into motherhood or virginity any more than it has forced any man into celibacy? A man is free to forgo celibacy by forgoing the priesthood, as a woman is free to forgo motherhood by not marrying. What Sullivan wants is a pretext for bending the Church's laws on the hot pelvic issues. An analogy: What happens when nature suggests that some men are not "cut out" for abstinence from violence or alcohol? Does this give license to assult and battery, rape and drunkenness? Whatever happened to self-control and self-mastery?
The chief obsession animating Sullivan's protest and dissent clearly surface when he asks: "What if biology gives us, say, a child with indeterminate gender or a transgendered person or a homosexual?" From the Church's viewpoint, nature has somehow gone awry in such cases, he suggests. People may be born with homosexual inclinations, the Church admits. But such inclinations are "objectively disordered" and directed towards "intrinsic moral evil." Sullivan finds this judgment intolerable: "A whole class of human beings naturally more disposed to evil than others? Don't ask the obvious questions. Just accept the answers. And if the result is enourmous human suffering, as women and gays labor under discrimination, condescension and prejudice? Suffering brings them closer to Christ." But what are the "obvious questions" here? Let's be realistic. If I am naturally disposed to migraine headaches, am I not more disposed to evil than those who aren't? Or if I am naturally disposed toward violent outbursts of rage, am I not more disposed to evil than those who aren't? Does this cause suffering? You can bet your sweet petooties. Who in their right minds would not admit that such dispositions would be an unwelcome cross to bear, even like St. Paul's "thorn in the flesh," which God did not remove from him despite his petitions. Whoever said life would be fair? Some get all the brains, good looks, good connections, and good luck, it seems; and others seem perpetually flat out of luck, not to mention the rest. So what to do: bend the Church's laws to allow for everyone's natural dispositions? So we can give those disposed to alchoholism, predatory homosexual activity, rape, pedophilia, and wife-battery reason to feel greater self-esteem? So the Church can offer forgiveness in God's name without repentance?
Reading Sullivan for a struggling straight, nonrevisionist Catholic like me is like reading a completely circular, self-enclosed system that is as intellectual at times as it is maddeningly immune to reasoned query. The dogmatism is flat-out astonishing. If you find yourself ill-disposed to accept a Church teaching, label your behavior a matter of "conscience," then it's no longer a sin. And if all this circular dogmatism permits you to remain "Catholic" without being Catholic, then so much the better for you. Syllivan once wrote: "Perhaps what American lay Catholics need to say more clearly is that the aim of our desire to change the church is not to undermine but to save it. We love our faith .... [Whatever happened to "He who loves me will keep my commandments"?] But what we have witnessed means we would be delinquent if we didn't fight for real change. We are actually being more faithful than those who want to perpetuate the conditions for further decline." That is his vision. If the Church withers to a mere shadow of its former self, it will not be because she has strayed from the apostolic deposit of faith, be because she lost touch with the 21st century and failed to accommodate herself to people where they find themselves--with their desires for recreational sex, homosexual liaisons, pedophilia, and other addictive disorders. Sullivan quotes Pope John Paul II, intending to transpose his sentiments into a context where he might make use of them:
"Be not afraid," the current Pope said in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. "Of what should we not be afraid? We should not fear the truth about ourselves."And what is this truth about ourselves? Not that we are acceptable just as we are--as unrepentant promiscuous, lustful sinners, as Sullivan seems to think. But precisely this: that we are sinners who do not want to change. Rather, we're inclined to want a Church magnanimous enough to accept us on our own terms without demanding the repentance of changed lives. Regardless of how long Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate is, Sullivan might just manage to get what he wants, but only at the cost of a schismatic AmChurch separated from Rome.
[Note: The foregoing is based on Andrew Sullivan's article, "The Vicar of Orthodoxy: The Pope's dogma is a circular system that's immune to reasoned query" Time online edition (also published in Time Magazine, May 2, 2005, p. 49). All quotations from Sullivan, as well as representations of his views, are taken from this article, as well as from various essays posted on his weblog at www.andrewsullivan.com.]
- Al Kimel, "The Apoplectic Andrew Sullivan" (Pontifications)
- Paul Likoudis, Amchurch Comes Out: The U.S. Bishops, Pedophile Scandals and the Homosexual Agenda (2002).