October 16, 2003
On the turning away

There's been a lot of discussion in the Catholic blogosphere lately over the fact that Andrew Sullivan seems to have left the Catholic Church. Even though I'm not Catholic this depresses me, for reasons that Lynn, characteristically, stated very well in Amy Welborn's comments:

On the one hand, I have difficulty with Catholic teaching at some of the same places that Andrew Sullivan does - the teachings on contraception and homosexuality clash with some of my own observation of long-term gay and contracepting couples. I can certainly sympathize with his frustration over the coverup of child abuse, and, yes, I agree with him about conflicted homosexuality within the priesthood. And I've liked Andrew Sullivan the conservative advocate of gay marriage.

But there's also a libertine streak to Andrew Sullivan that troubles me. When he criticizes the Catholic Church's teaching on sexuality, I don't feel he's offering an alternative that I can see as superior. I've been troubled, for example, by his "isn't it great that California is electing a governor who's had group sex and used steroids" take on Schwarzenegger.

I feel as if he's saying that Catholicism is conflicted about sexuality, but modern secular culture is just fine on the topic. I don't think modern secular culture is just fine.

Sullivan used write astutely about the harm of ghettoizing gay men, and now, without realizing it, he seems to have become Exhibit A for his own thesis. Since he got his place in Provincetown in the late '90s he seems to have fallen in love with the gay culture there. Which is nice for him, but the drift of his views since then seems to be increasingly detached from the world with women and children in it. His tin-eared response to Schwarzenegger's escapades, his increasingly pro-drug (not just pro-legalization) views, his fetishism of testosterone and male virility, all smell of gay-male isolation to me. You don't have to be gay to have those views, of course (nor does being gay mean you have to have them), but the way he waves away all objections as "puritanism" seems to signal a certain obliviousness to the world most of us live in.

This matters to me because I really liked Virtually Normal, largely because Sullivan was grappling with issues that gays and straights alike have to deal with: what does sex mean in a society that's no longer based around kin? How do you balance liberty and responsibility? How do you deal with people whose desires seem stubbornly deviant from the norm? In that book, and his other writings from the period, he seemed dissatisfied with the answers society was giving (as was I) and striving for something better.

Now he seems to have settled all too comfortably into the sexual attitudes of his current culture, and is annoyed at the Church for not accepting it. Like Lynn I'm not inclined to defend all of Catholicism's sexual teachings, but I don't really blame them on this one.

What's happened to Sullivan? It's interesting that at the same time that conservative Catholics have grown frustrated with his libertinism, fans to his political left have also fallen away. Sullivan's was one of the first blogs I ever read, and he was pretty much the person who got me into the blogosphere, but I stopped reading him regularly sometime last year. After 9/11 he slid into a paranoid manichean nationalism, and spent much of his energies smoking out "traitors" on the left. It was, he admitted at one point, partly personal revenge, since he'd been subjected to some pretty serious harassment from radical leftists, not least that whole stupid episode where they "outed" him when he cruised a gay chat room and (wrongly) accused him of hypocrisy.

But I also get the feeling that the turn against the left and against Catholicism are related. I've lamented before how 9/11 tended to push people harder into their "tribal" identities, and Sullivan, who had previously been a master at juggling multiple identities, seems to have settled on "American." That word means many things, of course, but in the current environment that generally means pledging fealty to the things that set America apart from other places: its democracy, its military might, and its liberty. Which are not inherently bad things, except when they become ends in themselves. As David Brooks, of all people, recently pointed out, freedom gives you the room to do good or evil -- it's good only insofar as it frees you to pursue the good. I can't help but feel that Sullivan's abandonment of the cosmopolitan, ancient and morally demanding Church is a sign that he no longer sees that.

Posted by Camassia at October 16, 2003 09:19 AM | TrackBack

To my way of thinking you can't be using checkers pieces and checkers rules, but insist that you are actually playing chess. Being a Catholic means following the Catholic rules. If you use other rules, it is absurd to call yourself a Catholic; you need to join another club. Being "Catholic" is not a matter of genetics. It is a conscious choice, which choice involves choosing everything that is entailed in the label "Catholic". I can't dress up as a clown and tell everybody at the party that I'm dressed up as Superman. This isn't really complicated, is it?

Posted by: Rob on October 16, 2003 10:56 AM

Well yeah, but that's not what I was writing about. I'm not saying he should be Catholic, which would be a weird thing for me to say, seeing as I'm not Catholic. What bothers me is what he's replacing the Church with. I don't get the feeling he left the Church because he's moving forward spiritually; if anything, he seems to be going backwards.

Posted by: Camassia on October 16, 2003 11:35 AM

You're not saying that he *should* be Catholic, but I'm saying that it seems obvious that if he's left the Catholic church, he done the right thing vis-a-vis the Catholic church. Although I'm not a Catholic either, I found his rather public Catholicism to be controversial. I do not find his apparent apostasy to be so.

Posted by: Rob on October 16, 2003 11:50 AM

Rob's answer seems over-simplistic. There's disagreement within the Church over what it means to be Catholic; what the "rules" are that we are bound to follow; what exactly is the "everything that is entailed in the label 'Catholic.'"

I've had friends leave Catholicism for other Christian denominations, just as I've had other friends convert to Catholicism, based on an understanding of where they found Jesus to be present to them. I'm not getting anything like that from Mr. Sullivan, although I'm certainly not familiar enough with his spiritual life to make that call. But there's more of a sense of "running from" than "running toward" in his decision, and that strikes me as profoundly sad.

Posted by: Regina on October 16, 2003 01:29 PM

Yes, I think one could go too far with the concept of "church" as a voluntary association of like-minded individuals, especially re Catholicism. It may not be genetic, but the model of the church is a family, not a club. You don't just ditch your parents if you disagree with them, unless the rift is very serious indeed. So I don't blame him for hanging on as long as he did.

Posted by: Camassia on October 16, 2003 02:46 PM

Families don't usually have doctrines, dogmas, a catechism, etc. I don't think that the Catholic Church resembles a family very closely at all: it is more like an empire.
Despite all peripheral controversy, I would maintain that there exists a core of beliefs that define the Church and what is means to be Catholic, and that to live in open opposition to one, or more, of those core beliefs is to make it absurd to continue to call oneself a Catholic.
I was unsure in reading your original post about Andrew Sullivan, whether you felt that his spiritual life was most threatened by his growing orientation towards the concept "American", or by his drift toward a more insular homosexual community. I imagine you meant both.
But my perception is that the concept "American" (as you used it) and the homosexual lifestyle of a colony like Provincetown would be as opposed to each other as both would be to devout Catholicism. If so, Mr. Sullivan is probably being pulled in three directions (at a minimum).
I fully agree that any one, or any combination of these orientations would make spiritual development difficult, if not impossible.

Posted by: Rob on October 16, 2003 03:19 PM

Oh, families have doctrines, they're just not usually written down ... What I meant, though, is that family is how the church conceives of itself and how Catholics experience it, regardless of how you and I experience it. From what I hear from them, their emotional bonds to the church are quite familial. You can call it an empire if you want, but I don't think you'll convince many Catholics.

I actually don't know how central the sexual teachings are to Catholicism. Don't know if they're dogma, or doctrine, or what. Maybe a Catholic are here can enlighten ...?

You're right that I actually named two different 'tribes' that Sullivan is identifying with. I don't think the problem is that American vs. gay is inherently a conflict, but that freedom (including the freedom to be gay) and nationalism tend to come into conflict. I've already seen that in Sullivan's writing, as he's defended some pretty oppressive actions in the name of freedom. I think that's the problem with trying to define freedom as a creed, instead of a space in which creeds can exist. You run into these inherent contradictions.

Posted by: Camassia on October 16, 2003 04:10 PM

Perhaps the familial Catholic experience resides primarily in the "controversial periphery"? Certainly the Church hierarchy is modelled on the Roman Empire. I went to various Protestant churches when young (baptised by a Lutheran; confirmed as a Presbyterian). My wife was Catholic. My daughters were baptised by her uncle, Father Phil, a Catholic priest. While one might get a family feeling from a given congregation, I have not really experienced that feeling for any denomination as a whole.
Andrew Sullivan's political orientation is mostly toward the right, but conservatives are mostly antagonistic to homosexuality. This has been a conflict for him. He has been dissed by such right-wing columnists as John Derbyshire, with whom he had a little on-line sparring match awhile back. Generally, despite this, Sullivan leans right. When he goes on TV it is usually to represent a conservative viewpoint. So, he has a conflict between his church and his sexual orientation; another between his politics and his sexual orientation--a tough row to hoe.
If his sexuality wins out, it is my opinion that he loses. But I feel that any person whose life becomes dominated by sexuality is a loser, whatever his orientation. Sexuality can become an idol, like anything else that comes between man and God.

Posted by: Rob on October 16, 2003 04:32 PM

So he should continue to belong to a church that tells him he is objectively disordered and that his relationship with his boyfriend--and any other sexual relationship he might ever have with any man at any time in his life--is an intrinsic moral evil, should he?

The only surprising thing here is that it took Sullivan so long to come to the realization about the true nature of the Catholic Church that is obvious to most other gay people.

Posted by: Marky on October 16, 2003 05:37 PM

As for this church = family thing, if Sullivan's family had treated him the way his church does, he would have cut his ties with it, or at least greatly distanced himself, long ago.

But the whole church-as-family metaphor doesn't really work, anyway. A church may sometimes fulfill some of the same functions as a family, but in the end religion is a matter of adherence to a set of doctrines and practises, not a committment to a group of people. It doesn't make sense to belong to a church whose doctrines and practises are fundamentally at odds with one's own beliefs and experiences.

Posted by: Marky on October 16, 2003 05:44 PM

Personally, I think that to *work* a church has to be first a commitment to a set of doctrines, and second a commitment to a group of people--the group you worship in the midst of, not the strangers belonging to other congregations of the same demonination. I also think, however, that an individual can be committed to the Bible without belonging to any church or congregation.

Posted by: Rob on October 16, 2003 06:18 PM

Maybe whether you see the Catholic Church as family depends in part on whether you look at it from the inside or the outside. I definitely grew up with the Catholic Church as family. My father was in the military, and we moved every couple of years. Every time we moved, we knew we had two families waiting for us: the Coast Guard and the Church. So I thought of the whole Church as family, not just any one congregation.

In a sense, I still do. To me, that's part of what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, it's even more complicated and occasionally dysfunctional than your average family. But that's part of why we wrestle with the doctrines instead of blithely walking away. Another reason, of course, is that we find Christ here and treasure the continuity of the community he founded.

I don't know if it's possible to be committed to the Bible without belonging to any church or congregation. For me, it wouldn't be possible to be committed to Christ outside of a community of believers. I think Christ calls us as a community, not just as individuals.

The theologian Ronald Rolheiser had a comment about community that seems very appropriate for the Sullivan discussion: "What church community takes away from us is our false freedom to soar unencumbered, like the birds, believing tht we are mature, loving, committed, and not blocking out things that we should be seeing. Real churchgoing soon enough shatters this illusion. . . ."

Posted by: Regina on October 16, 2003 07:05 PM

Perhaps, from another angle, some words by the Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams might here be useful:

"Being in the Body means that we are touched by one another's commitments and thus by one another's failures. If another Christian comes to a different conclusion and decides in different ways from myself, and if I can still recognise their discipline and practice as sufficiently like mine to sustain a conversation, this leaves my own decisions to some extent under question. I cannot have absolute subjective certainty that this is the only imaginable reading of the tradition; I need to keep my reflections under critical review. This, I must emphasise again, is not a form of relativism; it is a recognition of the element of putting oneself at risk that is involved in any serious decision making or any serious exercise of discernment (as any pastor or confessor will know). But this is only part of the implication of recognising the differences and risks of decision-making in the Body of Christ. If I conclude that my Christian brother or sister is deeply and damagingly mistaken in their decision, I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds; just as the one who disagrees with me is wounded by what they consider my failure or even betrayal. So long as we still have a language in common and the 'grammar of obedience' in common, we have, I believe, to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and to embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided."

The questions then become: Are we speaking the same "language in common" with Andrew Sullivan? Do we sense that we share some sort of 'grammar of obedience' to the voice of God in the Catholic reading of Scripture and tradition?

The original post has, sadly, given rather convincing reasons for a negative answer. I suspect that the answer did not become negative in a single act of defiance, but rather through a slow, perhaps unconscious slipping away of accountability.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on October 16, 2003 07:41 PM

Camassia, I think Sullivan's views are more complex than you have portrayed them. He may well have adopted a Manichean nationalism, but that attitude hardly seems typical of gay-male culture. He may have supported Schwarzenegger, but so did 48% of California voters; that doesn't strike me as detached from the mainstream. Overall, it seems to me that one could say that he is simultaneously alienating the sharply different constituencies of political leftists and conservative Catholics because his views are too complex to be easily pigeonholed. In your follow-up comments, you describe his views as "contradictions," but I think that the fact that Sullivan presents contradictions makes it difficult to suggest that he is ghettoizing himself.

Also, I guess I can't tell whether you find "the sexual attitudes of his current culture" to be objectionable in themselves. If so, why? Certainly, one might describe it as "insular," but to some extent that's true of any community. For instance, you describe the Catholic Church as "cosmopolitan," but that's true only up to the limits of its doctrine (dogma?). Obviously, the Church has its own dominant set of sexual attitudes (some of which might suggest "an obliviousness to the world most of us live in"), but would you describe devout Catholics as being "all too comfortable" with those attitudes?

I don't mean to sound like I'm attacking the Church. Its doctrines are its prerogative, and they've served it well over the centuries. Certainly, though, Sullivan is entitled to make up his own mind, and if he's decided that his beliefs and attitudes (which I think go to a level of identity deeper than just sexuality) cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church, he's free to leave.

Think of your own spiritual journey. You've searched your soul and your beliefs, and you've struggled hard to find the church that's right for you and where you could do the most good. Sullivan's conflicts with Catholicism may concern different issues, but the struggles may not be that different.

Posted by: Tom T. on October 16, 2003 07:53 PM

Tom, I didn't mean there was something weird about Sullivan just for supporting Schwarzenegger -- I think there are many reasons one could do that. What struck me hinky was his whole 'So what's the big deal about group sex?' reaction to the gang-bang story. Like I said, you don't have to be gay to have the positions he has, it's just the manner in which he defends them really reminds me of the gay-male subculture I knew in San Francisco, that could be kind of tuned out to the non-single-male world.

You're right that to still be a gay Republican is unusual, but he's basically a libertarian Republican, and in that group I don't think his views are that unusual. I would have agreed with your 'complexity' argument more five years ago, or even three years ago; he seems less complicated now, which is why he's less interesting to read. He has his contradictions, but they're contradictions that any libertarian Republican would have, really.

As to what's wrong with the current sexual culture ... that's the subject for a whole post in itself. But I didn't mean to imply that Catholic sexual attitudes are less insular or that people can get less complacent in them. When I referred to the Church as cosmopolitan, I meant that in contrast with nationalism, not in any sexual sense. What I liked about Virtually Normal is that Sullivan seemed dissatisfied with the same things in modern gay-male sexual culture that I was in modern single-straight sexual culture (though in gay-male they get ramped up somewhat), and turned to the Church's principles but still didn't want to go whole-hog into its premodern sexual attitudes. I identified with his feelings, so I'm disappointed about the extent to which he's gone modern lately. Maybe it's partly just my personal alienation because in his current sexual world I can no longer identify with him, but I had hoped he would get somewhere farther beyond hedonism.

I also identified with him because of his spiritual struggles, and not knowing him personally, I don't know the extent of his spiritual struggles now. It's just that, like I said, this doesn't feel like a move forward to me. I guess that for me a lot of my spiritual searching is about aspiring to be more than I am, and for a while Sullivan seemed to be doing the same, but lately he seems to have grown rather too satisfied with himself. Of course he's free to leave the church, and as I said, I have no personal interest in his remaining there. But his attitude seems to be that while the church failed him, he's doing just fine, thank you very much. That's not really the attitude of a seeker, so I don't get the feeling he's still 'seeking,' he's just kind of bailing out. I could be wrong, of course, and I expect this is not the end of the story. It's just the vibe I'm getting right now.

Posted by: Camassia on October 16, 2003 09:36 PM

Sullivan no longer identifies as a Catholic because he has come to understand that the Catholic Church is fundamentally in conflict with his identity, his life, his beliefs. You are apparently dissatisfied with his choice. What, exactly, are you suggesting he should have done instead, and why?

And you exaggerate and misrepresent his views about sex. He's not the unconstrained sexual libertine you're making him out to be. But he's not a puritan, either. There is a broad middle ground between those two extremes, you know.

Your repeated sneering at gay male culture is becoming rather tiresome, too. What, exactly, is your problem with gay men? Spell it out.

Posted by: Marky on October 16, 2003 10:45 PM

The ministry of any established, property-owning church, with a building and parking lot and a vestry and a parsonage has a vested interest in convincing folks that membership is essential, doesn't it? It's called tithing. The Son of Man, by contrast, had no place to lay his head.

Posted by: Rob on October 17, 2003 02:06 AM

Marky, I think you're being a bit too combative for this weblog. Camassia's writing shows her to be a careful thinker and a very humane individual, and she doesn't deserve to be accused of sneering. You're certainly welcome to disagree with her, but this weblog strives for a temperate tone, and I think you would be serving your arguments best if you approached it in that spirit.

Posted by: Tom T. on October 17, 2003 04:55 AM

Personally, I think that to *work* a church has to be first a commitment to a set of doctrines, and second a commitment to a group of people--the group you worship in the midst of, not the strangers belonging to other congregations of the same demonination.

This strikes me as a very Protestant understanding of religion (though I have no idea whether you're a Protestant...). The preeminence of doctrine, and after it the forming of a congregation, I mean. It's not the Catholic understanding at all.

Among other things, in Catholic doctrine, there's no way to become non-Catholic. Someone who has been validly baptized is Catholic, end of story, and there's no way to revoke the sacrament. (That's another difference between Catholicism and most Protestant denominations: entry into the Catholic church is by means of a sacrament, not an act of will on the believer's part, and consent to doctrine is peripheral at most.) Which means Sullivan is still Catholic, at least according to the Church, although he's decided not to practice the religion. The family metaphor works here: you can distance yourself from your family, but you're still a part of it, biologically and historically at the very least.

I actually don't know how central the sexual teachings are to Catholicism. Don't know if they're dogma, or doctrine, or what.

They're not central at all, though you'd never know it from the attention they get (from Catholics and non-Catholics alike). The Magisterium could change or adjust them easily enough, in principle. I mean, they're not on the level of the doctrine of the Incarnation or even the definition of the sacraments.

Posted by: jaed on October 18, 2003 01:14 PM

If you don't think that doctrine was preeminent and primary in the formation of the Catholic church and its first congregations, you must not have read the Acts of the Apostles or Epistles of Paul. Be that as it may...
I am a "Protestant", I suppose, although I currently belong to no congregation. I was baptised in a Lutheran church. I made my confirmation in a Presbyterian church.
As a "Protestant" then, I feel myself to be in direct contact with God, in the sense that there are no intercessors. It's God; it's me: no saints, no priests with special powers. That's a whole different outlook, I'm sure.

Posted by: Rob on October 18, 2003 01:48 PM

Ah: since I disagree, I must be ignorant. Thanks.

Posted by: jaed on October 18, 2003 11:57 PM

You're just a tad touchy, jaed. Nobody is assigning labels here. If you've read the exchange between Camassia and myself above (in which she doesn't agree with me either, btw), you'll see an expanded explanation of how I see the Acts and the Epistles as containing doctrines around which the Church formed. I'm only trying to provide an angle at which to look at the issues people are raising. I'm NOT trying to score points on an ad hominem basis. Peace.

Posted by: Rob on October 19, 2003 05:00 AM

entry into the Catholic church is by means of a sacrament ... consent to doctrine is peripheral at most.

A cursory reading of the Church's baptismal liturgy will show you that this is not the case. Baptism is predicated on a specific confession of faith - in the Western Church, in the form of the Apostles' Creed. Those who are of age make this confession on their own behalf; the sponsors ("godparents") make the confession on behalf of, and in the name of, an infant being baptized. Yes, baptism is a sacrament, but it is also a covenant involving obligations to fulfill. Among those obligations is to be faithful in confessing the faith of Christ crucified, including faith in "the Holy Catholic Church".

In no way is consent to doctrine "peripheral" to becoming a Christian through baptism.

Posted by: Christopher Jones on October 20, 2003 10:52 AM

Actually, as a Catholic, I'd have to say that Jaed neatly summarized a quintessentially Catholic attitude. The sacramental understanding of membership - rather than the American model of volitional membership - tends to create a link that transcends rational - or, more accurately, the contemporary American - understanding. Thus, you can have Catholics who have exclusively attended evangelical Protestant services for decades and still consider themselves "Catholic." Similarly, while you can have "lapsed Catholics" (and "Jack Mormons," for that matter), one never hears about "lapsed Presbyterians" and "Jack Lutherans." Certainly, there is a substantial Creedal dimension to Catholicism, but it's always framed around the idea of "because we are the People of God, we believe..." rather than "because we believe..., we are the People of God." (This is actually fairly explicitly stated in the Mass.)

Sullivan is still Catholic, but by his own account, is unable to receive the Sacramants because of his own volition. This is in itself consistent with traditional views of excommunication where the excommunicant is not shut off from society (as was the case with shunning among the Mennonites) but, instead, is disabled from receiving the Sacraments as a result of the excommunicant's personal volition.

Posted by: Peter Sean Bradley on October 20, 2003 11:18 AM

The following is from the Catholic Encyclopedia (concerning the "once Catholic, always Catholic" idea):

"Excommunication ... is the privation of all rights resulting from the social status of the Christian as such. The excommunicated person, it is true, does not cease to be a Christian, since his baptism can never be effaced; he can, however, be considered as an exile from Christian society and as non-existent, for a time at least, in the sight of ecclesiastical authority. But such exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction. Meanwhile, his status before the Church is that of a stranger. He may not participate in public worship nor receive the Body of Christ or any of the sacraments."

Posted by: Hamilcar on October 20, 2003 04:07 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?