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Same Sex Marriage one day on

Having skimmed the opinions and read a good bit of commentary I'm sure I have nothing interesting to add about the Supreme Court decisions on same sex marriage yesterday.

But a trivia question: who is the most influential lay Catholic intellectual in the United States over the past fifteen years?

Lots of nominees, I'm sure. I'm wondering, though, if fifty years from now  we'll think it's  Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan made one of the first "conservative" cases for gay civil rights and ultimately gay marriage in his Virtually Normal. It's striking that he has always drawn on Catholic resources, admittedly not always orthodox  resources, including a lovely initial review in The New Republic on, of all things, the Catholic catechism.

Sullivan's interests are wide ranging and sometimes vulgar (in a cheerful way) as evidenced on his hugely influential blog. I'm struck, though, by how arguably the country's most prominent advocate for gay marriage first reacts -- he is liveblogging -- to the Kennedy majority opinion striking down DOMA.

Here's Sullivan:
11.23 am. Some have noticed how often Anthony Kennedy used the word “dignity” in his ruling. My own impression of the text is to note how Catholic it is. I mean by Catholic the sense of concern for the dignity of human beings that still resonates among the average Catholic population and, mercifully, now with the new Pope. This is the true measure of our shared faith: not a desire to use its doctrines to control or constrain the lives of others, but seeking always to advance the common good while leaving no one behind. No one.

The Church hierarchy’s Ratzingerian turn against this minority in 1986, its subsequent callous indifference to us during the plague years, its rigid clinging to 13th Century natural law rather than what or rather who was right in front of them … these were all tragic failures from the top. But not in the pews; not among lay Catholics; not among many of our families and friends. And that humane Catholicism is embedded in paragraph after paragraph of Kennedy’s text. He is talking about us, our relationships and our children as if we were human beings made in the same image of God with inalienable dignity.

It will one day – perhaps even today – seem banal. And it is. But to get to that banality required a revolution.

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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I think Andrew Sullivan is indeed on the short list of highly influential Catholic intellectuals. His essay "Alone Again, Naturally" should be among the required readings for anyone interested in the question of same-sex marriage. 

Now if you want other nominees for the short list of "most influential intellectuals" I'd also nominate Bruce Springsteen. A deep sense of social justice infuses his work--and he fills arenas with people who sing along. Bono of U2, of course. Are these rockers intellectuals? Hmmm...I'd say yes, given the subtlety and power of the lyrics they produce. And also for the work they do on the side working for social justice causes. 

Sullivan and Springsteen, alas, feel themselves alienated from the tradition they represent so powerfully. (Or at least from its present leadership.) Another sign of our divided times. (And Bono, as far as I know, is a son of a Catholic and an Anglican, and is careful not to declare his denomination.)

Andrew Sullivan's obsession with Sarah and Trig Palin is symptomatic of an chaotic mind and is a ruthtless attack against the dignity of another person -- a complete lack of Catholic charity.  Of course, the ethics of people like Sullivan rest on the notion that those who disagree with their doctrines are not deserving of charity and justly deserve whatever scorn is heaped upon them. 

Robert George is an example of an honorable, charitable Catholic intellectual.  More Catholic intellectuals on the left should emulate Professor George's reasoned and eloquent style and not Sullivan's hyper-emotional partisanship and hatefulness.


Of Catholics who explicitly aim to influence the culture whether directly or indireclty, I'd say that Charles Taylor is the most liberal influence in the U. S. even though he's Canadian.  He's been highly influential both within and outside of the Church and inside and outside of academe. 

Among Catholic artists, I'd say thatf Andy Warhol's influence on the general culture is still very strong (alas), as is the influence of Jack Kerouac. 

I can't think of a single American bishop who is generally recognized as an intellectual, whether public or otherwise. Sigh.

 Then there's the incomparable Stephen Colbert. 

Mother Angelica? I don't know what qualifies as "intellectual", but if Bono makes the cut, I figure she does.  I think she was way out in fornt of the new evanglization.

Irene - not to pick a fight but would describe Mother Angelica as a niche throwback - she fits exactly what Sullivan means when he tlaks about the Ratzingerian turn starting in 1986 that decided who or who wasn't *orthodox*.   Would predict that she will have little lasting impact and wil become or has already become a distant footnote in US catholic history.   If she is representative of the *new evangelization*; then, it means that this new evangelization is all smoke and mirrors and addresses none of the pressing issues in the world church e.g. significant and alarming decrease in attendance, membership, and participation especially among the young; lack of clerical vocations; ignoring gender issues; ignoring the abuse scandal; financial and church/school closings, etc.

I'm betting Stephen Colbert finds a great deal to like about the new pope.  How does one not like a man who so clearly loves to hug.

As for Robert George he is to social justice what Niall Ferguson is to economic justice.   Likely well meaning but often enough a victim of his profound tendency to wax literal when faced with ambivalence.

@Bill. Hey Bill,  with Mother Angelica, even if her message isn't a compelling one, don't you think her creation of EWTN was pretty impactful? It  seems to have a large following.

I am somewhat reluctant to enter the fray, but will do it anyway.  I agree with Bill. Mother Angelica and EWTN have indeed had a big impact on American Catholics (not on American culture in general though) - but only on a particular sub-set of American Catholics. EWTN has been, in the minds of many, among the greatest polarizing influences on American Catholicism during the last decades, defining the Catholic church so narrowly as to exclude the majority of practicing Catholics. M. Angelica/EWTN is dismissive of those whose view of Catholicism is different from their own. The question-and-answer of "experts" on the EWTN website sometimes gives highly misleading information to naive questioners - opinion rather than "fact".  Her work combined with some others may have contributed to the atmosphere that has driven away many Catholics who no longer feel welcome in a church so narrowly defined as that seen on EWTN.  If the "new evanglization" is meant to re-attract "lapsed" Catholics to full participation in the church, the M. Angelica/EWTN approach may often have the opposite impact than that intended.

Andrew Sullivan's work is accessed by many in the entire American culture, unlike that of M. Angelica.

I am not an "intellectual" like so man who post here, and so am unfamiliar with the work of Taylor and George.  But, if we define "Catholic intellectual" more broadly to include those like Sullivan (and Bono?) rather than only those whose views are not well known to those outside of academia, I would nominate Joan Chittister, OSB. She is the author of more than 50 books, and countless columns and articles in both the Catholic and secular media.  She has been the invited speaker to graduations at influential non-Catholic universities, such as Stanford. She is a sought after speaker to Catholic, non-Catholic, and secular groups.  She is co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a UN-sponsored organization creating a worldwide network of women peacemakers. She is spiritual leader and speaker, sought out by both Catholic and non-Catholic groups - for example, she has been invited many times to speak at the Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal), which is probably the most spiritually and religiously influential church in the nation's capital.  She touches many beyond those reached by academics or by conservative Catholic organizations such as EWTN.

OK - I thought I was editing, not reposting six times. Could someone please delete all but the last comments and explain to me how the edit function works?  Also, how to delete duplicate comments!  Merci bien!

Ann Chapman,

I wish I could help you.  However, I think that your comment is worth repeating again and again, and again, and again, and again.


You don't seem very reluctant to me.


Anne, I thought we were briefly able to edit, for a few days after the format of the blog changedm then it got taken away from us. I wish we were free to edit for at least a few minutes, long enough to correct typos.

Do you have an "edit" button? I used to have one, but it disappeared.

I wonder if our features are user-dependent? Is it possible that some people are allowed to edit their comments and others are not, perhaps depending on how we have used that feature?


My spell check feature also became in-operative with the new format

Thanks, Anne - you enhanced and expanded what I intended.  If anything, would suggest that *Mother* will fall into the same category that historicans now place folks such as Charles Coughlin, Leonard Feeney, Rev. Fessio.   

I don't comment on the articles on this blog very often. But when I do, I enter the fray 100%.  ;)

Anne --

While I agree with your estimation of Mother A,'s views, I also agree with Irene that her founding of EWTN was quite an acomplishment.  One just prays it does more good than harm.

If I were to win the lottery, I'd start a Catholic TV channel of a different sort -- one which presents Church teaching in some depth and  a variety of views on contested matters. (Bishop Sheen showed not only that Catholicism could prove interesting, he showed it could also be extremely popular.)  The channel would also provide a smorgasbord of reports on the arts and sciences and social issues.  Such a channel would reach out to all sorts of people, not just trad Catholics.  Surely there must be enough money and know-how in liberal and middle-of-the-road Catholic philanthropic circles to support such a venture. 

As a businesswoman, M. Angelica accomplished a great deal, founding a major religious network. Yet EWTN has not contributed to a positive tone in the American church but  has instead sharpened the divisions. Has it accomplished more good than harm?  How does one determine that?  It seems to me that she found a way to preach to a choir already in existence who were quite thrilled to have a TV network full of people who affirm the views they already held,  and she was able to capitalize on that.  Her work has done little to "bring back" the former Catholics targeted by the new evangelization, as most "lapsed" Catholics that I know (and I know a lot of them!) think that the version of Catholicism espoused by M. Angelica and EWTN represent the very mindset that finally led them to decide to leave the church.  

I have vague memories of Fulton Sheen - my mother loved his show. The main memory I have, though, is of him walking back and forth, swishing his robes dramatically. It reminded me of Count Dracula, I'm afraid.  I have no memory at all of the content, and was probably too young to understand it anyway. But I do remember the drama of the "count".

A show that would present a "variety of views" on contested matters in the church would be very interesting.  But would any cleric or religious have the courage to put on such a show or even appear on such a show, given the current climate in the church in America? Perhaps the commentators would have to be drawn from the laity instead of from the ordained and vowed religious - those who don't fear "discipline" for presenting dissenting views.  Commonweal is able to present  a variety of views because it is not beholden to bishops or Rome, unlike other Catholic publications such as America, which became far more bland and far less interesting after Rome forced the Jesuits to replace Thomas Reese as editor. 

However, I think that your comment is worth repeating again and again, and again, and again, and again.

I know - I found myself nodding more enthusiastically in agreement every time I read it! 


I tried at one time to follow Sullivan, but there is just more there than I have time to read and absorb (or that was my experience at that time, anyway).  It's just too much.

Anne --

Count Dracula?  Funny!  (He might laugh too:-)  

Yes, my dream TV channel would have to be largely presented by laity, at least at this point.  But they couldn't be disciplined for explaining what dissidents are saying, nor for showing how  some of the official Church teachings are not supported by the arguments offered.   And, of course, the official teachers (bishops and their theologians) would have to be represented too.  It would be a beginning, anyway. 

And,  the question was about influential intellectuals.  I don't think Mother Angelica is an intellectual, but neither is Bono.

 What's an intellectual? Someone with a lot of degrees? Someone whose day job is to to opine/think about things?  (I thought Charles Barkley's commentary on the NCAA championshps was pretty profound; is he an intellectual?)  


"What's an intellectual?"

My question also - or one of them. Another is - how much impact do intellectuals actually have on American culture or even American Catholic culture?  It seems to me, as a "non-intellectual", average American, that it is other "non-intellectuals" who may have the greatest impact on ordinary people and on the culture. So maybe Sullivan and Bono are more influential than Taylor, for example - someone I had never heard of before this blog, so I had to google him for a summary. Have his ideas actually had an impact on the general culture?  I don't know - Ann, your are a philospher, can you tell us how Taylor's work has impacted society?  Perhaps these unknown to the masses intellectuals have huge impact behind the scenes on policy formation in government, or in education, or maybe in the USCCB. I don't know, but whatever infuence they have as Catholic intellectuals is not obvious to the average American. 


 I don't read Sullivan regularly, but he does have wide name recognition.  One might argue that as a gay, Catholic conservative he has had far more impact on the culture's views of homosexuality than have the entire conference of Catholic bishops, in spite of their multi-million dollar campaigns to save American society and the family from destruction, a dire fate that they somehow imagine will occur by permitting two, loving committed adults of the same gender to live together as legally married spouses instead of living together as an unmarried couple. Nobody disputes that Benedict is an intellectual - yet it would seem that in only a few months, Francis has had far more impact on the general culture than did his predecessor. Has he changed the culture? Not yet, but people are paying attention - including many who had totally ignored Benedict.   I don't know if Francis is also an "intellectual" - but his communication style is not that of intellectuals who talk above and past the "non-intellectual" masses.  


p.s. What exactly did Barkley say?  

Mother Angelica is a remarkable figure.  On her own, she created a major television and radio network, in the face of considerable opposition.  She also is a faithful Catholic who has devoted her entire life to the Church.  Andrew Sullivan, by contrast, devotes most of his energies to attacking Catholic teaching and anyone who seeks to uphold that teaching.  Sadly, I am no longer surprised to see which of these two has more respect here.

Anne --

(Please, forgive the length of these posts, but you posed some important questions.)

About the influence of intellectuals:  I'd say that an intellectual is someone who tries to answer three traditionally basic philosophical questions:  Who am I?  What can i know? What am I to do? Plus "intellectuals" also  compare the different ideas and then criticize them for consistency and relevance .

I do not think that the only intellectuals are academic ones.  Many writers and artists and popular singers do consider the big questions, but not very many of them compare and criticize the answers, though some do.  The particular value of the academic intellectuals is that they do all three -- inventing ideas, comparing them, and criticizing them.  Note: to invent and criticize ideas is a creative process itself.

As to the influence of intellectuals, many of the ideas that the intellectuals invent are incorporated long-term into into their culture's languages and thought patterns. Further, these ideas are often notably incorporated into their country's laws.  See, for instance the number of latin terms in English and American common law which have been inherited from the thinkers of the middle ages (who in turn incorporated ideas from the Greeks and Romans).  But even some of our own everyday ideas/words are the gifts of ancient philosophers -- Aristotle invented the idea/word "energy" from scratch: "en" = being, and "erg" = force, which combined means the force possessed by or which is a part of a being.  "Substance" is another idea we got from the Greeks  and the chemists still use it in his sense, and we also got "potential" from Aristotle.  Other ideas/words are not as useful, and they don't generally last very long, though we include them in dictionaries in case we should need them again (e.g., "ether" keeps coming and going in and out of physics).

Usually  it takes time, and often a lot of it, for the ideas of the intellectuals  (e.g., Newton's gravity, or Freud's unconscious) to filter into the minds of people who are less curious or non-intellectual, but eventually the ideas and words which help answer the important questions do become part of the culture's intellectual equipment.  If you don't think that the intellectuals' ideas are part and parcel of our culture, then ask yourself:  why do North Americans view the world and themselves so very differently from, say, a South American aborigine who thinks that the stars are gods and who has no idea of human inalienable human rights? And, No, I'm not saying that the aborigines are not intellectuals -- they try to answer those questions too.  See their myths and laws.

Why do Americans disparage intellectuals/ eggheads/ absent-minded professors/ geeks/ bookworms? (We're notoriously anti-intellectual.)   I suspect it's because the eggheads are professional criticizers of everyone including us, and American's hate being criticized (especially by one of our own) -- we're the citizens of that city on the hill and are the paradigms of all things admirable.  So we blame the eggheads for the criticisms and call them names in return.  



Anne --

About Charles Taylor:   Our thinking about the big questions has an initial focus on ourselves (Who am I, etc.).   Taylor's  Sources of the Self (which brought him to the public's attention), is a huge history and criticism of ideas of "self"  in Western cultures from the Greeks down to now.  It was published in 1989, and quickly ('92)  came out in paperback.  As I remember it sold several hundred thousand copies, which for a 602 page book about philosophy is remarkable.   True, Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars on self-help books each year, and that no doubt accounted for some of Sources' popularity.  But since then it is regularly referenced in the more serious press, which indicates that readers of those media seem to know what he is about. 

Yes, it was a bit surprising that  Sources (with its 60 pages of footnotes) would be so successful.  It proves, though, that when a philosopher doesn't use a terribly obscure vocabulary (as do the European philosophers these days), when he writes as clearly as the subject allows, when he is fair in his criticisms, and when he manages  new insights, people are willing to put in the effort to read him, even non-academics.   Unfortunately, the Charles Taylors of this world are rare.

Taylor's reputation is a world-wide one.  He's a recipient of the Kyoto prize which in philosophy and the arts is the equivalent of a Nobel.  His more recent works have not been so popular as Sources but popular enough to still qualify him as a major public intellectual in the U. S. as well as Canada.  

I must also admit that Taylor is not typical of contemporary Catholic philosophers. He is not a product of Catholic universities, not trained in the scholastics (except perhaps for the influence of the later-in-life-Thomist Elizabeth Anscombe) and he has been known to call philosophy "a perpetual disturbance of the peace" (not a typically Catholic notion).  No doubt this attitude has not endeared him to the conservative Catholic  powers that be.  He also is not a typical Catholic philosopher in that he is well-known and highly respected in the secular parts of academe.   He has taught at Northwestern and Notre Dame, and, I think, should be better known among Catholics, but he's too liberal for many American ones.

He has been active in Canadian politics (he ran for office several times) and has been greatly honored by the Canada with a string of letters (CC GOQ FRSC)  after his name.

So, yes, some intellectuals sometimes do influence the public directly.


Thank you Ann, for your long posts - they always make me think and reflect, something I have gotten quite lazy about in recent years. My response is also long - some stream-of-consciousness questions and comments mostly.

"I'd say that an intellectual is someone who tries to answer three traditionally basic philosophical questions:  Who am I?  What can i know? What am I to do?”

I would say that most [at least somewhat] self-reflective and thinking people ask those questions. They may answer them in their own minds or at least try to without trying to apply their answers universally. The professional intellectuals who ask and try to answer these questions seem to try to develop universally applicable answers. So one must also ask if there really are universal answers to these questions. Certainly religion and philosophy try to answer them and declare objective Truth, but are these “universal” answers developed by philosophers and theologians the final “truth” or just the best understanding of the moment?  Sometimes the individual’s answers and the academically derived answers may coincide and sometimes not. Is it only professional intellectuals who can find “true” answers to these questions?  Is there any one set of “true” answers?  How do you know? Some pass the test of time, most don’t but may be important in understanding how we got from there to here, even if not the final word.

Plus "intellectuals" also compare the different ideas and then criticize them for consistency and relevance.”

This approach is certainly required in academia but it is not limited to it. Many outside academia must do this within their own disciplines – pose questions, develop answers, compare and test them. Are businessmen and scientists and engineers and economists etc who use the same process outside of the academic world also “intellectuals”? Or does that label only properly belong to those seeking universal answers to the universal questions of the meaning of life?

Of course the work of “intellectuals” impacts society to varying degrees over a period of time and that this work is needed.  But the immediate question of the article was about who is the most “influential” lay Catholic in America at the present time – the author suggests it might be Andrew Sullivan whose ideas are known through the popular media targeted to non-academics.

I read the wiki entry on Taylor and understand that he is highly lauded for his work, but how has his work directly impacted the American culture of the early 21st century – beyond the classroom and in the society itself? Have institutions changed, or laws, or medicine, or psychology or education because of his work? He ran for office in Canada unsucessfully so he did not gain an office that would give him the opportunity to integrate his ideas into Canadian law or policy. According to wiki, he wants to attack “islamaphobia” and has a strong interest in multi-culturalism. Has he had an impact? I guess philosophers and theologians are a bit like some saints who died heretics– they might have to be dead a long time before their ideas are finally acknowledged!

Taylor’s book sounds like an exhaustive critical literature review and I’m sure is a great resource to those who are interested in his subject matter. But its popular success as a book focused on philosophy over the centuries is most likely due to this “…he writes as clearly as the subject allows,  

Perhaps that is why Andrew Sullivan or maybe Andrew Greeley (not an intellectual in most people’s minds) may be among those Catholics who have been most “influential” on contemporary American culture. They write clearly so that even non-academics, non-philosophers, non-theologians, non-christians can understand what they are saying.  Greeley may not have developed new insights about the eternal questions, but he did have some savvy insights into the functioning of the church and into "Catholic culture".  I am not a fan of his novels (which he admitted himself are hardly great literature) but many non-Catholics developed a bit of an understanding of “Catholic culture” through reading them.  Perhaps it's the professional intellectuals who are most influential over the long course of history, but it's those who write simply with every day words who have the most influence in the short-run!



Anne --

You raise some more good questions :-)

Yes, the question was about influences -- present tense.  But philosophical influences usually begin at one time and then take years  to become common in academe and then more years to spread out into the general populace.  At least that's the way it usually happens in the U. S.  In other countries, e.g., France or Mexico, there are more non-professionals who read philosophy so ideas there no doubt catch on more quickly.  Even so, sometimes the process takes fifty or a hundred years, though with the new media I think the process has been speeding up.  For instance, the use of the word "referent" is now common, but it's  was introduced 120 years ago in an extremely technical context..  

As for Taylor influence on American culture, there's no way to tell except to surmise based on the changes he seems to have contributed to already.  Before his Sources there wasn't a great deal of systematic challenging of the current materialistic view of the self going on.  But Sources was taken very seriously by the professionals -- you can see that in its reviews then later in the number of times reference is made to him.  So I think that Sources *probaby* had a hand in the movement away from materialism to what is emerging in people like Nagel who has explicitly and powerfully challenged the scientists on that point. But there were others between him and Taylor, and some before Taylor.  I suspect we'll know if the influence lasts when we see what happens to the Humanities, but that could take another 50-60 years.  Sigh.

In contrast to the "humane Catholicism" Sullivan speaks of, Catholicism that embraces the dignity and worth of  our LGBT brothers and sisters, we have the utterly disgusting, degrading and inhumane words of Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Dominican Republic.

If you speak Spanish, I urge you to watch the video.  It is appallingly lacking in diginity and not only because he uses a vile word for a gay man.  Pope Francis must act here.

Catholicism is sooooooooooooo inviting to us LGBT folks these days.  Yes, indeedy.

Even though some people remain nasty, two conservative old fogeys (who both happen to be middle-aged;-) have said some very nice things about Andrew Sullivan and his part in the changing of American opinion.  I mean Ross Douthat and Rod Dreyer, who are anti-gay marriage.

They're so nice about Sullivan I expect that eventually they'll both change.  Maybe in 40 years or so...

(For the Dreyer article, scroll down to "the Most Important Political Writer of His Generation".  He also counts Sullivan as a friend.

Oops -- That's Rod DreHer, not Dreyer.

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