Sullivan's Catholicism

I count myself among those who are sad to see Andrew Sullivan leave the blogosphere. Mostly this is because I will miss benefiting from the enormous amount of work he and his staff put into curating and editing the vast expanse of the World Wide Web. Most days, I would only find out about a particularly insightful piece of online opinion or news reporting because Sullivan and his team had linked to it. Now, I will be forced to comb through all of this on my own or (what is more likely) grow increasingly ignorant of the offerings, albeit of various and sometimes dubious quality, in this large marketplace of ideas, cultural ephemera, and consumer products we call "the internet." 

Secondly and, perhaps, more importantly, though, I count myself among those Dish readers, one of whom was quoted in Dominic's post, who heard in Sullivan's self-described "passionate, tortured relationship with the Catholic Church" a fellow traveler struggling to follow the thread of, what John Cavadini calls, the "love story" amidst the abuses that have all but ruined the romance since the turn of this century. Along with those of fellow English Catholic radical, Herbert McCabe, Sullivan's reflections on the life of faith and the drama of Catholic belief and practice have sustained me during those times when, as Sullivan said in his penultimate Dish post, it seemed as if "the hurt got the better of me." 

In this last week, following Paul Elie's recommendations, I have returned to a couple of Sullivan's pieces on Catholicism from the late 80s and read them alongside his most recent long essay on Pope Francis. What I find so life-giving about the faith of this conservative, gay blogger is surprisingly similar to the truth articulated by his Marxist, celibate, Dominican compatriot. It is that, in spite of all evidence sometimes to the contrary, both Sullivan and McCabe are somehow able to keep their sights trained on the stubborn light of hope that shines in the Church even when the hands of those entrusted to carry it threaten to snuff it out by clutching it too tightly. The rays of hope to which Sullivan and McCabe continually return include 1) a Thomistic trust in the ultimate commensurability of the truth of revelation and the truth arrived at through natural reason; 2) an appreciation of the fundamentals of the Gospel message centered around the importance of relationship for mediating this truth; and 3) a call to practice charity as the proper fruit of this truth not only on behalf of the institutional Church ministering to the world, but also (and often more importantly) on behalf of Christ ministering to the institutional Church.

For Sullivan, the first of these can be seen most clearly in his especially nuanced assessment of Ratzinger, published in The New Republic in 1988 when Ratzinger was still prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this piece, Sullivan deftly weaves one cloth out of what many still see as the two Ratzingers: the early reformist Ratzinger of 1968's Introduction to Christianity and the later reactionary Ratzinger who occupied the Prefecture and the Papacy. Sullivan argues that this seemingly split theological personality can be understood properly as "two sides of the same Augustinian coin":

In his "liberal" period, Ratzinger's inspiration was always a transcendent understanding of divine, ahistorical grace at work upon the Church. That was the core of his defense of the Second Vatican Council's reappraisal of tradition. As a founder of [the progressive theological periodical] Concilium, he was a firm champion of the reformed liturgy, the new use of the vernacular, the revived emphasis on scripture, the elevation of the episcopate vis-a-vis the papacy, and communion in both bread and wine. He saw much of this as a cleansing of the historical encumbrances of the 19th and 20th centuries to let in a fresher, purer ecclesiastical air. [...] Otherworldliness, however, carries a decisive risk. It can lead to an alienation from the very world the Church needs to conquer. This other side of the Augustinian coin was the central worry of the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger's interpretation of the Council's mission of renewal differs from more conventional understandings. Whereas Ratzinger sees the Council as a "recentering" of the Church from the standpoint of transcendent truth (a peculiarly Augustinian approach), many of its actual participants saw it as an opening to the world as it then existed, a learning from the world, an interpretation of divine grace at work through history (essentially a Thomist understanding).

Sullivan sees in Pope Francis the promise of returning the Church to this latter Thomistic approach to learning from the world as it now exists in order to more faithfully recognize the work of divine grace through a careful discernment of "the signs of the times." Though, he rightly cashes this out with reference to Francis's Ignatian, rather than Thomistic, spirituality:

We live as temporal, human beings in a finite, fallen world; and faith is, for Francis, a way of life, not a set of propositions. It is a way of life in community with others, lived in the present yet always, deeply, insistently aware of eternity. Here you feel the profound impact of Saint Ignatius of Loyola's concept of discernment and "contemplation in action." Father Howard Gray S.J. has put it simply enough: "Ultimately, Ignatian spirituality trusts the world as a place where God dwells and labors and gathers all to himself in an act of forgiveness where that is needed, and in an act of blessing where that is prayed for."

The Thomistic sensibility comes into Sullivan's portrait of Francis to the extent that the Pope has suggested that the proper vehicle for a discernment of the signs of the times is open and honest discussion, propelled by reason and guided by the light of faith. Thus, the biggest departure that Sullivan sees Francis making from his predecessors is in his readiness to so quickly identify himself as simply one among many sinners in the world, one who does not claim to have all of the answers, who seems insistent upon taking his place as one among many Church leaders in his capacity as the Bishop of Rome, and who is perhaps most comfortable as one among many faithful seekers after the mystery of a God about whom "we cannot say what He is."

For Sullivan, this new openness to discernment in the Church does not likely mean that sweeping doctrinal changes are coming. He writes, "Doctrinal change - in the sexual or institutional terms that the secular world wants - is not likely to be immediately forthcoming in this papacy (although there is no knowing where the newly invigorated debate Francis has enabled will take us.)" In the parenthetical aside, Sullivan's second ray of hope begins to shine. As someone who has devoted his life to working for equal rights for those in the LGBT community and seen so many of his battles won by means of patient and persistent discussion between those on opposite sides of the issues, Sullivan understands the unpredictable power of relationships forged among those who pursue the truth through rational deliberation in honesty and good faith.

It is this trust in the power of everyday relationships to make the truth present that Sullivan identified as a key feature of, what Andrew Greeley and David Tracy call, the Catholic "sacramental imagination" in a 1990 review of works by Greeley and Eugene Kennedy read alongside the then recently leaked Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Greeley's real insight is that Catholics have remained in the Church despite their differences with it, and despite the upheaval of the past twenty years, by dint of something he calls the "sacramental imagination," a term coined by the theologian David Tracy. Put simply, it refers to the way in which Catholics tend to be unexpectedly at ease in the world. There is a sensibility, Greeley argues, that enables Catholics to relax in their faith, to see the world as more benign than others do, to trust in God and in their fellow sinners without a constant sense of inadequacy or desperation.

It would perhaps be an understatement to say that this trust has been tested in the twenty-five years since Sullivan wrote these words. As he notes in his piece on Francis, the revelations of the abuse of minors and its cover-up by Church leaders has been the last, very heavy straw for those Catholics who were once willing to tolerate a hierarchy that they always knew were less-than-perfect (but perhaps not so much less). Sullivan writes, "Even once-reflexively Catholic countries - like Ireland and Belgium - collapsed into secularism almost overnight, as ordinary Catholics couldn't begin to comprehend how the successors to Peter could have perpetrated and enabled such evil."

While his predecessor's first instinct seemed at times to be to defensively retreat in the face of the righteous and rightful indignation of those betrayed faithful within and outside of the Church, in Sullivan's estimation, Francis has already gone a long way toward rebuilding the trust that has been lost. He has done this not only by meeting with victims of abuse and begging their forgiveness, but also by reaching out to others who might have been formerly alienated - e.g., stirring controversy by washing the feet of two women and two Muslims in a juvenile detention center during his first Holy Thursday service after being elected. And, more recently, Pope Francis reportedly met with a transgendered man at the Vatican, telling him, "You are a son of God and the Church loves you and accepts you as you are."

Of course, cynics on both the left and the right have been quick to dismiss these gestures as nothing new, saying that the Church has always held its arms open to sinners and then quickly underscoring the unfortunate fact that they continue to be identified as such. For conservatives, this is a question of their failure to live into the prescribed moral disciplines of the faith, while for liberals, the failure belongs to the harsh institutional articulation of the disciplines themselves. Thus, you get responses to Francis like the one offered by Jennifer Finney Boylan in Saturday's New York Times:

The author Mary Karr has said that one of the things that brought her to Catholicism, after a lifetime struggle with addiction, was a sign on a church that read, “Sinners Welcome,” even if, as she observed, “I thought I had a better shot at becoming a pole dancer at 40, right, than of making it in the Catholic Church.” And yet for too many of us, the church has been more focused on the sinners than the welcome. Francis’ words over the last year have given many Catholics, current and lapsed, reason for hope. But we are still waiting to see those hopes turned into action.

Sullivan suggests, though, that such responses would seem to trade in the same spiritual blackmail that makes righteousness a precondition for relationship and that Jesus refused to replicate in his ministry to both the purveyors of religious power and their subjects. This is the third ray of hope that Sullivan sees emmanating from the Church, which comes from the ineliminable fact that its truth, however dimly grasped and poorly practiced, was revealed in the historical ministry of an individual who embraced the lowly and the outcast all the while praying for the forgiveness of those who persecuted them and finally even put him to death for his trouble. Sullivan sees this example of radical charity in Francis's own willingness to literally touch the untouchable. Reflecting on Francis's embrace of a severely disfugured man, Sullivan writes:

Doctrine is insufficient to convey this truth. And one remembers all too quickly that this was the impact Jesus had. It was not his words alone that transfixed so many around him; it was the manner in which he lived - outside human boundaries, inside the human soul. Jesus gave us no theology. We had to wait for Paul for that. For decades after his crucifixion, it was mainly oral tales of what Jesus had done and the impact he had created that gave us any basis for a theology at all. What Jesus gave us was a mode of living - a mode beyond fear and want and even self-preservation. It wasn't that he died in agony on a cross - thousands and thousands endured similar agonies across the brutal Roman empire. It was the way he accepted that death, and transcended it, that changed human consciousness for ever.

It is for the sake of preserving this consciousness in history that Sullivan ultimately remains committed to the institutional Church, which has sought to live this example of rigorous love despite the sin that makes it impossible (as indeed we all do). In Francis, I think Sullivan sees a return not only to "a Church of the poor and for the poor," but also a Church of mercy for the merciful. This is to say that it is not simply a matter, as Boylan writes, of the Church "returning to the faithful," but it is a question of whether the faithful will have the grace to forgive and return to the Church. And, of course, in the end, since the faithful are the Church, this all boils down to the fundamental issue of what it means to be a community called by Christ to embody His saving love. Will this community continue to be divided against itself with each side waiting for the other to turn hope into action, or will all concerned realize that hope, as opposed to optimism, extends beyond the mere expectation of possible success and sets its sights on that seemingly impossible charity that only comes after failure?

One can see this charitable hope in Sullivan's defense of the failures of the Catechism in his 1990 review:

Though at times it is distracting, the perspective of ancient texts pellucidly orders the questions of modernity. And at the first glimmerings of banality, the saints intervene, or the text itself ascends to serenity: "What sin has distorted in man, the grace of Christ restores. Not only does that grace repair the original damage, it also transforms man from within, renewing him in the image of God." The theologian who can see in that passage only a sexist use of the word "man" has surely gotten her priorities wrong.

Throughout this discussion, Sullivan warns Catholics on both the right and the left against allowing their cultural sensitivities to grow into fetishes. These include the tendency of both sides to appeal to the inviolability of autonomy and self-determination as opposed to "the spiritual possibilities of obedience and disobedience" when it suits their particular agendas. Thus, you find liberals bristling at the potentially sexist language above and conservatives squirming at any mention of "sharing resources" or even the most "careful demand for the equal dignity of women and men and gays and straights." All the while, Sullivan suggests, both sides end up avoiding actual dialogue in the name of ensuring that the perfect ideological preconditions for it are met. As St. Paul would say, without love our attempts to speak to one another are reduced to a noisy gong as rational debate devolves into an alternating monologue of microaggressions.

It is with this hermeneutic of charitable hope that Sullivan reads Pope Francis's prophetic statements on everything from climate change and economic justice to the place of women and gays in the Church not as institutional or doctrinal proposals meant to move the discussion of these issues to a rightful resolution, but as conversation starters meant to spark debate among all those who hope for a future that they cannot see beyond the mere glimpses they discern while serving the needs of the present. Invoking the example of the Pope's namesake, Sullivan writes:

Whatever else it is, this is not progressivism. It sees no structural, human-devised system as a permanent improver of our material lot. It does not envision a world without poverty, but instead a church of the poor and for the poor. The only material thing it asks of the world, or of God, is daily bread - and only for today, never for tomorrow. If this seems extreme, it's because it is - an unreasonable, radical rebellion against the very nature of our physical selves. It allows for no comfort or security in a bodily sense. It suggests instead that it is only by losing both materially that we have a chance for anything like them spiritually. Of course, the religious association with extreme poverty is not restricted to the Christian tradition. But in Saint Francis, it achieves almost transcendent integrity. Many of his followers, it is worth remembering, were often of his own well-to-do class, just as many early Christians were prosperous traders and businesspeople. It was not so much the experience of poverty that propelled them so much as the renunciation of their own wealth and power. This, observers sensed and recorded, gave them a liberation like no other.

In light of this, it is unlikely that those militating for revolution from either the right or the left will find much of an ally in Pope Francis. On Sullivan's account, Francis seems as unlikely to endorse the legislative and judicial battle to install a dictatorship of personal virtue that is being waged by the right as he is to join the ranks of those on the left engaged in the paradoxical mobilization of a violent structural critique to match the structural violence of techno-capitalism. Rather, he is more likely to point to the birds of the air who do not sow or reap and, quoting Matthew 6:26, say, "Your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?" For Sullivan, this is the radical hope not only of Pope Francis but of the long tradition of Catholicism stretching back to a simple man who sought to feed and heal people in first-century Galilee.

A commitment to rational debate, a desire to experience the truth revealed in relationship, and a faith in the transformative power of charity extended in hope. These are the things that I see in Sullivan's "passionate, tortured relationship with the Catholic Church" that resonate with my own as it has unfolded these past few years. He has said that in his "retirement" from blogging he plans to return to longform writing and perhaps finish another book or two. I am sure that part of the motivation for stepping back from blogging is the desire to disengage from the daily demands of readers expecting commentary on anything and everything, but selfishly, I hope that Sullivan will continue writing about the Church and its "passionate, tortured" love story. Otherwise, the blogosphere will not only have lost one of its founding members, but the Church will have lost one if its most faithful dissidents.

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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