Wednesday morning, my friend Philip responded to my buddy Lara's take on Andrew Sullivan's recent statement of faith.
It's an interesting dialogue:
"That's unfortunate - it feels like "not 100% orthodox" = "knows nil about Catholic doctrine." Why the need to completely disparage people who disagree? I'd like to believe it's possible for two people to be equally serious and intelligent and yet disagree, but here on the Internets it seems like the choices are always either "agree with me" or "you're a moron.""
"Hey, now. Nobody called nobody no moron, and I certainly wouldn’t think that of anyone just because they hold different views from mine. My snotty high church Anglican upbringing precludes name-calling, and predisposes me to welcome joyfully any challenge to my imperfect understanding. Hurrah!
'I'd like to believe it's possible for two people to be equally serious and intelligent and yet disagree.'
Precisely the point I'm making is that Sullivan may be serious about many things, but Catholicism is quite obviously not one of them – unless of course “serious about Catholicism” can also mean “serious about reshaping centuries of tradition to suit my own narrow purposes” or “going to start calling my trips to the beach ‘The Eucharist’ (check it out, y’all! it looks like I’m sunbathing, but in fact I’m taking communion!)” Hawaiian Tropic should do a line in holy oils.
Anyway, as does most of Sullivan's writing concerning faith, this particular passage demonstrates a radical departure from basic – like, REALLY basic – doctrine. Even the Catholic Church in its present state isn’t “100% orthodox,” so I don’t expect Sullivan to be. But I’ll bet my hair and yours that an overwhelming majority of Catholics would find Sullivan’s seaside sacraments as hilarious-slash-horrifying as I do.
If you want different answers, or the freedom to behave according to your own set of precepts instead of those set out by your *chosen* faith (yes, we choose) then seek membership elsewhere. Don’t appropriate what has existed for centuries just because it offends your precious sensibilities. That’s the whole point of church, isn’t it? We’re supposed to cleave ourselves to her, not her to us. This, too, is so basic that it hardly need be said.
The Catholic Church isn’t good enough for Sullivan to worship comfortably in, but its respectability, centuries in the making, is good enough for him to arrogate and reprobate by turns, according to the whims of opportunism. I think that’s rude, just for starters. and expecting serious Christians to find common ground with a progressive faux Catholic is, to mangle a phrase, like asking a lamb and a wolf to agree on what to eat for dinner.
"I've read Sullivan for a while, and I see a man who is constantly struggling in his faith - seeking wisdom and understanding, trying to see how he fits in as part of the Church. I think what I'm reacting to is the way you seem to just completely dismiss what seems to be a very serious and earnest struggle, and one that I suspect many, many Catholics go through.
For instance, I don't get the dismissal of his line about the dunes and the water. Many great Christian writers have found grace in nature (see for instance Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit and poet), and I don't get how allegorizing nature to the sacraments trivializes them. Nor do I fully understand why you claim that Sullivan knows nothing about Catholic doctrine. So all this leaves me with is that you find him boring and his logic irritating. These may be valid responses to him, but I hardly see how this makes him an unserious Catholic.
As for "expecting serious Christians to find common ground with a progressive faux Catholic" - yes, that's exactly what I expect. Is the church truly universal, or is it just a cozy club for like-minded people? Is the goal of church simply to find a comfortable, non-challenging home? If so, then Sullivan should leave for another faith. But if the goal of church is to be a source of inspiration, challenge, and catalyst for spiritual growth (which often means discomfort and struggle), then I'm not so sure we should be trying to kick anyone out. In fact, if you are NOT made uncomfortable and are not challenged in your spiritual home (you general, not specific here), then maybe it's time to look for a new church."
"Here is the passage entire:
(Andrew Sullivan:) 'We all have aspects of ourselves that the church considers inadequate or wrong. They come as a package. In my own accounting of my sins, sex does not feature much at all. Sometimes I seek a space in St Francis' chapel, a saint I have long loved. And I try to listen to God, and pray the Lord's prayer and meditate for a while to center myself before or after mass. I go much less frequently than I used to, which is the main expression of my alienation, I suppose. In the summers I barely go at all. For me the dunes are the sacraments and the water and air the incense, and the reeds the vestments, and the tides a remembrance of the change that persists. I grew up in a rural woodland and always associated it with religion and the presence of God.'
And here is your comment: 'I don't get how allegorizing nature to the sacraments trivializes them.'
If he were merely allegorizing then I might even find his sentiments quite sweet, if a bit threadbare. But he isn’t. In his own words: the dunes ARE the sacraments, the water and air ARE the incense, the reeds ARE the vestments. He is, in other words, quite purposely and *in fact* substituting the holiest act made available to us on Earth with something he has decided is equivalent. It’s not quite nature worship. It’s worse. He returns to the Eucharist when summer is over, or when the fancy (which he calls "need") takes him, whichever comes first. His needs, not God’s. “I grew up in a rural woodland and always associated it with religion and the presence of God.” As if that explains anything.
You read Sullivan and perceive an “earnest Catholic … constantly struggling in his faith.” I read him and perceive a man struggling desperately to convince himself (and no doubt his readers) that his self-centered life works better than a God-centered life. 'In my own accounting of my sins, sex does not feature much at all' says it all. His rules, not God’s.
To address your point about spiritual challenges, help me understand something: you believe the role of the Church in our lives is to provide spiritual growth in being made uncomfortable by the likes of Andrew Sullivan? If not, I’m sorry for misunderstanding you. If so, how bizarre. You go to church to be made uncomfortable by your fellow parishioners? Poor you! Or do you go there to make others uncomfortable? Such a pity! One should first contend with God-given challenges before presuming to assert oneself as a source of challenge and struggle to the Church and one's fellows, no?
And who said anything about kicking people out? If God says believing in space aliens is a sin, and I then go about proclaiming my unrepentant belief in space aliens in church and to fellow Christians, do I not remove *myself* from their fellowship and God's, even if no person bodily "kicks me out"?"
"I think my fellow believers are, and ought to be, a constant challenge to me. For instance, right now I'm having to think and consider more, by having this conversation, than I would otherwise. If I am to take seriously the idea that God speaks to us through the church, and that the church consists of all of our fellow believers, then I must take your understanding of faith and spirituality seriously. And in doing so, yeah, it's challenging and uncomfortable - it'd be much easier if you were to just agree with me.
Likewise with Sullivan. I can't just dismiss him - not if I am earnest about taking my fellow believers' faith seriously. I believe God speaks, not just through the liturgy, but through our fellow believers (indeed, through our fellow human beings).
As far as whether or not people remove themselves, perhaps it's just the way it comes across to me, but it sure *seems* like there's a lot policing of the gates going on here. The tone feels very much like "don't let the door hit you on the way out." Perhaps that's not the intention, but it comes across that way."
"I was thinking a bit more about your last paragraph and people removing themselves, rather than being kicked out. I think I have a better illustration of my problem with that.
Let's apply that standard consistently across the board to Roman Catholics (that's what I know - can't say much about Anglicans). Anyone who consistently and unrepentantly holds to beliefs that contradict Catholic teaching has kicked themselves out.
Let's start with the church's ban on all forms of birth control (except NFP). That removes something like 60 -70% of Catholics, maybe more, at least in America. Actually, expand that to sexual teachings in general, and most Catholics world-wide have "removed themselves."
What about abortion? According to some rather vocal American bishops, that excludes any Catholic in the Democratic party.
Torture? Most Catholics in the Republican party have removed themselves as well.
That doesn't leave too many people. And I've only touched on the obvious, relatively cut and dried topics where the Catechism explicitly forbids certain activities.
So is this the vision of the universal church, a place too small for anyone but a tiny handful to find a spiritual home?"