Much ink and energy has been expended in the pages of countless newspapers on this special creature known as the “Catholic Writer”. Google the term and you will be inundated with search results from Augustin and Aquinas to modern giants both gone – Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day – and still with us: Alice McDermott, Garry Wills and many others.
Reading the Andrew Sullivan collection, Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021, prompted my recent Google search. I had never heard of Sullivan in these conversations about Catholic writers, so I wasn’t surprised that his name didn’t appear. But the omission prompted two questions: why was he not there? And why was I not surprised?
The answer to both is obvious. Sullivan unabashedly identified himself as gay and Catholic for decades (he married her husband in 2007). But if that is disqualifying, the loss is clearly ours. Sullivan has written with such depth and insight into the experience of sexuality and faith for so long that it is hard not to see his journey as taking place in holy land. If he is not sufficiently Catholic, it is not by doctrine or by orientation; the fault is in our impoverished imaginations.
If Andrew Sullivan is not sufficiently Catholic, it is not because of doctrine or guidance; the fault is in our impoverished imaginations.
Not that Sullivan himself cares. He has spent his entire career as an outsider. He was an openly gay neoconservative Reaganite when this administration didn’t even mention the word AIDS. In 1989, Sullivan wrote a landmark essay arguing for the legalization of same-sex marriage during a time when many LGBTQ activists thought the idea was a pathetic surrender to heterosexual norms. Sullivan has a clear comfort with the contradiction which makes it difficult for readers to know where to place him. Is he a gay writer? A conservative writer? A conservative apostate? All we know for sure is that, according to Google, he is not a Catholic writer.
Out on a limb documents a man who thinks out loud and exhibits all of the conflicting qualities that made Sullivan frustrating at times, but still worth reading for years to come. A darling of the right in the 1980s, he was later disowned by Republicans for criticizing the GOP’s fear-mongering and intellectual dishonesty.
Sullivan’s ability to be flexible in his thinking is disarmingly rare among the expert class. His arguments are clever and well constructed even when they have been misguided. Looking back, Sullivan now views his “shamefully overdone defense” of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq as his “greatest failing judgment.”
It can also be frustrating to be blind to your own contradictions. Sullivan laments the devolution of conservatism during the 1990s and 2000s, but does not appear to question the underlying principles of the Reagan / Thatcher axis that gave birth to this next generation. Its fond memories of that time sometimes sound like non-critical exercises in political fantasy, fueled by overheated Cold War fears and simplistic assumptions about the virtues of free market capitalism.
Out on a limb manifests all the contradictory qualities which made Sullivan at times frustrating but invariably worth reading.
Sullivan’s conservatism is grounded in the thinking of the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990), who advocated a non-ideological and decidedly not utopian “politics of skepticism”, generally preferring decentralized governments and minimal intervention. One wonders how this hands-off epistemological humility towards change translates into African Americans, Native Americans, and others whose patience for justice has been measured over the centuries. And how does he challenge market-based assumptions about economic justice in a world characterized by dire wealth disparities?
Perhaps Sullivan’s most glaring contradiction is that despite all the Oakeshottian texture and undertone he displays regarding LGBTQ issues, he seems remarkably deaf on race issues. In his more recent writings, he does not hesitate to apply dismissive labels like “cultural Marxists” or to arm words like “social justice” or “critical theory of race”. Sullivan is a veteran of these cultural wars, but surely someone who has lived through their own marginalization is able to make more subtle distinctions when it comes to the complex and deeply ingrained issues of race and identity?
We know this subtlety is possible, as Sullivan’s writing is most poignant and layered when dealing with his Catholic faith. In a 1994 article, he recalls confronting his emerging sexuality at age 15 while in the fellowship line. “Please,” I remember asking God almost casually, after a quick account of my other failures, “help me with this,” he wrote. Sullivan didn’t even have a name for the sexual awakening he was experiencing.
Sullivan’s evocative understanding of faith and sexuality reveals the core of the cognitive dissonance that many of us experience in the Catholic Church.
“Looking back, I realize that this moment at the communion rail was the first time that I had brought up the subject of homosexuality explicitly in front of anyone; and I had brought it to God in the moments before the most intimate act of sacramental communion … [homosexuality] was also something inextricable – even then – at the heart of my existence, it seemed natural to me to seek God’s help rather than his judgment to face it.
It was a moment of deep recognition that foreshadowed her understanding of sexuality and faith as being at the core of her very being in the world:
Like faith, sexuality is not just a choice; it informs a whole way of being. But like faith, it involves choices – the choice to assert or deny a central part of one’s being, the choice to live a life that does not deny but faces reality. It is, like faith, mysterious, clearly emerging one day, only to disappear the next, taking on different forms – of passion, of lust, of intimacy, of fear. And like faith, it points to something else and more powerful than the self. The physical communion with the other in the sexual life alludes to the same kind of transcendence as the physical communion with the other which is at the heart of the sacramental catholic vision… My faith existed at the base of my way of seeing the world; my sexuality became inseparable from the way I felt about the world.
He’s a Catholic writer.
Sullivan’s evocative understanding of faith and sexuality reveals the core of the cognitive dissonance that many of us experience in the Catholic Church. As I explained eight years ago in these pages, Catholics are better placed than any group on earth to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters simply because, consciously or not, we have been kissing them for years in our religious communities and our local schools. They are our family, our friends, our neighbors, our ministers and our loved ones. They are us. The mercy, forgiveness and grace of God have already been transmitted to us through them in countless ways.
Given the complexity of what we understand about human sexuality, one way or another, Christians should believe that God created our LGBTQ brothers and sisters with attractions and the ability to connect and to love who are allowed as long as they are not taken into account? Can this be what God wants? Does their loneliness or their desire for privacy count for nothing? More importantly, how has denial of this reality become, for some in the church, what all Christian thinking and practice seems to rest on? If it is the sine qua non, did we need the four gospels? Asking the LGBTQ population to deny a central part of their being is like trying to erase part of the mystery of creation because of our fear and lack of understanding. It is damaging to us and to them, and it is a sin.
I interviewed novelist Anne Rice twice in the mid-2000s after she returned to her Catholic faith. She was devout and had a very good knowledge of the history and theology of the Church. She also had an adult son, openly homosexual. She believed the church would get there, but she just hadn’t yet developed a theology of homosexuality in line with our political, psychological, scientific, and social understanding. “I think we will see a theology that considers homosexuals as children of God like everyone else,” she said. “Yes, we are an Orthodox religion, but we are going through these changes… We have been through this long period of learning about homosexuals. He is part of the civil rights movement. It’s part of the scientific revolution… I think we’re going to expand and see that our Scripture still has authority, even as we open the doors wide.
Fifteen years later, Rice’s thoughts remain the best explanation I have heard on the matter. But what do we do until this theology is developed? For many, the doors still aren’t wide enough to accommodate a writer like Andrew Sullivan. To these people I would just say, “He’s already inside, he’s been there from the start, and whether we like it or not, he’s far from alone.”