In the world of religious journalism, which is to say not the real world, one of the big stories of Holy Week was a Newsweek cover essay by Andrew Sullivan entitled “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus”. Sullivan is a big deal, you see. He is a popular blogger and a complicated fellow – he’s gay, liberal, Christian and conservative. He was born in Surrey but has become an American. He is tolerant and angry about it. He is a voice of our time.
His Easter message, which prompted much excitement on the web, was clear enough: Christianity as we know it is corrupt and doomed. Humans must instead focus on the radical message of Jesus Christ, and we will find ourselves reborn. Easy-peasy.
Sullivan invokes the example of the American founding father Thomas Jefferson. As a young man Jefferson literally cut out and pasted together parts of the New Testament that he thought represented the authentic voice of Jesus. He removed anything that struck him as supernatural or superstitious. This left what Sullivan describes as the “purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who sought to use Jesus to advance their power”.
Sullivan wants similarly to expunge “bad religion” from 21st-century Christianity. He is referring here to the wilder parts of American evangelicalism: the prosperity preachers who tell followers that if they pray hard enough they will get rich, the “religious Right” windbags who preach consumerism, creationism and violence against terrorists. These are perversions of real faith, says Sullivan.Fair enough. But as a cradle Catholic, Sullivan also has Mother Church in his sights. “The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI,” he pronounces. (Note the infallible voice.) “But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be – except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead they obsess about others’ sex lives and who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance.”
Steady, Andy. It’s a bit rich of you to attack others for their preoccupation with sex, when so much of your life has been spent writing about your own sexuality. As Rod Dreher pointed out on the American Conservative website, the day after the “Follow Jesus” article appeared, Sullivan posted on his blog a letter from a reader about hiring a male porn star as a prostitute for his birthday. Is it un-Christian to say that he probably ought not to preach about Jesus while publishing lurid sex gossip?
“In the grand scheme of Jesus’s teaching,” insists Sullivan, “sex is an extremely minor theme.” Maybe it is. But it seems silly to say that sex – which, done properly, has some relation to the transmission of life – and chastity are not central to any true Christian understanding. Our Saviour did not discuss civil partnerships and contraception. But he did say: “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” Sullivan argues that, with those words, Jesus is deliberately setting an impossibly high moral standard. What He is saying, says Andrew, is that since we all fall short and sin none of us, least of all a scandal-riddled institution such as the Catholic Church, should pass judgment. Well, yes, but let’s not ignore Andy’s hypocrisy, even if it is forgivable. In his sweeping condemnations of the Catholic hierarchy, he is judging others, too.
Sullivan’s fundamental problem is a Protestant one. He wants Christ without His Church. But he can’t have it. He doesn’t acknowledge even the possibility that the fringe evangelical sects he so despises are a consequence of the same strict liberal theology he espouses. Those churches have broken from all authority other than their own interpretation, and have become deranged as a result. Catholicism, thank God, spares us from that, even if it is impaired by scandal.
Sullivan writes admiringly of how his “barely literate” Irish grandmother used to pray the rosary at Mass. “She seemed to know God more deeply than I, with all my education and privilege, ever will,” he says, with, er, humility. Maybe one day he’ll see what his granny presumably saw: there’s a certain freedom in orthodoxy.