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The Conservatism of Andrew Sullivan

Richard John Neuhaus

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It's an argument among Roman Catholics, but the ideas touch everyone.

"As a simple empirical matter, we are all sodomites now, but only homosexuals bear the burden of the legal and social stigma." Thus says Andrew Sullivan in a long article in the New Republic occasioned by the Texas law against sodomy now before the Supreme Court. As he has done many times before, Mr. Sullivan presents himself as a Catholic who is trying to help the Church update its antiquated views on human sexuality. And again he misrepresents, and then triumphantly rebuts, a crazy-quilt of arguments which he attributes to Aquinas and other worthies, including contemporary natural law theorists. Finally, for Mr. Sullivan, what is "natural" is what people actually do, and what people actually do sexually should not be censured so long as it is "private, adult, and consensual." Most people do not adhere to the Church's teaching that the sexual act is rightly ordered within the unitive and procreative bond of marriage. People do all kinds of disordered and downright kinky things and therefore are, says Mr. Sullivan, de facto sodomites. Here, as Mr. Sullivan is given to saying, is the money quote:

"It is hard to see why . . . sexual pleasure, fantasy, and escape are somehow inimical to human flourishing--and there's plenty of evidence that their permanent or too-rigid suppression does actual psychological and spiritual harm. Relationships that include sexual adventure and passion and experimentation are not relationships of 'disintegrated' people but relationships in which trust is the prerequisite for relief, release, and renewal. The meaning of these sexual experiences is as varied as the people in them. And there are many contexts in which to understand these sexual experiences other than as purely procreative. You can think of sex--within marriage and in other relationships--as a form of bonding; as a way to deepen and expand the meaning of intimacy; as a type of language even, where human beings can communicate subtly, beautifully, passionately, without words. And, in a world where our consumer needs are exquisitely matched by markets, in which bourgeois comfort can almost anesthetize a sense of human risk and adventure, sex remains one of the few realms left where we can explore our deepest longings, where we can travel to destinations whose meaning and dimensions we cannot fully know. It liberates and exhilarates in ways few other experiences still can. Yes, taking this to extremes can be destructive. And yes, if this experience trumps or overwhelms other concerns--the vows of marriage, the trust of a faithful relationship, the duty we bear to children--then it can be a social harm. But the idea that expressing this human freedom is somehow intrinsically and always immoral, that it somehow destroys the soul, is an idea whose validity is simply denied in countless lives and loves."

A Matter of Taste

Mr. Sullivan, who is a conservative on some matters, is, in principle if not in disposition, a sexual libertine. This is disguised from some by his sleight of hand in contending that "gay marriage" would bring homosexual excesses under the domesticating influence of a conventional institution. But he leaves no doubt that such unions are but one of innumerable choices homosexuals might make in the pursuit of "sexual adventure and passion and experimentation." He allows that "taking this to extremes can be destructive," but who is to say what is extreme, especially if such adventure is private, adult, and consensual? Answering that question was exactly the project of Michel Foucault with his "limit experiences" in the bathhouses of San Francisco before he died of AIDS. The above statement by Sullivan could as well have been made by Norman O. Brown in his defense of the unbridled libido, which he marketed as "polymorphous perversity." Mr. Sullivan likely deems the positions of such as Foucault and Brown to be extreme, meaning that they are not to his taste, although he has written elsewhere about the erotic charms of anonymous sex with strangers.

A couple of months ago a major Catholic university held a symposium on "the reconstruction of Catholic sexual ethics," and invited me to debate Andrew Sullivan. I declined. Mr. Sullivan has no interest whatever in reconstructing a Catholic sexual ethic, or any other kind of ethic that might propose constraints or moral orderings on the satisfaction of sexual desires, apart from a few narrowly defined causes of possible "social harm." The meaning--including moral meaning--of sexual relationships "is as varied as the people in them." That some things might be right or wrong "is an idea whose validity is simply denied in countless lives and loves" of people who have persuaded themselves that their ways of pursuing adventure, passion, and experimentation is right for them. Mr. Sullivan knows that living in defiance of Christian morality does not imperil the soul--nothing "destroys" the soul--because his soul and the souls of others who do likewise are in such great shape. Such is the perfect circularity of moral solipsism.

Mr. Sullivan is a self-declared sodomite. In his writing about his own proclivities and practices, he presents himself as a conservative sodomite. Manifestly uneasy about being a bad Catholic, he does not, like other bad Catholics, confess his sin, but writes endlessly about why the Church is wrong and he is right about what he and others do. Perhaps sensing that he is not getting much of anywhere with that argument, he resorts to declaring, "We are all sodomites now." The discerning reader will recognize that as the tu quoque defense (You're one, too), the last refuge of the defender of the indefensible.

Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 134 (June/July 2003): 58-72.

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