Andrew Sullivan is Also a Poor Theologian
Welcome to readers from Hugh Hewitt.
Andrew Sullivan is out flogging his book the Conservative Soul, linked above. While doing the usual radio-show circuit, he dropped in with Hugh Hewitt. I know some people don’t like Hugh’s style – a position I flat out don’t understand. Of course, I read Gorgias for pleasure, so I am obviously mental.
Anyway, in the interview Hugh asked very simple, very direct questions. Mr. Sullivan seemed, shall we say, off-put by this and became defensive. Mr. Hewitt has comments on Mr. Sullivan’s understanding on constitutional law here, but my training is in Catholic Theology so I will take a look at what Mr. Sullivan said about the Church.
The first thing that struck me is that Mr. Sullivan is what I sometimes call a ‘Two-er”. He refers to the Second Vatican Council as the ‘Second council’. This is splitting hairs, but the real second council was the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. The Second Vatican Council was actually the 21st Council. I find that people who base their Catholicism on a rather personal reading of Vatican II refer to it as if it were virtually the only council. There are four other ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church besides the Second Vatican that can be called ‘the second’. This is a strong hint to me that Mr. Sullivan knows very little, if anything, about any council but Nicea and Vatican II.
Of course, a deep understanding of all of the councils is not a requirement. Good catechesis teaches you all you need to know to be a faithful Catholic. So what did Mr. Sullivan say? Here are some examples.
The first is a quote attributed to pg. 46 of The Conservative Soul, a quote that Mr. Sullivan does not reject, “ …to take a very basic issue, like the matter of conscience. For many non-fundamentalistic Christians, conscience is the ultimate arbiter of what they believe. In fact, the right to believe only what one’s own conscience can assent to was at the root of the Reformation…long defined such denominations as the Baptists. The Catholic hierarchy long resisted such an idea until the Second Vatican Council, when it was endorsed, along with religious freedom, and an acceptance of religious pluralism.” [spelling edited]
I have no idea why ‘fundamentalistic’ was used instead of the simpler ‘fundamental’ or even ‘fundamentalist’, but whatever. As for Mr. Sullivan’s claims about what Vatican II taught, my initial response was, literally, “The Hell? Where did he get this?” I re-read it carefully and went back to my cool reference “Documents of the Second Vatican Council” and took a look. Guess what? He doesn’t understand what it says. Indeed, I don’t think he’s read it.
Here is part of what Gaudium et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) says about conscience:
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that.” [section 16]
This means that a properly-formed conscience is actually an innate awareness and affinity for God’s laws. In other words, there are objective moral laws and a properly-formed conscience is an innate understanding of these unchanging truths. Section 16 also includes this,
“Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” [emphasis added]
In short, this tells us that a properly-formed conscience leads us to turn away from our own personal preferences in favor of objective moral truth. However, it also warns us that people who prefer personal choice or people who habitually sin (break the objective moral laws routinely) have a poorly-formed, or even non-existent conscience, making them blind to the truth.
In section 87, while dicussing birth control, Gaudium et Spes states,
“But since the judgment of the parents presupposes a rightly formed conscience, it is of the utmost importance that the way be open for everyone to develop a correct and genuinely human responsibility… … sometimes this [the development of a rightly-formed conscience] requires… …at least a complete moral training.” [emphasis added]
So, without proper moral training, we do not have a rightly-formed conscience, which limits our moral judgment.
Section 50 states,
“…[the faithful] must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.”
This tells us that the Church does, indeed, have the ability to interpret what the objective moral laws are, how they relate to our lives and – yes – that when our conscience conflicts with the dogma of the Church, that our conscience is poorly-formed.
Dignitatus Humanae (On Religious Freedom) section 14 says this,
“In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church… For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.” [emphasis added]
This shows that the Church teaches truth and that the proper formation of conscience requires that we listen to the Church as the official teacher of truth empowered by Christ Himself.
Section 43 of Gaudium et Spes goes on with this.
“Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment…. .. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church… let the layman take on his own distinctive role.”
This means that the conscience must adhere as closely as possible to the teachings, or doctrines, of the Church and must be expressed in the world. In short, you have to give great weight to things like the doctrine of priestly celibacy, tithing, etc. and you must make your beliefs part or your words and deeds, not just your church-going.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us in section 1778 that
And in section 1792 the Catechism tells us.
“Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.” [emphasis added].
This is, in my opinion, all very, very clear. Mr. Sullivan has it almost completely backward. He states indirectly and not-so-indirectly that as a Catholic one’s conscience is supreme, then the Church. But the Catholic teaching from the Second Vatican Council (which he refers to as evidence that he is right) states very clearly that the conscience must be formed according to the teachings of the Church, not vice-versa. The catechism (written after Vatican II) warns us very directly that rejection of the Church’s authority and teaching can be ‘sources of errors in judgment in moral conduct”, i.e., a poorly-formed conscience. Most importantly, the idea of ‘an autonomy of conscience’, something obviously central to Mr. Sullivan’s interpretation of Christianity, is directly refuted!
All this might explain some more of the interview Mr. Sullivan gave [AS is Andrew Sullivan, HH is Hugh Hewitt],
HH: Let me try this a separate way. If, in fact, a Catholic is in a state of mortal sin, as the Church defines mortal sin, may they receive communion?
AS: I think that’s a very hard…no, they should not, if they sincerely believe that they are in a state of mortal sin, yes.
HH: And if the Church has a teaching about what moral sin is, and it is sufficiently clear, and it’s in the Catechism, and you reject that definition, or a Catholic rejects that definition, does that empower them to receive communion?
AS: I think that’s up to the individual….
Wow. Let’s start at the top on this one.
In section 1849 of the Catechism sin is defined,
“Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law” [emphasis added]
And in 1856 it goes on with this,
“Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation: When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.” [emphasis added]
And 1857 defines the pre-conditions for a sin to be mortal,
“For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."”
What this means is that sin is a failure of conscience in the face of desire and will. In other words – mortal sin is something you wanted to do it, you liked doing it, and your conscience didn’t bother you enough to keep you from doing it. For Mr. Sullivan to claim that the determination of who is in mortal sin should be the sole discretion of the sinner is not even wrong.
There is a lot more in the interview that just screams ‘I read the cliff notes of Vatican II’, but I am going to wait until I read the book to continue.
Note to my readers; I am well aware that there are vast numbers of Christians that adhere to the idea that one’s own conscience is the ultimate arbiter between Man and Christ. The thing is, most of them don’t claim to be Catholic. Mr. Sullivan does claim to be Catholic. The trickiest part of claiming to be Catholic, though, is that there is actually a definition. Mr. Sullivan doesn’t seem to match it.