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Hitchens and Sullivan on the Catholic Church

I must admit that I was first drawn to two of the political commentators whose work I most enjoy for reasons that could be dismissed as being based on group identity: First, Christopher Hitchens as an atheist, later Andrew Sullivan as a gay man. In both cases it is as much their wider political outlook that I relate to, given my admiration for both Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Both are Englishmen, born in 1949 and 1963 respectively, now resident in Washington, D.C. Hitchens became a United States citizen in 2007, and Sullivan is in the process of becoming one. Hitchens spend his youth on the Luxemburgist wing of international socialist politics, while Sullivan studied the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Both initially supported the 2003 war in Iraq; Hitchens has remained hawkish while Sullivan has since regretted this stance. Were they to return home, Hitchens would be on the Euston Manifesto wing of New Labour, while Sullivan would be on the Alan Duncan—David Davis libertarian wing of the Conservative Party.

Last week, both Hitchens and Sullivan wrote on the crisis within the Roman Catholic Church, which extends from parishes in Ireland, Massachusetts and Bavaria to the Vatican, with even Pope Benedict XVI himself implicated.

In his weekly Slate column, Fighting Words, Hitchens writes:

Eighteen of Germany’s 27 Roman Catholic dioceses are now facing government investigations after a breach in what Germany’s justice minister has rightly described as "a wall of silence." That wall was originally constructed by the man who now heads the church. The wall must be torn down. The fish—the ancient Christian symbol adopted by those who regard human beings as a shoal to be netted—absolutely rots from the head. I don’t think the full implications of this have even begun to sink in. The supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church is now a prima facie suspect in a criminal enterprise of the most appalling sort—and in the attempt to obstruct justice that has been part and parcel of that enterprise. He is also the political head of a state—the Vatican—that has given asylum to wanted men like the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. … Whether prosecuted or not, they stand condemned. But prosecution must follow, or else we admit that there are men and institutions that are above and beyond our laws.


In a lengthy blog piece, Sullivan, a lifelong practising Roman Catholic, after describing how the repression of homosexuality can lead to a perversion of sexuality and morality, writes:

We all know this game is now over. The current Pope is now found directly responsible for two clear incidents of covering up or ignoring child abuse and rape. As head of the organization that took responsibility for investigating these cases for so long, his complicity in this vast and twisted criminal conspiracy is not in dispute. If he were the head of a secular organization, he would have already resigned and be cooperating with the police.

But he is the Vicar of Christ on earth.

It’s hard to imagine a deeper crisis for the Catholic hierarchy than this. If the church is to survive – and it will because it is the vessel of eternal truth – it will have to go through a wrenching transformation.

Ultimately, between these two analyses, both insightful and quite close in line, I find myself a little more in sympathy with the tenor of the atheist than the Roman Catholic. But both are part of a growing feeling that the Roman Catholic Church is in serious trouble on a global scale, with a clear deficiency in moral authority.


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