When I was growing up in New York City in the 1950s, the term “narrowback” was used by some of the older Irish-born folks in our neighborhood as a term of derision for Irish-Americans “without shoulders broad enough to bear the traditions of the Irish people.” They were referring to what others might call social climbers, people willing to disparage their own people in order to ascend socially and in the work place.
It is a term that frequently comes to mind when I read Irish-American columnists with Catholic backgrounds, such as Pete Hamill and Maureen Dowd. I wonder if they realize that they have their jobs because they are willing to bash the Catholic Church and the Catholic people in a manner that would bring on too much heat for their non-Catholic publishers and editors.
I am not saying that Hamill and Dowd are not talented. No doubt they would be successful even if their names were Schwartz or Saltonstall. But not in the same way. Their celebrity status springs from their eagerness to scold and belittle Catholics who take seriously the Church’s teachings on issues such as feminism, abortion and homosexuality. They are offered by their employers as examples of how modern Catholics can become part of the mosaic of modern multicultural life by rising above the teachings of the Church.
Which means that British-born Andrew Sullivan probably does not fit the bill as a narrowback. I am not sure, but my guess is that this editor of the New Republic, Time magazine columnist and frequent guest on the television talk shows, harbors no special affection for Ireland or things Irish. There are many folks like that, people with Irish names who bristle when anyone calls them “Irish,” especially in Great Britain. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Those of us who grew up in Irish-American enclaves in Boston and New York sometimes make the mistake of assuming that people with Irish last names think of themselves as having Irish roots. No so. These days, having an Irish last name can mean nothing more than that one of your great grandfathers was part Irish.
But Sullivan fits the bill in every other way. He calls himself a Catholic, a devout Catholic, in fact. Yet he spends much of his time portraying the Church’s teachings as appallingly backward and unenlightened, especially on the question of homosexuality. Sullivan is an open and proud homosexual in the vanguard of the effort to legalize homosexual marriage. I recently came across a Time column of his (May 7th) in which he coined a new term to advance that cause: “Christianist.” By that he means Christians who see Christianity as compatible only with the Republican Party, thereby turning Christianity into “an ideology, politics, an ism.”
Sullivan contends that, for Christianists, “religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.” He compares the Christianists to “Islamists,” the Muslim extremists “who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque.” And he will have none of that: “I dissent from having my faith co-opted and wielded by people whose politics I do not share and whose intolerance I abhor. The word Christian belongs to no political party. It’s time the quiet majority of believers took it back.”
He claims to be speaking for “lay Catholics who, while personally devout, are socially liberal on issues like contraception, gay rights, women’s equality and a multi-faith society,” as well as for those “who simply believe that, by definition, God is unknowable to our limited, fallible human minds and souls,” and who live their lives with “great humility in the face of God” and with “an enormous reluctance to impose one’s beliefs, through civil law, on anyone else.”
You can see why Sullivan’s editors are fond of him. If they trotted out a non-Catholic secular humanist to make the case that the Church is wrong in seeking to influence public policy on abortion and homosexual marriage, the response would be “What else is new?” Sullivan, in contrast, can be portrayed as a loyal Catholic with the benefit of an Ivy League education, struggling with the best of intentions to drag his Church into the modern age.
But what of Sullivan’s contention that we should be reluctant to seek ways to enact our “beliefs through civil law” because “God is “unknowable to our limited, fallible human minds and souls”? Doesn’t that make some sense? It does. But that is why Moses was given the 10 Commandments, why Jesus came to earth and dwelt amongst us, and why He established a Church with a teaching authority to bind on earth what will also be bound in heaven. You can’t call yourself a Catholic and reject these things with a shrug.
There is no reason why Christians should be expected to adopt the moral relativism of the atheists and secular humanists before they enter into discussions of public policy. We are entitled to our moral convictions that abortion takes the life of an unborn child and that marriage is a bond between one man and one woman. We have no obligation to acquiesce to Sullivan’s contention that such matters are “unknowable to our limited, fallible human minds and souls.” There is nothing implicit in the rules of a democracy that requires such a concession.
But there is really no need to get into a long and convoluted discussion of this matter with Sullivan or those who agree with them. They are trying to set us up. If the question were whether Christians should be encouraged to promote the cause of women’s rights, racial equality, an end to female circumcision and gay-bashing on the basis of Jesus’ call that we love one another as ourselves, Sullivan would be leading the charge, with bells on. Christians only earn the label of “Christianists” from him when they vote the way he doesn’t like.
Look, if Sullivan were talking about imposing our sectarian religious beliefs upon our fellow citizens, he would be right. We have no right to require non-Catholics to go to confession or fast on Fridays during Lent. Baptists have no right to demand that the rest of us submit to baptism by full immersion. Orthodox Jews have no right to pass laws forcing the rest of us to wear yarmulkes. These are matters of faith and religious ritual, governing only the behavior of members of the respective religious bodies.
But it is different when the question is the lives of unborn children or the definition of marriage. These issues are central to the way we define ourselves as a people, involving applications of right reason to our societal life. And Christians have as much right to seek laws governing these things based upon their moral convictions as atheists and secular humanists have to lobby for what they have learned from reading Freud and Betty Friedan.
What makes things nettlesome for Andrew Sullivan is that he wants to call himself a Catholic even though his thinking on these matters is rooted more in Freud and Friedan than the teachings of the Church. That is what they call progressive Catholic thinking in his circles: going over to the trendy secular humanists and distancing yourself from Catholicism becoming a narrowback.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)