Andrew Sullivan in Church

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"Well, I should say," piped the neat elderly little man, talking about Andrew Sullivan. The small fellow peeped up wide-eyed and earnest from scarf and loden coat and spectacles, a furry mammal. "I should say that what the fellow has to say should be contemplated with great seriousness!"

Stares, blinks?then scurries off prim and furtive and solo, a spooked parishioner Mr. Mole lost to the branch-rustling acorn-scaled streets of the West Village.

So this past Friday night was likely the first time in God knows how long that a Catholic church was filled to the gills with a bunch of queers. The occasion: the devoutly Catholic Sullivan lecturing on the topic "We're Here: Homosexuals and the Catholic Church," as part of the St. Joseph's Church (you know it?it's the white-columned neoclassical place down there on 6th Ave.) lecture series. And Sullivan, plump (this is reassuring in an HIV patient), tieless, striped-shirted, emphatic, blond-bearded, face creased with a good-natured exertion as he notelessly spoke, after genuflecting toward the altar on his way toward the mic.

("Did you notice that genuflection?" laughed the garrulous Father Tos, introducing him. "Would that more of us..." etc.)

Anyway: Natty guys in suits; the odd wiry, balding dude in leather and earrings; a couple punk-looking kids, possibly lost, possibly not; fat guys; skinny guys; guys who could pass for suburban fathers, and others who never could. But at any rate men who had been motivated by their compunctions to dedicate a Friday evening to figuring out where they stood in the church's cosmology?even while straight Catholics, untainted by any urge toward abominable and unnatural lust, were free to get ready for dates, drink beer, watch tv, smoke pot, etc.

Sullivan blocked out ideas with his hands.

"Homosexuality itself is not simple, but any expression of it in sexual terms is a moral evil. This is the paradox that we Catholics are required to understand." Pause as he thought, his hands raised as if he were going to hold them painfully to his temples. "So let me understand."

The crowd flowed over into the lobby. Guys stood alone with deep expressions on their faces, their coats open, hands jammed in pockets. An autumnal loneliness filled the place.

Sullivan's method toward justifying his religion is to actually read the texts in question, at a level of rigor at which their at-once damning and redemptive difficulties become evident.

"It is only intellectually honest," he said, "to say that, in its totality, the Bible is quite clear about sexual [contact] between two people of the same gender." But, he noted, homosexuality is "not the only forbidden thing in the Old Testament." In Leviticus, he pointed out, there exist "injunctions with the same force about eating shellfish." And there are injunctions "with regard to mixing different fabrics in the same piece of clothing. Those also are...'abominations.' But yet we do not see the religious right coming to Bloomingdale's. That would get the homosexual community up in arms. Or maybe it would take Barneys."

Laughter, but strained laughter: "'It's not who you are, it's what you do,' as Patrick Buchanan once said to me on live television. God love him."

But everyone seemed to have too much at stake here to laugh too much. This surreal Friday-night church convocation?church without stolid wives, without shabby genuflecting fatherly burghers, without rosary-torturing matrons, without little girls sliding under pews in white patent leather?from which Sullivan was loosing upon the world good thoughts, which would almost certainly be ignored, for the time being, by jackasses and fundamentalists.

"What we are doing here tonight, talking in this church, is not a heterodox or rebellious act," he said. "This is what we are enjoined to do."

People looked humble, as if they were waiting for something to happen. There was evident in the air the low-grade apocalypticism?things have to change, but they might not, at least not tomorrow?of the political-cell meeting.

Themes of Sullivan's talk: natural law, longing, wholeness, justice, complementarity. A conversation, then, that unfolded with a Thomist vocabulary on a plane of sophistication that 99 percent of Catholics never have to bother concerning themselves with. Some of the central questions of the Catholic philosophical tradition, ignored by the majority of the unself-conscious laity, but meditated upon tonight by a group of homosexuals, kind of as if their spiritual lives depended on it?the lost boys of the Catholic church.

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