In search of new orthodoxies

Orthodoxy is always subversive of our conception of orthodoxy.

I haven’t done an official introduction yet…

So welcome to my Substack, a space for ruminations on Catholicism, homosexuality, and more! Other topics you’ll likely see discussed here include the clergy abuse crisis, race and racism, gender, liberal education, friendship, and community.

For roughly ten years I maintained a Wordpress blog, first titled “Ideas of a University,” and then bearing my own name at chrisdamian.net. The blog was often used to think through what it meant to be a gay Catholic who wanted to uphold a “traditional Christian sexual ethic” both conceptually and practically. But over time, this frame of reference for my vocation and identity shifted, changed, and was in many ways deemed less relevant to, and a distraction from, larger and more central questions in my life. I’ve always desired to have a Christian life deeply embedded in Church history and tradition, but I’ve also realized that the semi-traditionalist Catholic culture in which I spent my late teens and early twenties didn’t have space for a brown gay man to do this in a full and fulfilling way. I needed something else.

Then and Now

The move here represents a culminating shift in focus. At times I’ll look back, digging into my past to examine toxic elements in Catholic culture that drive me and others to the margins. At other times I’ll look forward, examining the creation of a life-giving space for us. Certainly, there are good parts of the past, and there will be mistakes in the future. (Richard Rohr’s use of false historical binaries is one reason why I struggle with his writings.) But I’m ready for the closing of a chapter and the start of a new one. This new space is part of that change.

This space is not for the faint of heart. At various points in my past, I’ve presented the wrong questions and the wrong answers, and I’m under no delusion that this won’t happen again. I’m not here to be your role model. I’m not here to be your hero. I’m here to think through tough questions, and I hope you can find some of this thinking helpful. Take it all with a grain of salt. Though I will try to be mindful of the need for content warnings, this may not always be a safe space for everyone all the time. I often find my views cut across partisan divides, and I’m aware that I hold views that may be offensive to people on all sides of all issues. I hope you’ll be patient with me. I’m always open to feedback. But I also pride myself in being someone who tries to think outside the box, and who tries to see how we all have a part played in the world’s problems.

With that said, I should probably introduce myself! There are a lot of narrative threads in my life, but I’ll share just one here:

I’m the grandchild of a Chamorro-Filipino veteran, the pious (also Chamorro) Catholic church lady who married him, a Hindu Indian immigrant engineer, and a strong-willed Democrat New Yorker who received the Eucharist daily. I grew up in a small Republican town in Texas, where I attended a podunk Catholic school and got an education I’m very proud of. I was a praise and worship pro-life traditionalist-leaning Catholic kid when I started at Notre Dame. But while in college I fell in love with another guy (while also falling for the “Traditional Latin Mass”), got kicked out of my dorm because of a confusing sexual relationship, and found myself for the first time as an outsider from “the good Catholics.” After college, I got my J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas, where I came to terms with the double life I was living while speaking in defense of Church teaching on homosexuality, went through an atheist phase, and then realized I needed to make some changes. Now I work as an attorney, do some writing on the side, and think about how to fit all these parts of myself together.

I do a lot of reading. When it comes to big issues, I like to dig into the primary texts. I’ll share them here, trying to make them accessible to people who may not have the time or energy to dig into them. Not all of the views I share here will be views I agree with, but they’ll be views that I think are worthy of consideration. It’s a big world. I believe that it has space for you and me, but sometimes we have to work to create that space. I’m less interested in giving “hot takes” and more interested in considering a variety of odd perspectives and how they can be integrated into a full human life.

Why “new orthodoxies”?

My approach to my faith and my life has always been integrative. I want learn all about reality and how it fits together to discover truth, goodness, and beauty. I believe in a God who imbues everything with meaning. This comes largely through my experiences as a Catholic, as a member of a Church with particular histories, traditions, texts, and cultures.

“Orthodoxy” is an idea that can be traced back to the early Church. In De Vera Religione, Saint Augustine writes: “[N]eque in caecitate Iudaeorum quaerenda est religio, sed apud eos solos qui Christiani catholici, vel orthodoxi nominantur, id est integritatis custodes, et recta sectantes.” (“Religion should not be sought in the blindness of the Jews, but among only those who are catholic Christians, or who have been named orthodox [believers], that is, the guardians of soundness, and who are pursuing the right.”) Notwithstanding the dangers of these words being appropriated to justify antisemitism, it’s important to note that “orthodoxy” was understood to be a key characteristic of those who identified as members of the early Christian church.

This focus on “orthodoxy” may be a historical feature of a Church still trying to define itself in relation to both the Judaism out of which it grew and the various communities were were growing out of it. One of the ways in which the Church could define, identify, and stabilize itself was through the articulation of “right teaching.” Certainly, early Christians were very concerned with praxis, which may be partly why martyrdom was such an important experience to early Christians. But for a Church that wanted to be able to both identify itself and hold space for sinners, the expectation of intellectual assent to a number of articulated teachings was a helpful way to set some boundaries for the community. As far as I can tell, “orthodoxy” seems to have been a much less important category as the Church took on cultural dominance in the Middle Ages, and it only reappeared as a significant category in Christianity after the Reformation and, especially, in the modern age.

My personal interest in “orthodoxy” is as old as I can remember. At one point in my life, “orthodoxy” meant taking everything that the Catholic bishops said on matters of faith and morals for granted, following these things just as they have been said, and molding my life around this pursuit, regardless of how it worked out for me in real life. Over time, I realized that “Church teaching” and “magisterial authority” are complicated concepts, and that I needed to be able to engage them critically if I wanted to integrate them with realities like the clergy abuse crisis and my own experiences of unjust discrimination in the Church.

I still want to have a faith that is integrative, that sees the Church as possessing a powerful dialectical continuity across the ages and as having meaning and significance in its structures and histories. But I also know that lived realities are the spaces where the Church dwells. I want to live as God wants me to live, to work with a Holy Spirit who has been alive and active throughout history. So if I want to be “orthodox,” I may need to critique or challenge prevailing “orthodoxies” that, regardless of their conceptual value, function so as to harm, marginalize, and hide the Good News. If I am to live as a Catholic and want to integrate “orthodoxy” as a good, I need to go out in search of “new orthodoxies.”

Part of this will involve the Thomistic method of engaging diverse viewpoints and considering what they might have to say to the Christian tradition. You might encounter here Critical Race Theory, Kirkean conservative political philosophy, MacIntyrean virtue ethics, Platonic eros, Newmanian epistemology, or Charles Baxter on fiction. I try to read widely, working to integrate the various sources of knowledge into my own Christian vision. I want a more creative approach to the world, in the hopes I can live a creative approach to my faith. I believe that this can strengthen Christian orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy, at its core, is about a spiritual assent to the Good News, a turning of the mind. As Paul teaches in Romans 12:2, “καὶ μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ, ἀλλὰ μεταμορφοῦσθε τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοός, εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τί τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεστον καὶ τέλειον.” (“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renovation of your mind, so that you may recognize the desire of God, the good, the pleasing, and the perfect.”) Christians are not called to “συσχηματίζεσθε,” to conform, to fashion ourselves around passing extrinsic expectations, to remold ourselves with patterns given to us. Rather, Christians are called to “ἀνακαίνωσις,” to renovation, to renewal. Orthodoxy at its best is not something characterized by conforming, but is rather a gradual turning as one undergoes a renovation of the self, where one is made more oneself. It is not about a pattern into which one must fit, but is about being drawn up into the θέλημα, the affective will, the desire, the pleasure, of God.

In God, Sexuality, and the Self, Sarah Coakley warns about letting “orthodoxy” become too static. She writes:

“[The conciliar negotiation of trinitarian orthodoxy in the fourth century, by which the Christian God came normatively to be spoken of as three ‘persons’ in one ‘substance’, actually brought with it a profound theological and spiritual danger, even given its extraordinary achievement. For it came with the potential, at least, to an ironic unorthodoxy - in the form of the temptation to re-relegate the Spirit to an effective remaining subordination, even despite the rhetoric of full equality with the other two persons… The overzealous achievement of orthodoxy, especially when politically enforced, could simultaneously undo itself.”

One danger of the historical achievements of orthodoxy is the creation of an over-controlled Christianity, one which does not respect and maintain the necessary balances, one which too quickly tries to resolve tensions, rather than recognizing that tension is a sign of life. For Coakley, a fixation on orthodoxy undoes Christianity, in part because God is found in the ascetical transformative life of prayer, which unveils the reality of orthodoxy in a way that is developmental, rather than static.

Coakley approaches orthodoxy as a “transformative spiritual process” which is undone as soon as it stands triumphant in its achievement and does not maintain space for those on the margins to press on our limited conceptions of it. Coakley writes how we can see, “through deepened practices of prayer, that doctrinal rectitude does not live on a flat or uncomplicated plane, any more than an accompanying erotic maturation does.” She criticizes a “sort of ‘orthodoxy’, which is primarily concerned to protect and sustain ecclesiastical and political order, and which associates doctrinal rectitude with creedal assent as well as churchly obedience… [as running] the risk of an effective subordination or taming of the Spirit, even as the creed it proclaims explicitly denies this.”

This approach to orthodoxy is antithetical to how I have often seen it used (and how I have used it myself at times). For those who proclaim orthodoxy, rather than reaching out to the margins, orthodoxy can be used as a way to explain away those on the margins. For example, I have heard arguments along the lines of, “If she had pursued the Church’s position on sexuality, she would not have put herself in a position to have been sexually assaulted at that party.” Sometimes the argument can be more subtle, taking on a number of forms. This sort of position can have two effects. First, it further pushes away the assaulted woman through an objectification of her position and adds to her harm, marginalizing someone already on the margins. Second, it puts young girls in “orthodox Catholicism” in a position of believing that, if they are assaulted, it may be because they don’t sufficiently believe in the faith. Here, indeed, the letter killeth (2 Cor 3:6).

If a doctrine is true, it will give life. To the extent a doctrine is used to kill, the doctrine becomes a party to lies. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44). One reason why so many Christians reject the position of “orthodox Catholicism” and its advocates is because the fruit so often tastes disgusting.

Saint John Henry Newman writes of the relationship between life and doctrinal development in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. He writes that “the more claim an idea has to be considered living, the more various will be its aspects,” and Christianity is the foremost among living ideas. There is a complex relationship between Christian writings and Christian readers:

“It may be objected that its inspired documents at once determine the limits of its mission without further trouble; but ideas are in the writer and reader of the revelation, not the inspired text itself; and the question is whether those ideas which the letter conveys from writer to reader, reach the reader at once in their completeness and accuracy on his first perception of them, or whether they open out in his intellect and grow to perfection in the course of time.”

Newman believes the latter. And this may be why the work of the Holy Spirit is so essential in the personal and ecclesial development of doctrine. As humans, we are bound by the finitude of our intellects, and our articulation, expansion, and development of doctrine is limited according to our finitude. But to the extent that we are recipients of grace and conduits of the Holy Spirit, the doctrines which live within us can be expanded beyond our finitude, just as the Holy Spirit expands us beyond our finitude. Newman writes: “Certainly it is a sort of degradation of a divine work to consider it under an earthly form; but it is no irreverence, since our Lord Himself, its Author and Guardian, bore one also… Christianity differs… [in] being informed and quickened by what is more than intellect, by a divine spirit.”

I take this all to amount to: Orthodoxy is always subversive of our conception of orthodoxy.

God has made me a good house, his own dwelling place. What he wants is not a destruction of my self, but renovation and renewal. He has made me a tree meant to bear good fruit. This is what God seeks with orthodoxy, an assent to renewal that starts with a radical acceptance of my creation as good. It will be the fruit, rather than the mere statement, that will reveal the depth and breadth of my orthodoxy, even if the statement, when enlivened by the Holy Spirit, can (but will not necessarily on its own) lead me in the direction of fruitfulness. In this way, orthodoxy is necessarily characterized by tension and paradox.

Or maybe not. I can already see one group detractors saying, “Orthodoxy is for the Pharisees. The letter killeth. Give it up.” Another groups says, “It sounds like you’re just heading down a secular road, and before you know it, you won’t even be Catholic anymore.” Perhaps. I guess we’ll just have to find out.