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Once in a while comes an historical event so momentous, so packed with unexpected force, that it acts like a large wave under still water, propelling us momentarily up from the surface of our times onto a crest, where the wider movements of history may be glimpsed better than before.

Such an event was Benedict XVI’s landmark announcement in October 2009 offering members of the Anglican Communion a fast track into the Catholic Church. Although commentators quickly dubbed this unexpected overture a “gambit,” what it truly exhibits are the characteristics of a move known in chess as a “brilliancy,” an unforeseen bold stroke that stunningly transforms the game. In the short run, knowledgeable people agree, this brilliancy of Benedict’s may not seem to amount to much. Some 1000 Church of England priests may convert and some 300 parishes turn over to Rome—figures that, while significant when measured against the dwindling numbers of practicing Anglicans there, are nonetheless mere drops in the Vatican’s bucket.

But in the longer run—say, over the coming decades—Rome’s move looks consequential in another way. It is the latest and most dramatic example of how orthodoxy, rather than dissent, seems once again to have taken the driver’s seat of Christianity. Every traditionalist who joins the long and already illustrious history of reconversion to the Catholic Church just tips the religious balance more toward Rome. This further weakens a religious communion battered from within by decades of intra-Anglican culture wars. Meanwhile, the progressives left behind may well find the exodus of their adversaries a Pyrrhic victory. How will they possibly make peace with the real majority of Anglicans today—the churches in Africa, whose leaders have repeatedly denounced the Communion’s abandonment of traditional teachings? Questions like these are why a few commentators now speak seriously about something that only recently seemed unthinkable: whether the end of the Anglican Communion itself might now be in sight. 

Even so, it is the still longer run of Christian history whose outlines may now be most interesting and unexpected of all. Looking even further out to the horizon from our present moment—at a vista of centuries, rather than mere decades, ahead of us—we may well begin to wonder something else. That is, whether what we are witnessing now is not only the beginning of the end of the Anglican Communion but indeed the end of something even larger: the phenomenon of Christianity Lite itself.

By this I mean the multifaceted institutional experiment, beginning but not ending with the Anglican Communion, of attempting to preserve Christianity while simultaneously jettisoning certain of its traditional teachings—specifically, those regarding sexual morality. Surveying the record to date of what has happened to the churches dedicated to this long-running modern religious experiment, a large historical question now appears: whether the various exercises in this specific kind of dissent from traditional teaching turn out to contain the seeds of their own destruction. The evidence—preliminary but already abundant—suggests that the answer is yes.

If this is so, then the implications for the future of Christianity itself are likely to be profound. If it is Christianity Lite, rather than Christianity proper, that is fatally flawed and ultimately unable to sustain itself, then a rewriting of much of contemporary thought, religious and secular, appears in order. It means that secularization itself may be fundamentally misunderstood. It means that the most unwanted and unfashionable traditional teaching of Christianity, its sexual moral code, demands of the modern mind a new and respectful look. As a strategic matter, it also means that the current battle within the Catholic Church between traditionalists and dissenters must go to the traditionalists, lest the dissenters or cafeteria Catholics take the same path that the churches of Christianity Lite have followed: down, down, down.

All these are just preliminary examples of what is at stake in contemplating the great experiment of Christianity Lite—which is why the evidence for its failure is so compelling and important.

Let us note at the outset that this use of the phrase Christianity Lite is not intended to describe all of contemporary Protestantism—far from it. Plenty of non-Catholic churches have not rejected the traditional Christian moral code, including some of the most vibrant in the world today. Nor is the phrase intended to imply that sexual issues are the only theological issues dividing Christendom these days. Obviously, all kinds of differences—at least, official differences—remain over perennial lightning rods: papal infallibility, the theological status of Mary, the role and ordination of women, predestination, justification, and the rest of the theological controversies historically responsible for tearing Christendom apart.

But standing once again atop that wave in time prompted by Benedict’s announcement, we can see clearly that these are not the kind of issues that divide the Catholic Church from the churches of Christianity Lite today. As of now—and as has been true for some time—those churches have increasingly defined themselves as dissenting on one issue above all others: They have jettisoned one or another or all of the teachings of traditional Christian sexual morality.

Certainly ordinary parishioners see things this way. Ask any contemporary Mainline Protestant what most distinguishes his or her version of Christianity from that of Roman Catholicism, and you will likely get some version of this response: Catholics are still hung up on sex, and we’re not. They prohibit things like divorce and birth control and abortion and homosexuality, and we don’t. Moreover, this rendition of the facts would be essentially correct. At this particular moment in Christian history, it is sex—not Mary or the saints or predestination or purgatory or papal infallibility or good works—that is the Rubicon no one can really imagine these particular Protestants crossing again.

How did sex, of all subjects, come to occupy such a prominent place in the division of Christendom? In a sense, the potential was always there. From the first believers on up, the stern stuff of the Christian moral code has been cause for commentary—to say nothing of complaint. “Not all men can receive this saying,” the disciples are told when Jesus puts divorce off limits. Observers throughout history, Christian or not, have agreed: that particular moral teaching and its corollaries are hard indeed. From pagan Rome two thousand years ago to secular Western Europe today, the Church’s rules about sex have amounted to saying no, no, and no to things about which non-Christians have gotten to say yes or why not.

Even so, there is no denying that the traditional rules do seem more problematic now than ever before. Widespread abortion, ubiquitous pornography, diminished social opprobrium, and above all easy and effective contraception: All have divided recreation from procreation as never before in history. They have also been the driving force behind the embrace of Christianity Lite itself. After all, many would say, hasn’t this explosion of sexual expression made what was once a difficult moral code practically an impossible one? Shouldn’t the proper Christian response be one of mercy, rather than censure—including a merciful rewriting of the moral rules in these particularly difficult times?

Yet to say that the sexual revolution made Christianity Lite inevitable, as many people would, is to miss an important historical point. It was the Anglicans who first started picking apart the tapestry of Christian sexual morality—hundreds of years ago, long before the sexual revolution, and over one particular thread: divorce. In fact, in a fascinating development now visible in retrospect, the Anglican departure over divorce appears as the template for all subsequent exercises in Christianity Lite.

For about two centuries, and despite its having been midwifed into existence by the divorcing Henry VIII, the Church of England held fast to the same principle of the indissolubility of marriage on which the rest of Christian tradition insisted. According to a history of divorce called Untying The Knot, by Roderick Phillips, “no bishop, archbishop, or incumbent of high Anglican office in the first half of the seventeenth century supported the legalization of divorce.”

Even so, this early dedication to principle would turn out not to hold, ultimately eroding one priest and one parish at a time. In the United States, Phillips reports, Anglican churches soon were relaxing the strictest restrictions, making divorce more or less easy to come by depending on where one lived. Meanwhile, although the Church of England lagged behind the Episcopalians, by the mid-eighteenth century divorce was theoretically and practically available by an act of Parliament—a recourse that, although not widely exercised, went to show that exceptions to the indissolubility principle could be made.

Then came another turn of the theological wheel that could not have been foreseen by the first reformers. As of the General Synod in 2002, divorced Anglicans could now remarry in the Church. A spokesman noted carefully at the time: “This does not automatically guarantee the right of divorced people to remarry in Church.” But such cautions were plainly a matter of whistling in the dark. If Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles can now marry in the Church—having already married and been divorced from other people—why should every other Anglican not enjoy the same mercy?

Thus does the Anglican attempt to lighten up the Christian moral code over the specific issue of divorce exhibit a clear pattern that appears over and over in the history of the experiment of Christianity Lite: First, limited exceptions are made to a rule; next, those exceptions are no longer limited and become the unremarkable norm; finally, that new norm is itself sanctified as theologically acceptable.

Exactly that pattern emerges in another example of the historical attempt to disentangle a thread of moral teaching out of the whole: the dissent about artificial contraception. Here, too, Anglicans took the historical lead. Throughout most of its history, all of Christianity—even divided Christianity—upheld the teaching that artificial contraception was wrong. Not until the Lambeth Conference of 1930 was that unity shattered by the subsequently famous Resolution 15, in which the Anglicans called for exceptions to the rule in certain difficult, carefully delineated marital (and only marital) circumstances.

Exactly as had happened with divorce, the Anglican okaying of contraception was born largely of compassion for human frailty and dedicated to the idea that such cases would be mere exceptions to the theological rule. Thus Resolution 15 itself—for all that it was a radical break with two millennia of Christian teaching—abounded with careful language about the limited character of its reform, including “strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”

And also as had happened with divorce, the effort to hold the line at such carefully drawn borders soon proved futile. In short order, not only was birth control theologically approved in certain difficult circumstances but, soon thereafter, it was regarded as the norm. Nor was that all. In a third turn of the reformist wheel that no one attending Lambeth in 1930 could have seen coming, artificial contraception went on to be sanctioned by some prominent members of the Anglican Communion not only as an option but in fact as the better moral choice. By the time of Episcopal Bishop James Pike, only a quarter century or so later, it was possible for a leading Christian to declare (as he did) that parents who should not be having a child were not only permitted to use contraception but were, in fact, under a moral obligation to use the most effective forms of contraception obtainable.

Bishop Pike was only one of many leaders of Christianity Lite to participate in this same theological process leading from normalization to sanctification. Although the Eastern Orthodox churches sided generally with Rome on the issue of contraception, most Protestant churches ended up following the same script as the Anglicans—moving one by one from reluctant acceptance in special circumstances, to acceptance in most or all circumstances, and finally (in some cases) to complete theological inversion. No less an authority than the Baptist evangelist Billy Graham, for example, eventually embraced birth control to cope with what he called the “terrifying and tragic problem” of overpopulation.

In just a few decades, in other words—following the same pattern as divorce—contraception in the churches of Christianity Lite went from being an unfortunate option, to an unremarkable option, to the theologically preferable option in some cases. Now consider a third example of the same historical pattern holding in another area: dissent over traditional Christian teachings against homosexuality.

Although homosexuality may be the most explosive current example of the effort to reshape Christianity into a religion more congenial to modern sexual practice, it is actually new to that party. As many on both sides of the divide have had occasion to remark, homosexual behavior has been proscribed throughout history, by Judaism as well as Christianity, until very, very recently—including in the churches of Christianity Lite. (Henry VIII, to name one prominent example, invoked the alleged homosexuality of the monks as part of his justification for appropriating the monasteries.)

Yet “extraordinarily enough,” as William Murchison puts it in his book Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (2009), “a question barely at the boundary of general consciousness thirty years ago has assumed central importance to the present life and future of the Episcopal Church.” Why this remarkable transformation? In part, because the reformers at Lambeth and elsewhere did not foresee something else that in retrospect appears obvious: The chain of logic leading from the occasional acceptance of contraception to the open celebration of homosexuality would prove surprisingly sound.

That is precisely why the change in doctrine over contraception has been used repeatedly by Anglican leaders to justify proposed changes in religious attitudes toward homosexuality. Robert Runcie, for example, former archbishop of Canterbury, explained his own personal decision to ordain practicing homosexuals on exactly those grounds. In a BBC radio interview in 1996, he cited the Lambeth Conference of 1930, observing that “once the Church signalled . . . that sexual activity was for human delight and a blessing even if it was divorced from any idea of procreation . . . once you’ve said that sexual activity is . . . pleasing to God in itself, then what about people who are engaged in same-sex expression and who are incapable of heterosexual expression?”

Similarly, archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has also retrospectively connected the dots between approving purposely sterile sex for heterosexuals on the one hand and extending the same theological courtesy to homosexuals on the other. As he observed in a lecture in 1989, three years before he became bishop, “In a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.”

Thus, in retrospect, does the modern Anglican path—from careful, even reluctant line-drawing over contraception at Lambeth in 1930, to divorced noncelibate homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson today—appear not only unsurprising but practically inevitable. Put differently, the rejection of the ban on birth control was not incidental to the Anglicans’ subsequent implosion over homosexuality. It was what started it.

Moreover, as of the December 2009 ordination in Los Angeles of the Episcopal Church’s second noncelibate gay bishop, it is clear that homosexuality’s theological status—like that of contraception before it—is now moving from an option to a religiously approved option. It therefore joins divorce and contraception in the signature religious cycle of Christianity Lite, conferring on a once prohibited sexual practice a theological seal of approval.

Another clear pattern has also emerged in retrospect from the ongoing experiment in Christianity Lite: Rewriting the rules about sex does not, historically speaking, end with sex. Time and again, that rewriting has coincided with departures from traditional teaching in other areas too.

Consider, for example, the aforementioned Episcopal bishop James Pike, whose religious career is one of many that could be cited to illustrate the point. As noted, his views on contraception perfectly fit the cycle of Christianity Lite. He not only approved of the use of artificial birth control but sometimes insisted on it and even became chairman of the clergymen’s national advisory committee of the Planned Parenthood Federation.

Yet Pike’s dissent from traditional Christian teaching, far from being confined to matters of sexual morality, only widened over the years. By the 1960s, this pioneer of sexual ethics had also come to question other longstanding Christian beliefs—the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the Trinity, and original sin among them. In 1966, Bishop Pike was even formally censured by the Episcopal House of Bishops—a highly unusual outcome that speaks volumes about just how theologically radical he had become, even by the elastic and forgiving standards of the Episcopalians of America.

Now consider the related example of professor Joseph Fletcher, another ordained Episcopal priest who contributed intellectually to Christianity Lite. Thirty-six years stand between the Lambeth Conference of 1930 and the publication of his landmark book, Situational Ethics. Primarily concerned (of course) with matters sexual, Fletcher argued that there is “nothing intrinsically good or evil per se in any sexual act” and that, on such grounds, conventional sexual morality deserved jettisoning.

Yet the example of Fletcher shows clearly how such dissent has a way of spreading into other doctrinal areas. By the end of his life, this Episcopal priest—who would later identify himself as an atheist—had parted company with Christian orthodoxy on one hot-button issue after another: abortion, infanticide, cloning, euthanasia, and more.

The same is true of the theological journey of one more prominent Episcopalian whose religious journey began—but did not end—with lightening up Christian sexual morality: Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark. Time magazine called his Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (1988) “probably the most radical pronouncement on sex ever issued by a bishop.” It advocated the by-now familiar list of sexual selections from the contemporary cafeteria menu—from blessing homosexual unions to all the rest of “freeing the Bible from literalistic imprisonment.”

Yet Bishop Spong’s radicalism, though obviously jumpstarted by sex, did not end there any more than Bishop Pike’s or Reverend Fletcher’s did. It, too, has broadened to include wide-ranging dissent over practically everything else. Spong says he believes in God but is not a theist, for example, and he also denies that Jesus either performed miracles or rose from the dead. So consistent is his record that Albert Mohler, the traditionalist president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, once remarked of Spong that “heretics are rarely excommunicated these days. Instead, they go on book tours.”

These examples are among many that could be cited to illustrate an important point: Even in the hands of its ablest defenders, Christianity Lite has proven time and again to be incapable of limiting itself to the rules about sex alone. Once traditional sexual morality is dispensed with in whole or in part, it is hard, apparently, to keep the rest of Church teaching off the chopping block. To switch metaphors, which came first, the egg of dissent over sex—or the chicken of dissent over other doctrinal issues? We do not need to know the answer to grasp the point: History shows that Christianity Lite cannot seem to have one without the other.

This same pattern of dissent over sexuality, followed by decline in both numbers and practice, also appears clearly in the other churches dedicated to Christianity Lite, those of the Protestant mainline in addition to the Episcopal Church. Here, too, the speed with which both practice and principle have unraveled bears scrutiny.

In 1930, for example, the initial reaction among America’s Lutherans to Lambeth’s Resolution 15 was disbelief bordering on hostility. Margaret Sanger was denounced in an official Lutheran newspaper as a “she devil,” and numerous pastors took to the pulpits and op-ed pages with blistering complaints about the Anglicans’ theological capitulation. Nonethless, by 1954, the Lutherans, too, were encouraging contraception in order to make sure that any child born would be valued “both for itself and in relation to the time of its birth.” By 1991, the Evangelical Lutheran Church was not only okaying contraception but also officially urging widespread instruction in “sex education” and pregnancy prevention for youngsters.

In all, it has been an about-face that certainly would have shocked the Lutherans of yesteryear—beginning with Martin Luther himself, who once called contraception “far more atrocious than incest or adultery.”

Also like the Anglicans, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has proven that one thread could not be teased out of the moral garment without pulling others out too. In 1991, a Social Statement found that abortion—regarded as murder almost universally throughout Christian history—could be a morally responsible choice in certain circumstances. That same year, the Churchwide Assembly (CWA), the leading legislative body of the church, affirmed that “gay and lesbian people . . . are welcome to participate fully in the life of the congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” Less than two decades later, in 2009, official tolerance for individuals with homosexual tendencies had transposed into something else: official approval of the sexual practice of homosexuality, enshrined in the decision to allow noncelibate homosexuals to serve as pastors.

This leads to a third pattern arising from the experiment of Christianity Lite: the ongoing and inarguable institutional decline of the churches that have tried it. Today, the ELCA—the largest and most liberal of the Lutheran bodies of America—faces the same fate as the Anglican Communion: threats of schism, departing parishes, diminishing funds, and the rest of the institutional woes that have gone hand in hand with the abandonment of dogma.

The same fate also threatens the rest of the mainline Protestant churches—in addition to the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the American Baptist Church. As Joseph Bottum observed last year in these pages, in his wide-ranging essay about the collapse, “The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history.” In December 2009, the Barna Group was the latest to report that all the mainline churches appear to be “on the precipice of a decline.” Across the board, funding is down, numbers are down, numbers of the young are especially down, and missionaries—one particularly good measure of the vibrancy of belief—are diminishing apace. Even the kind of social work for which Christian churches have been renowned is also down: Mainline volunteerism, according to the new Barna numbers, has dropped a shocking 21 percent since 1998.

Yet, as Bottum and others have observed, even as decline and disarray have so ruthlessly visited the churches of the mainline—the same churches that are now wholly owned subsidiaries of Christianity Lite—so have the more traditional-minded Protestant institutions proved comparatively robust. Since Dean Kelley’s work in the 1970s, culminating in the book Why Strict Churches Are Strong, observers have tried to make sense of that phenomenon. Interestingly, traditional Protestant churches and pastors are holding the institutional line today as Christianity Lite is not. Some are also actively seeking to recover aspects of the moral code that they themselves once jettisoned.

Abortion—about which some traditional-minded Protestant churches are more absolutist now than they used to be—is one example. Even more unexpected is the rethinking by some prominent Protestants of artificial contraception. This ongoing reconsideration is one of the least followed and potentially consequential religious stories of our day. It is happening in part because these leaders do not want their churches to go the way of the Anglican Communion and the mainline, and in part because of what some religious leaders now take to be the lessons of experience. The sexual revolution has been polarizing indeed—leading some churches into abandoning the old rules about sex altogether, even as it sends others back to a new understanding of why they may have existed in the first place.

Does the relaxing of dogma drive people from church, or does the decline in attendance push leaders to relax dogma? As with the previous discussion of dissent, we do not really need to know the answer in all its causal complexity. All we really need to know—as the brilliant convert and teacher Monsignor Ronald Knox observed in an essay some eighty years ago, “The Decline of Dogma and the Decline of Church Membership”—is that “the evacuation of the pew and the jettisoning of cargo from the pulpit” have been going on side by side for as long as Christianity Lite has been attempted. As with doctrinal dissent, it seems, where one appears, the other is sure to follow.

Christianity Lite has left enough evidence in its wake for us to judge the final outcome of that great experiment: It is a failure. The effort to throw out the unwanted bathwater of the sexual code has taken the baby—the rest of Christian practice and belief—along with it.

What accounts for this epochal, perhaps even counterintuitive outcome—one that surely would have shocked the original architects of this grand religious experiment, most of whom longed only for a Christianity with a happier human face?

One answer appears obvious enough. If enough people over enough time turn their backs on the injunction to be fruitful and multiply, eventually their churches will cease being fruitful and multiplying, too. Recent sociology confirms this elementary if perhaps unwelcome point. In research published in 2005 in Christian Century, three sociologists (Andrew Greeley, Michael Hout, and Melissa Wilde) argued that “simple demographics” between 1900 and 1975 explained around three-quarters of the decline in mainline churches (Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist). By contrast, they pointed out, during those same years membership rose in more conservative Protestant churches (Baptist, Assembly of God, Pentecostal, and so on). The difference was that women in the former churches were using artificial contraception before or instead of women in the latter ones—in sum, that “the so-called decline of the Mainline may ultimately be attributable to its earlier approval of contraception.”

A second reason that the experiment of Christianity Lite seems destined sooner or later to self-destruct may be this rule of thumb: People who cannot be expected to obey in difficult matters cannot be expected to obey in easier ones either. In the 1950s, almost half the population of the Church of England attended services on Sunday. By 2000, that figure was around 7 percent, and that includes Charismatic and Pentecostal affiliates. Such declines, of course, have become common across the churches of Christianity Lite. Clearly, making life easier for those in the pews has not made them any likelier to sit there, and probably less so.

One final reason also suggests itself for why Christianity Lite is in decline while orthodoxy seems comparatively energetic—this despite the fact that Catholicism itself still reels from years of devastating sexual scandals, coupled with constant assault from secularism. That is what might be called the hidden power of the Christian moral code: its by now undeniable resonance with at least some human beings.

In his classic work A History of Christianity , first published in 1953, Kenneth Scott Latourette ponders one great puzzle of history:

How shall we account for the fact that, beginning as what to the casual observer must have appeared a small and obscure sect of Judaism, before its first five centuries were out had become the faith of the Roman state and of the vast majority of the population of that realm and had spread eastward as far as Central Asia and probably India and Ceylon and westward into far away Ireland?

Of course there is no single answer to his question. Nonetheless, the master historian himself cites Christianity’s surprisingly strong combination of flexibility and inclusivity on the one hand and “uncompromising adherence to its basic convictions” on the other. “In striking contrast with the easy-going syncretism” of the time, he emphasizes, “Christianity was adamant on what it regarded as basic principles.”

And right from the beginning, those principles were understood to include matters of sexual morality—especially matters of sexual morality. The pagans, the early Christians were instructed, could have it all: their idols, their infanticide, their contraception, their abortion, their homosexuality; the Christians couldn’t. The Jews could have their divorce; the Christians couldn’t. And on the list of forbidden practices went. Of course, these were not the only features that distinguished Christianity from other sects. But from the beginning, they were not only fundamental features of Christianity, and not only features that put many people off. They were also, and are still, features that drew other people in.

“The age had in it much of moral corruption,” Latourette wrote, speaking of the Roman Empire. “Yet it also had consciences which revolted against the excesses of the day. A religion that offered high moral standards and the power to attain them would be welcomed by the more serious.” What was true as Christianity took the Greco-Roman world by storm remains true today. The more decadent the age, the more does the forceful insistence that there is a right and wrong about matters of sex exert a gravitational pull all its own. The failure to recognize that power—one experienced by converts from St. Paul, to St. Augustine, to some of the Anglicans studying the Catechism today—may be one final and underappreciated factor that has led to Christianity Lite’s undoing.

As a cautionary note, nothing about this analysis of where we are now guarantees Christian orthodoxy any kind of victory. Many modern Catholics, perhaps a majority, are themselves cafeteria Catholics—the in-house version of Christianity Lite. Over time, their churches can be expected to drift and decline like those of the theological experiment of which they are a part. Nor will the demise of Christianity Lite happen dramatically enough for today’s traditionalists to gain momentum from it. No doubt centuries will be required before the experiment’s churches finally become whatever they will ultimately become—shelters, mosques, nightclubs, concert halls. Meanwhile, other questions about the future shape of Christianity—about what will become of traditional-minded Protestants, say, beginning with the Global South Anglicans—remain just as dim. From the top of any historical wave, we can see only so much.

But the one thing we can spy as of this moment is noteworthy enough: the beginning of the end not only of Anglicanism as the world has known it in the past century but also of the other churches that similarly joined their fates to that of Christianity Lite. It is hard to overstate how momentous their unraveling is—or how bracing a slap in the modern face. After all, if there is a single point to which modern, enlightened people have been agreeing for a long time now, it is that the antiquated sexual notions of the Catholic Church are an anachronism that had to go for the sake of a kinder, gentler Christianity.

It would be more than passing strange if, at the end of the day, that very anachronism were to turn out to be something that could not be sacrificed after all—not without having everything else fall down, anyway. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time in Christian history that a piece rejected by the builders turned out to be the cornerstone.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things, and author most recently of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism.