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Walking away from Christianity

Only sleepwalkers and fanatics slide through life without reconsidering their values and philosophical outlook. Still, I never expected to be challenged quite so fundamentally by a writer of vampire stories and bisexual erotica.

Enter Anne Rice, the 68-year-old author of bestselling novels about the sexy undead and, pseudonymously, of various sadomasochistic-inflected tales. Since returning to her girlhood Catholicism more than a decade ago, she's also written a string of devotional volumes and "a spiritual confession" that might best be characterized as rhapsodic. All that came to an abrupt end last week when Rice announced on Facebook that she had left both the church and organized Christianity.

"Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out," she wrote. "I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else. ... In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

Thousands responded to Rice's declaration. Internet sites concerned with religious issues — from the conservative Catholic First Things to the liberal Jewish Tikkun — have hosted lively discussions of the issues she raised and their implications. As a Catholic happy to share Rice's rejection of all the positions she enumerates, let me add a couple counts to the indictment:

Several commentators on her post have raised the jarring parallelism of recent cases involving two priests. One involves a leading American peace activist, Father Roy Bourgeois, who was excommunicated just four months after delivering a homily during a ceremony in which a woman was ordained a priest in defiance of canon law. The other touches on Steven Kiesle, an Oakland priest who was convicted of raping two young boys in 1978; he served three years' probation. He asked Rome to be "laicized" — to voluntarily leave the priesthood. Years passed before then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger replied that, for the good of all concerned, the case required further consideration. In 1987, Kiesle finally was defrocked, though by then he had become the youth minister at another Catholic parish, where he also molested children.

Then there is this year's ecclesiastical outrage involving Sister Margaret McBride, a veteran nurse and nun who worked at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. A young woman was admitted to the hospital 11 weeks' pregnant with her fifth child but suffering from pulmonary hypertension. Her physicians said she was too ill to move to another facility and almost surely would die before her unborn child became viable. The case was referred to the ethics committee, which approved terminating the pregnancy. When he heard of the case, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix promptly excommunicated Sister Margaret.

Before he was forced to resign after being involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident, Olmsted's predecessor avoided criminal prosecution by signing a legal stipulation that he knowingly moved child-abusing priests to other parishes, where they continued to commit crimes. Since Olmsted's investiture, there have been a series of florid clerical sex abuse scandals, none of which has resulted in a single excommunication.

So why not join in the conclusion to Rice's well-reasoned criticisms, particularly if — as I do — you also believe in marriage equality and abortion rights and think the church would be better off if it ordained women and its clergy could marry? Some of us are drawn to the late Pope John Paul II's view that the only way to understand the institutional church is as "a sign of contradiction." That's a term in Catholic theology for a person or situation in which both goodness and its extreme opposition are manifest. Had humanity not been imperfect, there would have been no use for a young Galilean rabbi's radically transformative teaching. If that teaching's mere existence had perfected humanity, its adherents never would have required an institutional church, whose human composition makes it imperfect.

Some of our most profound challenges are resolved in the acceptance of contradiction — or so it seems to me.

Timothy Rutten is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. E-mail him at timothy.rutten@latimes.com.