Nameless in the name of God

Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s April 25 blog post is entitled “All Are Welcome!” But the irony in the New York archbishop’s already-infamous reflection is that all are really not welcome in his Catholic Church. Unless, like the grammar-school Timothy and his boyhood chum Freddie, we remember to “wash our hands” before joining the family for dinner.

Dolan lists six categories of folks who had best clean up before appearing at God’s table: active alcoholics; businesspeople who deny fair wages to migrant workers; young unmarried couples who cohabit; women who have abortions and male partners who encourage them; people who act on “homosexuality” or “same-sex attraction” (note those terms, because they’ll be important later); and wealthy folks who ignore principles of charity and justice.

It’s a clever list, superficially diverse, careful to include social sins about which progressive Catholics often speak. But Dolan gives himself away. Three of his six “dirty hands” categories are sexual/reproductive, and he treats them with minimal nuance. (Another “dirty hands” category, alcoholism, is awkward because it’s at least as much a physical and psychological illness as a moral lapse.) And, among his sexual/reproductive bullet points, the most space is reserved for “homosexuality,” for “same-sex attraction.” In fact, it’s the longest point of the entire list, constituting 60 of 191 words, almost a third. (I used Microsoft Word for a tally.)

Local Catholics who sensed Dolan’s underlying point, and didn’t like it, announced a silent protest for Sunday, May 5. The protest contained but one element: participants would attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral after rubbing their hands with charcoal. But alas, Dolan was evidently quite serious about soap and towels: the ten protesters were promptly greeted by an equal number of NYPD officers, who said they could not enter. A cathedral staffer confirmed it, telling the protesters that attending Mass with dirty hands would be treated as criminal trespassing. Therefore they remained outside, and one protester, Joseph Amodeo, wrote eloquently about his experience for the Huffington Post.

Better scribes than I have already spilled enough ink analyzing Dolan’s loaded rhetoric of “dirty hands,” as well as the ways Jesus deliberately transgressed the boundaries of clean and unclean during his ministry. My own insight is more of an aside.

I said to note my citation of Dolan’s terms “same-sex attraction” and “homosexuality.” When I read them in his piece, they reminded me of something I’d seen awhile back. But I didn’t know where to find it. So I employed brute force, typing my vague memory into Google: catholic bishops don’t use word gay. And, on page 3 of my search results, I found something familiar: an NCR article from January.

It began: “San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has said Catholics opposed to same-sex marriage should limit themselves to even using the term ‘only sparingly,’ as the idea, according to him, is an impossibility.” Almost what I remembered, but not quite. Then I scanned further down, and bingo: “Cordileone also prefers that Catholics do not use the terms ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian,’ but instead ‘persons with a homosexual inclination.’”

I can’t claim to know for sure whether older terms like “homosexuality” or “inclination” or “same-sex attraction” are indeed being painstakingly retained in ecclesiastical PR messaging, apparently as pushback to the acceptance of “gay” and “lesbian” and “bisexual.” But even so, powerful hierarchs like Cordileone and Dolan certainly do set an example for other church authorities. And they are brushing aside not just the lingua franca of the wider culture, but also the ways most LGBTQs speak of themselves and their relationships.

As a straight ally, I have to take a long moment to ponder the implications. I have to imagine what it’s like to not only belong to a group singled out for “dirty hands,” but to be simultaneously stripped of the right to claim my own name: to be, paradoxically, both a scapegoat and a whozit. Because when you can’t say your own name, when everybody else calls you whatever they want, then you have no name.

Think hard about that: people kept nameless in the name of God.

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