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.

Murdered metaphor in the cathedral

It was a Sunday in late January. It was my first visit to New York and I was staying with a buddy at his place near Brooklyn College. The sky was waxing purple with sunset, and a day that had included pizza (which fell on my pants), a boat ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan (invigorating), and violin music in Central Park (awesome) was finally winding down.

We stepped out of Central Park, shivering a bit now that temperatures had tumbled from the fifties to the thirties, and walked twenty-five blocks down Fifth Avenue. First we passed foreign consulates; then we passed shops that looked like they would have gladly accepted my yearly salary in return for exactly one shoe. We crossed left at 51st, squeezed in under a scaffolding, and entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral just in time for 5:30 Mass.

I’m shy. I wanted to sit in the back somewhere. My buddy is not shy. He dragged me to the front pew, which was miraculously still empty at 5:29. We claimed it. A gilded altar canopy, studded with tiny heraldic emblems, loomed directly ahead.

A few feet away, I saw the spot where Robert F. Kennedy lay in repose in 1968. A few more feet in another direction, and there sat the throne of the archbishop of New York. And, way off to one side, I saw a flat-screen TV playing an endless loop of digitized cathedral photos for the benefit of wandering turisti.

The young, green-clad priest preached about Christian marriage. He said that Christ had changed marriage into something better than it was before he came. He said most married people needed to have more children. He said fruitful marriages were the nuclei of the social order, which would collapse without them. I wanted to raise my hand and remind him that Jesus, unmarried, had wandered from his nuclear family, who thought he was insane, to travel around with at least twelve other guys and a bunch of women to whom they were not attached.

Still, I was expecting this kind of homily. We were in Cardinal Dolan’s house. The Gospel was the wedding at Cana. It was Respect Life Sunday.

The part that threw me was the rock-climbing.

Father said that in his wedding sermons he enjoyed comparing marriage to extreme sports. I raised my eyebrows. Father, with his carefully parted hair and painstakingly modulated voice, did not immediately strike me as an extreme sports kind of guy. Specifically, he said he preferred the image of rock-climbing. It’s strenuous work, you’re tied together for safety, the view at the top is great, etc.

Here I began to cringe. Over the years I’ve endured the facile and occasionally dreadful metaphors of many clergymen: the spiritual life is like a basketball game, and priests are our coaches. Mass is like a wake, so we dress up for the dearly departed relative. God’s love is like a fire hose, a dump truck, and Niagara Falls all at once. I could go on.

But what I mainly noticed about today’s several-minute digression was that Father never slipped into a reverie about personally rappelling off the face of a cliff or gazing down from a summit. His bullet points, written on a sheet he kept glancing at for reminders, very much came across as a list of things he had looked up, or been told, about rock-climbing. In other words, the priest was teaching authoritatively about intimacies he didn’t have in terms of extreme sports he evidently didn’t engage in.

My buddy and I had spent much of the weekend discussing complicated relationships from hard experience, so we felt very put off. After Mass we retired to a restaurant that, according to a sign sitting on the table next to the Parmesan cheese, had once been patronized by the mobster Lucky Luciano. In between mouthfuls of pasta, we wondered what it would mean for our generation and its religious discontents if such priests continued to multiply, to become men of trust who are assigned to cathedrals.

My fellow CTA 20/30 member, Kate Childs Graham, recently published an excellent NCR column. It collects hopes young adults have for the next pope. Personally, I fantasize about a pope who, in collegiality with all the bishops, re-examines the priesthood. You cannot preach or teach meaningfully unless you live fully. If you are content to cordon yourself off with an altar rail, if you habitually speak of places you have never been, then expect this generation to follow other guides and seek other vistas.