Thursday, December 01, 2005

Hypocrisy Be Thy Name

The collision between religious orthodoxy and social reality can be pretty darned ugly, but the mess the Roman Catholic Church has made of its two biggest 21st century controversies – pedophile priests and homosexual priests – is enough to make Job spin in his grave.

My primary concern here is gay priests, but you can’t discuss them without a stopover at the sordid sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church to its very foundations in the U.S., Canada, Ireland and elsewhere.

The sexual abuse of children is a mortal sin for Catholics, of course, but it is difficult to judge which has been worse – the priests who have fondled, sucked and sodomized countless young innocents or the cover-up of and indifference to their behavior from local diocesesan administrators up through the church hierarchy to the Vatican itself.

Homosexuality also is a mortal sin for Catholics, but that sexual orientation is increasingly and rightfully accepted by the social mainstream, including the Catholic laity. This has not prevented the same Vatican that turned a blind eye to pedophile priests to make public on Tuesday a new policy that bars gay priests and gays who want to become priests.

The ostensible purpose of the policy is to take a strong stand against the church's gay subculture. But the policy will have a doubly negative effect -- driving out celibate gay priests who are a threat to no one while discouraging celibate gays from joining an already depleted priesthood.

I have no personal stake in this. I'm not gay. My father was a lapsed Catholic and my own view of the church is that it is an enormously powerful and obstructionist guilt machine that has done more harm than good, notably in the Third World.

I do acknowledge that there is a connection between pedophilia and homosexuality in some instances, but there have to be a whole lot of gay priests – and gays who would like to become priests – who are on Pope Benedict XVI’s hellbound train for the wrong reasons. Chief among those reasons is the Vatican's need to find scapegoats for the church's own despicable conduct in the sex abuse scandal.

All of this brings us to the story of Mychal Judge, a 68-year-old priest and New York Fire Department chaplain, or Father Mike as everyone called the beloved Benedictine.

Father Mike was uptown at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, where he ministered to the wealthy and homeless alike, when the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He donned his FDNY chaplain’s uniform and rushed to the towers, where he briefly paused to pray with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani before running over to a dead firefighter and a woman who had fallen on him after jumping from the North Tower.

Father Mike had removed his fireman's helmet to administer the last rites and was anointing Firefighter Danny Suhr and the woman with holy water when he was struck in the back of the head and mortally wounded by a chunk of falling debris.

You may not realize that you know who Father Mike was until you reflect on the image above. Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton's photograph, one of the most gripping images to come out of that horrific day, is a modern day Pietá. Yes, that’s Father Mike on the makeshift gurney.

You probably also didn’t know that Father Mike was an acknowledged homosexual. And so beloved that his death certificate bears the number 00001 – the first official World Trade Center casualty.

But as inspiring as Father Mike’s life may have been, not to mention his bravery on 9/11, he would not have been welcome in today’s Roman Catholic Church, which according to its new policy believes that gays "have no social value" and, moreover, "no moral virtue."

That truly is a sin.

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