Religion In America: Sometimes You Just Gotta Say What the . . . .   Leave a comment

If the Unfinished Title of this Piece Offends You, You Better Close the Page and Move on.

February 28, 2012

Curtis Armstrong is an actor. He’s pretty good at his craft. A friend of mine put it this way: “Laurence Olivier he’s not, but once you’ve seen him on the big screen, particularly in his early films, his face and voice are burned into your brain. (Some have recently been introduced to Armstrong playing a recurring character in TNT’s The Closer.) The 1985 film Better Off Dead is as good an introduction to Armstrong as any. In the character of teenager Charles De Mar he offers pearls of teenage wisdom. In pearl number one, De Mar extolls his knowledge of the opposite sex to his friend Lane: “I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy. I know high school girls.” Authoritative to say the least. Later on in the film De Mar offers Lane pearl number two, an important instruction about skiing dangerous runs: “Go [downhill], really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.” Think about it. The logic is inescapable.

While it was his performance in Better Off Dead that sealed the deal, I had seen Mr. Armstrong in an earlier film.  The script for that earlier film handed Armstrong a line that would resonate in pop culture long after the film opened on the big screen. OK, it’s not “We’ll always have Paris”, or “Show me the money”;  yet many of us find ourselves repeating this particular line, on occasion, more than twenty-five years after it was uttered in the film Risky Business. The character of Miles (Armstrong) offered this advice to his friend Joel Goodsen (the Tom Cruise character in the film.)  The line? “Sometimes you gotta say what the fuck.” That’s exactly how I felt this week when I read an article in the Washington Post.

The article’s title, “Blessed are they who mourn?”, asks the right question. The question is actually a simple twist on the original blessing—“Blessed are they that mourne: for they shall be comforted”—a passage from The Beatitudes, the blessings from Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. Yet blessings are apparently only selectively applied at Saint John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Writer Marianne Duddy Burke, in the Washington Post, recounted the recent funeral for parishioner Barbara Johnson’s mother:

Imagine, for just a moment, being in the midst of the shock and grief of losing your mother and turning to your church for the comfort of the familiar rituals and sacraments associated with death and burial. As you approach the priest for Communion, he unexpectedly withholds the Host and tells you, right there in the Communion line he will not give you the Sacrament because of who you love. Shaken, you return to your pew, and when you muster the strength to rise to deliver your mother’s eulogy, the priest walks off the altar, returning only when you have finished. Then, as the mourners head to the burial site, you are told the priest will not accompany your family to say the final prayers and conclude the rite. Instead of reassuring you in your time of mourning, your church shunned and rejected you, leaving you feeling even more alone.

What part of the good father’s priestly training resulted in this attitude? What part of the teachings of Christ did Father Marcel Guarnizo miss? Was he sick that day and missed classes, or was he called away for some important duty and nobody bothered to give him the lecture notes? When re-reading the Beatitudes this morning I failed to find any mention by Christ of the motivation for Father Guarnizo’s actions. Maybe it’s my fault. Perhaps I was late to Bible study one week. Or maybe I just didn’t hear that all-important Beatitude during my youth in Lutheran elementary school in the midwest. Maybe that Lutheran school had a flawed translation; you know, it omitted that long-lost passage, in the original Aramaic, where Christ said “Blessed are they that mourne: for they shall be comforted; but let us be clear: lesbians should take notice that I’m not talking to you. You can mourn all you want but we will offer no blessing or comfort. And Gay men? Oy vey, no way.”

The Church has a long list of what it identifies as the grave sins, the mortal sins, and the capital sins. These include sins of anger, blasphemy, envy, hatred, malice, murder, neglect of Sunday obligation, sins against faith, sins against hope, sins against love, impurity against nature, taking advantage of the poor, defrauding the worker of his wages, pride, avarice, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. What a menu of sins and how unrealistic, therefore, is it that everyone who asks for the sacrament is free from all of these sins?  If the church, any church believes it is important to confront the sinner before they are offered the sacrament or deny the sacraments on suspicion only, then the church must surely question all, or question none. Is every parishioner who makes the largest donation to the church, or who wears the finest clothes to Sunday services, or who takes a seat in the most prominent pew, also suspect and called out in front of those assembled? “Excuse me Mr. Smith, but before I let you have the sacrament have you been overtly angry, uttered blasphemy, been envious, felt hatred, malice, or committed murder? And by the way, when were you last in church? Have you neglected your Sunday obligation, or committed sins against faith, sins against hope, sins against love, or impurity against nature? Since your last confession, did you take advantage of the poor, defraud the worker of his wages, been overtly prideful, feel avarice, wrath, lust, gluttony, or sloth? A simple ‘no’ to all of the above and I can let you have the sacrament; I assure you, any hesitation in your answer or an outright lie will result in your eternal damnation. So, Mr. Smith, ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Which brings me to the selective nature of this disaster in Gaithersburg. Here was a priest, publicly denying this woman three times in her hour of need. (Does the name Peter come to mind?) In preparation for communion, most Catholics understand the need for confession, and will have confessed her/his sins and received absolution from a priest prior to communion. What this episode in Maryland appears to be is an example of the selective nature of this priest’s actions. There are plenty of sins to go around and almost all of them are inside the person, not outside on display. Yet this priest and so many other righteous and self-righteous clergy apply sanctions on those people whose sins (as they see it) are on the outside, on display, while the covertly sinful can step right up to accept the bread and wine, the Body and Blood. I have never witnessed a priest during the Catholic Mass, or a protestant minister during a Sunday morning service openly—that is out loud and publicly—question a parishioner to determine their worthiness to take communion, or refuse the sacrament based on perceived knowledge.

So there we have it. A priest, refusing to offer communion to a woman because of her God-given sexuality, walking out on her as she eulogizes her dead mother, and by choosing to boycott the interment, denies closure to Ms. Johnson. Many people in need of spiritual renewal elect to attend a eucharist service at their local parish. I recall conversations years ago with the pastor of a church in suburban Chicago, where he and I discussed communion and the importance of coming freely to the sacrament to accept its inherent responsibility and gift. We approach the altar with what is in our heart, confess our sins, receive the sacrament and absolution, give thanks and go on our way. Implicit in our desire for the bread and wine is the forgiveness of sins. We can select any number of passages from the Bible this priest pretends to defend, but how about this: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. For a Roman Catholic church that has shown decades of hostility to people by virtue of pedophile priests and cover-up bishops, this is one more moment for Roman Catholics to ask the question seen on many a bumper sticker: “What would Jesus do?” For the church, once again they’ve begun their string of apologies for this latest affront to another one of God’s children. For me, having learned about this sad treatment of a woman mourning her dead mother, I’m forced to conclude that sometimes you just gotta say what the fuck.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2012


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