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Our queer world: true confessions.

The Church Militant deserves militant atheists, and during the Spanish Civil War statues of Christ faced anarchist firing squads. Iconoclasm of this kind is revenge therapy; it also confirms the power of icons. Even the tribes of Israel, warned by the prophets not to worship false idols, were allowed the Ark of the Covenant, on which God sat invisibly enthroned between two carved cherubim. Much of the book of Exodus consists of careful, elaborate instructions on craft and ritual, down to the "bells and pomegranates, round about the hem of the robe."

Debunking religion has become all too easy an exercise for many humanists. Every village atheist can compare Christian communion to cannibalism--which doesn't mean the comparison lacks all value. Indeed, if the comparison is now so common, that is only because it took more courage back during the Enlightenment. Yet, how many humanists now rest on laurels earned by Spinoza and Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft and Bertrand Russell? If crusading fundamentalism and blood-and-soil nationalism gain yet more force in our world, then humanists will need new courage to fight the good fight. And we'll need to make honest distinctions among religious folks, because many of them are allies in defending reason and democracy.

When I was told The Humanist planned to publish some articles on the Catholic church, I decided to make the following confession: I'm a former choir-boy who still has a qualified respect for Catholic culture in all three of its main branches--Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican-Episcopal. My own introduction to that culture came through the Episcopal church, which meant that nobody I knew took the Bible as pure gospel. When I refused communion at the age of 13, my decision was respected. Years later, I returned to the church briefly. (An honest mistake.) During the Annual AIDS Day of Prayer, I faced the congregation with my lover, a Jewish atheist, and said, "The church has no right to bury us if it won't marry us." We hardly wanted a church wedding for ourselves, but there were gay people sitting in the pews who did. (Later, we would register as domestic partners in San Francisco City Hall.)

In the years since I walked away from that church, I've attended only one communion service--a memorial for a fellow AIDS activist--and then only because the priest was assisted by a friend and comrade in full drag. The drag queen's name was Dominic, his persona was Madonna, so the nickname was inevitable: "Madominic." He was a sweet, swearing, bleached-blonde hell-raiser in both the local ACT UP group and in the local chapter of Dignity, a national organization of gay Roman Catholics. Last year he, too, died of AIDS, after a roller-coaster of symptoms. Even while he was serving communion to his comrades in ACT UP, we all knew we'd be attending his own memorial soon. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, Quakers --we all lined up to take the bread and wine from his hands.

Once upon a time, the church crusaded with an exclusive patent over the sacraments necessary for salvation. Outside the one true church, there were only false gods and lost souls. Much later, the church acknowledged that the mystical body of Christ might include persons who had never crossed church portals but were hidden in the heart of God. With a little translation, consider how many persons may be humanist in spirit and in daily life without ever coming close to our official circles.

Even where we must differ sharply with religious people, certain tactical alliances are possible. Catholic nuns serving the homeless in my city command respect, because they are working beyond charity toward social change, and there are Baptists who work more consistently for the separation of church and state than many humanists. In fact, where is the cultural and political clout of humanism if we cannot even lead a decent campaign to tax the churches? And win!

Why is it that many folks with no faith of their own can gaze afar at the Bantu or the Balinese with human sympathy, even romanticism, but react with aversion to a Catholic parish three blocks away? Class. That's not the only reason, of course, but it ranks damn high. It's a truism among many humanists that religion implies a low level of culture. So here's a further confession: I appreciate the monstrousness of the Mass and find a fundamental realism in Catholic culture. This means I have more in common with certain Catholics (who may be socialists) than with certain humanists (who may be Republican technocrats). Through human labor, wheat and grapes become bread and wine; and through ritual, the faithful become one in the body of Christ. No wonder the consecrated host is often displayed in a monstrance--an object which "shows forth" the body of a crucified and resurrected being. Barbaric? From the pyramids of Egypt and Meso-america to the modern pyramids of state, we have been and remain barbarians. It's good to be reminded of this regularly. Daily Mass is a reminder.

Kenneth Rexroth--a great poet and a church-going humanist--wrote:

Any Catholic will tell you that

above all other things what holds

him to the church in spite of

doubts and manifest evils is the

sacramental system. In rites of

passage--the fundamental activities

and relationships of life--birth,

death, sexual intercourse,

eating, drinking, choosing a vocation,

adolescence, mortal illness--life

at its most important moments

is ennobled by the ceremonious

introduction of transcendence;

the universe is focused on the

event in a Mass or ceremony that

is itself a kind of dance and a work

of art. This is the real significance

of religion. We think of religion today

as something to believe, the

Westminster Confession, the

Athanasian Creed. The virtue of

Catholicism is that it has never

lost the anthropological religion it

shares with the Northwest Indians

or the Bushmen or the

Eskimos--it is something you do.

In my next column, I'll recount a great event: the "Stop the Church" demonstration outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City one Sunday morning in 1989. Among the people arrested was Tony Kushner, an AIDS activist whose play Angels in America is now running on Broadway. Yes, it does make sense for a post-modernist queer to write about angels. And it made sense for Rilke, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin to do so before him.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Church and gays
Author:Tucker, Scott
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:The skeptical eye: dancing with the Fuhrer.
Next Article:New beginnings.

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