Wag the Dogma


"Catholic Bashing." The charge is a bold one and the images it conjures up are unpleasant: nuns being harassed on the street; churches being burned, cute parochial school kids being tormented for being Irish or Italian. This is America and prejudice is an ugly word. But recently the accusation of "Catholic bashing" (as well as the more general "Christian bashing") has taken a new turn and has acquired the power to effectively attack causes such as reproductive rights, public arts funding, gay rights and AIDS activism. If this power increases it may prove an effective tool against gay and lesbian rights organizing.

Charges of "Catholic Bashing" have surfaced around the country these past months. In San Francisco, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence–mostly male group of street performers and activists who dress as nuns and do AIDS fundraising and safe sex education–had planned a twentieth anniversary party on Castro Street on April 11, which coincidentally was also Easter. The sisters were granted the permit to close the street, and the Archdiocese of San Francisco registered a strong complaint to the city’s Board of Supervisors that they viewed the Sisters’ street festival as an act of anti-Catholicism since it took place on the Roman Catholic Church’s most sacred holy day. Because the Sisters had been granted permission to hold their celebration months earlier and are, for most San Franciscans, a beloved local institution, the Board did rescind the permit. Still, the charges of anti-Catholicism made headlines.

Last month Boston’s Bernard Cardinal Law claimed that Margaret Marshall, Governor Celluci’s nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), was "anti-Catholic." In a letter to Celluci, Law asserted that Marshall, a liberal, was "open to serious charges of anti-Catholicism" because in 1992, as the Harvard University’s general counsel, she asked Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon–a prominent conservative Catholic activist — to follow University policy and stop using Harvard Law School stationary in personal correspondence, promoting her opposition to a federal abortion rights bill. (In the same letter Law also leveled the same charges against the nomination of Superior Court Judge Judith Cowin to Associate Justice of the SJC, because of a ruling she made in favor of a gay man who claimed that a Catholic hospital had discriminated against him.) While Marshall–who otherwise has impeccable credentials–will probably be confirmed as chief justice, the Cardinal’s accusation effectively caused a great deal of problems for Marshall’s confirmation and proved that the charge of "anti-Catholicism," no matter how unfounded, carries enormous political weight in this liberal, but Catholic, state.

In New York, Mayor Rudolf Giuliani has declared war on the Brooklyn Museum because he found some of the artwork in "Sensation," a new exhibition of contemporary British artists, "offensive." On September 23 Giuliani threatened to withdraw city funding from the Museum if they did not remove the offending art. Two days later, after they refused to cancel or change the exhibit he threatened to evict them from their city owned building. While Giuliani disapproved of several of the art pieces–calling them "sick stuff"–his main objection was to "The Holy Virgin Mary" a painting of a black-Madonna by Chris Ofili, a British born artist of Nigerian descent, that wedded traditional Western religious iconography with African themes. As in many of his paintings, Ofili incorporates shellacked -over elephant dung to suggest African earth, culture, and power. Although Ofili is a devout, church going Catholic who claims that his painting is reverent, Giuliani has labeled it "Catholic bashing." New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor, who called the painting "an attack on religion itself,94 seconded the charge. The Brooklyn Museum has filed a lawsuit against Giuliani and the City, but controversy may have a lasting impact on the public arts funding in New York.

Accusation of Catholic bashing can come from all political quarters. In an article entitled "The Fight Against Hate" (New York Times Magazine, September 26, 1999) gay writer and editor Andrew Sullivan claims, "some of the most virulent anti-Catholic bigots in America are gay." His examples: some ACT UP members desecrating consecrated hosts at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; playwright Tony Kushner’s criticism of the Pope and the American Bishops silence on Matthew Shepard’s murder, and calling he Pope a "homicidal liar;94 the world-famous, AIDS fund raising drag nuns Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; gay and lesbian activist wearing T-shirts proclaiming "Recovering Catholic." All of Sullivan’s critiques were aimed at queer activists and leftists.

These accusations of "anti-Catholicism" are part of a larger trend. In the last two years several "religious freedom" bills have been introduced in Congress, the most recent being "The Religious Freedom Restoration Act." Each of them, to varying degrees, makes it illegal to infringe on an individual’s religious beliefs. While this, on the face of it, sounds good, the reality is quite different. Drafted and promoted by the Christian right the intention of these bills is to create legal loopholes exempting individuals and groups from complying with a wide range of established legal precedents including gay rights legislation. For instance, a person who believed that homosexuality was morally wrong would not have to rent an apartment to a gay person, or parents who did not believe in evolution could claim that a school violated their religious freedom by teaching it to their child. By privileging individual "religious beliefs" over broad based civil rights statutes (and in the case of teaching evolution, common sense and scientific fact) the law’s goal is not to foster or secure religious tolerance or freedom but to promote a right-wing political agenda. It is another battle in the Christian right’s war against secular humanism. The cry of "Catholic bashing" functions the same way; it is not about stopping anti-Catholic prejudice as it is about silencing those who would criticize or fight against the enactment of a conservative Catholic/Christian political agenda in public life.

Religion occupies an idiosyncratic place in American public life. The writers of the Constitution, being products of the Enlightenment, were far more committed to the notion of equality (granted, at first only for white men) then in promoting an absolutist ideal of religious freedom. For them freedom

from religion was as important as freedom of religion. (Don’t forget that "one nation under God" was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s.) On the other hand, the United States is committed to a concept of personal liberty that includes religious belief–as well as a host of other freedoms such as freedom of association and freedom of expression. While no one should be persecuted for their religious beliefs, neither should they be able to infringe on the freedoms and beliefs (religious or not) of others. These contradictory rights lead to a tension that is inherent in the very concept of democracy. And it is this tension that has erupted into the political and culture wars–particularly over issues of sexuality, and especially queerness, and reproduction–of the past two decades.

But what is going on here? At first the question might seem to be "why are these charges of `Catholic bashing’ getting so much attention?" But the more fundamental question is why are they being taken serious as "bashing" at all? The instances of "Catholic bashing" above – with the possible exception of the action of some ACT UP members in St. Patrick’s–are all examples of honest and open political or artistic disagreements. Margaret Marshall’s enforcement of Harvard’s letterhead policy in no way prevented Mary Ann Glendon’s practice of her religion. Chris Ofili’s unique vision of his religious beliefs – coming out of his African heritage – does not stop anyone from imagining of creating his or her own imagery. Identifying publicly as a "recovering Catholic" is certainly the right and privilege of anyone who chooses to do so. Yet each of these cases reframes a difference of opinion as an unconscionable, bigoted attack on Catholicism. To call them "bashing" is to grossly misrepresent the reality of what is happening here which is the claiming of a quick and easy "victim status" to promote a conservative agenda. That the mainstream press plays into this cheap shell game–by taking these accusations even the least bit seriously–is infuriating.

Even more infuriating is the fact that for so long this press refused to take seriously the ever present and undeniable reality of queer bashing. On October 18, 1999 it will be one year since the brutal beating and death of Matthew Shepard. Up until that moment the mainstream media paid almost no attention to the issue of violence against gay people. And while coverage of Shepard’s horrific death was detailed it has been the exception that proved the rule. A complex series of factors went into making the Shepard murder so newsworthy – the brutality of the attack, the protracted deathwatch, the victim’s physically small frame and good looks, even the class status of Shepard and his murderers allowed the media to construct a narrative of the ultimate "innocent" victim of homophobia. If any two of these factors were missing Matthew Shepard might just be another dead fag no one ever heard about.

The irony here is that while the media did not care about – and to a large degree still does not take seriously – the deeply entrenched prevalence of violence against queers they are more than eager to take seriously the bogus and politically expedient "bashing" of religious conservatives who are, in some large part, responsible for setting up the conditions that allow queer bashing to take place.

We live in a world in which religious beliefs are not simply personal, but continually threaten to spill over to public policy and law. The Vatican has repeatedly urged the U.S. Catholic hierarchy to lead the fight against gay rights legislation, same-sex marriage, and even safe sex education. The Christian Coalition and similar groups do the same. For queers to criticize them – and to work against them – is not "Catholic bashing" but a model of self- respect and political organizing. When Tony Kushner criticizes the Pope and the American Bishops for their virulently homophobic beliefs — particularly the dogma that homosexual acts are "intrinsically evil" and that homosexuality is an "objective disorder" or as a Vatican document stated in 1986 referring to AIDS that "homosexuality may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people" – is he Catholic bashing or simply exerting his right to define his own life and sense of self.

Disagreeing – even in strong or incautious language- with someone’s religious beliefs is not prejudice or bashing. It is not the same as physically attacking Catholics, denying them employment, or prohibiting their religious activity. And using the accusation of "Catholic bashing" to silence opinions counter to Catholic belief is not defending religious freedom, but suppressing free expression and subverting what we generally call democracy.