The Hijacked Icon

I don’t see the term “to be hoist with one’s own petard” used much these days, but I used to see it quite a bit a few decades back. It is another of those Shakespearean phrases that have woven themselves into the language. This one comes from the passage when Hamlet speaks of “the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petar,” in reference to how he turned the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the messengers carrying the orders to have him killed. (A petar or petard was a bomb used to blow up an enemy’s defenses.) The expression became part of the vernacular as a way to describe someone who is harmed by his own plan to harm someone else. Well, that is what happened recently to the leftwing blog site The Huffington Post, even though its editors probably don’t realize it yet.

The Huffington Post was founded about ten years ago by Arianna Huffington to provide a leftwing alternative to the right-leaning Drudge Report. (I wonder if someone in her inner circle will someday describe why and how the quirky Arianna flip-flopped in the blink of an eye from conservative talking head to publisher of a left-wing blog site. She appears to be one of those pundits whose political beliefs are chosen in a career move.) Its editors collect articles, columns, and postings on political and cultural issues from a liberal point of view. The Church is a frequent target of their wrath, because of its stand on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the sexual revolution in general. They like to feature members of the clergy who line up with the trendy leftists on the issues of the day.

That is why on Aug. 26 they published an article about the late Father Mychal Judge. They thought they could use him to bash the Church for its “repressive” views on sex and homosexuality. The Huffington Post headline read “Gay Catholic Icon.” The column was by Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service. It opens with a line about the “well-known image from the 9/11 attacks: five firefighters carrying a body from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The body belonged to the Rev. Mychal Judge, a Franciscan fire chaplain who rushed to the burning buildings and was killed by falling debris. Later, a half-hidden secret emerged about the gallant priest: he was gay.”

Burke writes of how Fr. Fred Daley, the pastor of All Saints Church in Syrause, N.Y., has installed a statue of Judge “to signal its hospitality to gays and lesbians.” Burke observes that Daley, “came out as gay himself in 2004,” and believes that Judge can serve as a model for “gay young people” struggling “to fit into a church that considers homosexual desires an ‘intrinsic moral evil.’” Daley hopes that Judge’s life will “break so many stereotypes that people have.”

Was Judge gay? Entries from a biography published after Judge’s death make clear that he struggled with same-sex attractions. He wrote of “my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully.” This has led homosexual activists to latch onto him as a symbol of their cause. One group has published a documentary called Saint of 9/11 that focuses on his homosexuality. Homosexual activists hold vigils on the anniversary of his death to energize opposition to the Church’s policies that bar men “with deep-seated homosexual tendencies from the priesthood.” Homosexual activist Andrew Sullivan argues that by the Church’s logic Judge “should never have been ordained.”

Sorry: Judge’s life illustrates no such thing. The Huffington Post entry notes that the NYC firefighters for whom Judge served as chaplain never knew of his same-sex attractions. It quotes Dennis Lynch, a lawyer who worked with Judge on bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Lynch denies that Judge was a homosexual and argues that “activists have hijacked the truth about him to advance a particular cause. I think the last thing Father Mike would want as his legacy would be for people to debate his sexual orientation. How come any time anyone talks about Mychal Judge they only want to talk about that subject?”

Precisely. Judge was not a homosexual activist when he was alive, and it is smarmy to make him one after his death. Who knows what Judge’s biography would have said about his same-sex attractions if it had been published while he was still alive. Whatever the nature of those attractions, there is no one who contends that Judge did not live a fully celibate life, including Fr. James Martin, culture editor of the Jesuit’s America magazine, also quoted in the Huffington Post. “He lived as the Catechism asked him to live and kept his ordination promises.” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Catholic bishops mad the same point: “One’s orientation should never dominate one’s ministry as a priest. Clearly, it did not dominate the ministry of Father Judge, who by all reports was held in high esteem by many, especially by the fire department he served so well.”

Fr. Martin and Sr. Walsh are underscoring the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. The Church has taught for centuries that a homosexual orientation is not sinful. Temptations are not sinful; it is only when we give in to them that we engage in objectively immoral actions. Judge understood that distinction. He kept his vows. Which means there is no reason to think he would not have been ordained by the Church today. When Rome uses the term “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” it is making the distinction between men like Judge and those who openly and unashamedly engage in the homosexual lifestyle and demand that the Church change its teachings to accommodate them in that choice. Judge did not do that. He did not preach that message. He remained faithful to the Church’s teachings.

We have to give Daniel Burke credit: his column on Judge was honest about how Judge lived his life. In doing so, it demonstrated how an individual with same-sex attractions can live a life of dignity and accomplishment, while remaining a devout and faithful Catholic. The Huffington Post headline writer described Judge as a “gay icon.” Burke’s column, intentionally or not, made a very different point.

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  • Gabriel Austin

    Fr. Mychal is indeed an icon for homosexuals in the Church: he had the tendencies and resisted them.

  • plowshare

    A well-reasoned essay. I like the way you are careful to distinguish between the headline writer and the author, Burke. Another very bad use of headlines (and also of urls) came when one author reported on the sad case in Brazil where a 9-year old girl raped by her stepfather was given an abortion. The headline read:

    Stepfather Rapes Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Then Had Abortion — Vatican Excommunicates the Girl and Her Doctors

    http://jonathanturley.org/2009/03/09/stepfather-rapes-nine-year-old-girl-who-then-has-abortion-vatican-excommunicates-the-girl-and-her-doctors/

    Nowhere in the article was there any claim the girl was excommunicated, only the doctors and the girl’s mother, for procuring the abortion. [Actually, what happened was that Archbishop Sobrinho announced that they had incurred excommunication *latae sentiae*]

    And, of course, the girl, being underage, could not have been excommunicated.

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