You have to wonder what kind of bubble surrounds East Rutherford, New Jersey that manages to keep the city isolated from the news of the world. I could sometimes wish for such protective isolation for myself.
Wednesday, North Jersey.com staff writer Deon J. Hampton revealed that Robert Russell, the music minister at St. Joseph in East Rutherford for 22 years, has decided to give two weeks’ notice. On July 10th, Russell was surprised and dismayed to learn from a homily pastor Fr. Joseph Astarita gave that the Catholic Church doesn’t accept even the concept of same-sex marriage. And when he confronted Fr. Astarita to reveal that he is gay and has been with a single partner for 15 years, the pastor had the temerity to suggest that Russell could change his orientation through reparative therapy, and to express concern about his involvement with a yet-to-be-formed children’s choir (“allegedly [telling] him he would be a ‘poor example’”).
Wow, who would’a thunk it?
But besides announcing his intention to quit, Russell has also — wait for it! — retained the services of an attorney, David L. Wikstrom. Wikstrom stated that Russell “couldn’t properly perform his work because of his sexuality, thus creating a hostile and adverse work environment.” Either Wikstrom isn’t used to speaking to reporters or for posterity, or reporter Hampton butchered Wikstrom’s actual statement to cut the story down to size.
First of all, the Church’s stances against gay sex and same-sex marriage don’t exactly qualify as startling revelations on a par with Watergate or the Pentagon Papers. Gay sex has been on the Church’s list of sins since the very beginning, and the Church has been open about it even in the midst of rampaging tolerance. The concept of same-sex marriage, by contrast, has only lost its new-car smell in the last couple of years; it’s so recent an idea that the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Latin text copyright 1997) doesn’t even mention it.
(However, if you read the portion on the Sacrament of Matrimony, CCC 184.108.40.206 §§1601-1666, you see that the Church’s theology of marriage assumes two people of different sexes throughout.)
Despite the Church’s teaching being common knowledge, Russell managed to struggle manfully under institutional opprobrium for over two decades. According to “St. Joseph members”, of whom reporter Hampton only names one, “the church has traditionally been liberal, but [Fr. Astarita] is ‘ultra-conservative.’” A previous pastor who was killed in the 9/11 attacks, Fr. Mychal Judge, was supposedly a “celibate gay” priest, by which I presume Hampton means a priest with same-sex attraction who remained chaste. We are to infer, I guess, that the generally enlightened and tolerant environment made the load that Russell bore less onerous.
The one parishioner that Hampton names, Pam Lakefield, “said [Fr. Astarita’s] comments were ‘offensive,’ and that the priest is teaching horrible thoughts.” However, the only horrible, offensive comment we’re given is this: “Marriage between two men is a lie.”
So it is, according to the Church’s theology of marriage. It’s a little late in the day to be just waking up to that fact.
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it” (Jn 6:60)? The disciples said this among themselves after Jesus emphasized that they must literally eat his flesh to have eternal life. And when he refused to back down from his graphic language, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66); we also get a hint that this episode starts Judas Iscariot on his path to betrayal (v. 71).
Without hearing the controversial July 10th homily, we can only assume that Fr. Astarita was pretty blunt. But we can also wonder if, in present circumstances, he would have fared any better with the eloquence of a Shelley or the tact of a courtier. For in the end it comes down to the same thing: Gay sex is a sin; same-sex marriage is a lie. There are other sins and other deceits … but these are the only ones enjoying a certain celebrity and cachet, other sins and deceits having been mainstreamed already.
Of course the message is going to sound harsh, especially if the only proof you accept of unconditional love is uncritical tolerance-verging-on-celebration of your behavior. But Fr. Astarita isn’t “ultra-conservative” for speaking it — that’s just the substitution of a loaded term for critical thought. No, he’s being faithful not just to Pope Benedict and Abp. John J. Myers but to the gospel message as recorded in Scripture and handed down in the apostolic tradition for 2,000 years.
Should the liberals leave the Church? I’m sure a few of my fellow bloggers would wish for it. But when Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” they responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:67-68). If you care for someone, you wish for their conversion of heart; to wish them out of the Church is not much better than wishing them to go to hell … in fact, the two desires are almost equivalent.
I’m not much fussed by Russell’s decision to hire a lawyer, even one whose English may be syntactically challenged. As Fr. John Zuhlsdorf says, “In the increasing hot culture war, the Catholic Church is going to be torched more and more often.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the much-trumpeted “wall of separation between Church and State” turns more and more into a one-way barrier, allowing the State to interfere with the Church almost at will.
But lawyer Wikstrom was speaking more correctly than he intended: Fr. Astarita didn’t create the hostile work environment. Rather, it was Russell’s decision to make his homosexuality a cause of contention. Catholics aren’t like the Amish: we don’t live our lives in complete isolation from the rest of the world, knowing only what our elders choose to teach us. We can’t take a plea of ignorance of the Church’s teaching from him with a straight face.
All the Church’s lawyer has to do to undermine it is dump a bunch of newspaper clippings on the judge’s bench.