Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Raving Sanctity of the Body Rumaker’s Incendiary Muse and the ACT UP 80’s

This essay first appeared as the introduction to (the 2014 ed.)
of Michael Rumaker's novel To Kill a Cardinal 


“The people who know God well—mystics, hermits,
prayerful people, those who risk everything to find
God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”
 Fr. Richard Rohr

Reading Michael Rumaker’s barely-veiled description
of the 5,000 strong ACT UP protest that took place
in New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 sent
me hurrying to reread the four canonical accounts of
the “cleansing of the temple,” each featuring Jesus in
tantrum mode.

...Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out
the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He
knocked over the tables of the money changers and the
chairs of those selling doves...
 ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all
nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.
(Mark 11:15-17)

In Mark 11, Jesus rages against a vendor selling
doves. Besides being suggestive (obviously) of peace
in both secular and religious senses, the dove was, to a
Jew living 2000 years ago, a poor man’s sacrifice. A man
without the means to afford to sacrifice a calf or lamb
bore a bird to the altar.

The fury of delicate, frantic airborne creatures loosed
and fluttering in a dim sanctuary seems an apt image
for what happened at the noon mass on December 10,
1989 in the cathedral. The caged beasts flew out of their
cages, and up, causing a commotion.

HIV/AIDS was a death sentence in 1989. How
did the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy respond to
its own marginalized and infirm? With bigotry, selfloathing,
spin, and staged compassion. Those who most
required protection from the spread of AIDS (those
church leadership dubbed “the disordered”) were, in a
sense martyred. The bishops responded to a call for love
with bitterness.

Poet Michael Rumaker, author of To Kill a Cardinal
remembers, and his indignant, impassioned, fanciful,
reportorial Roman à clef on the subject of the 1989 ACT
UP demonstration, offers us a lyrical, satirical and edgy
account of what happened when its targets responded
to the lethal campaign bankrolled by New York’s Roman
Catholic Archdiocese and mounted in Christ’s name.
My paychecks came from the Archdiocese of New
York in the early 1980’s. I was a Catholic school teacher
in 1985 when men I knew were beginning to succumb
to the illness. I knew many priests during that time,
and I knew many were gay and sexually active. By
conservative estimates, half the Roman Catholic priests
in New York were gay during the 1980’s—more likely
the percentage was much higher. Today, many New York
priests are living with AIDS/HIV, and many have died of
the disease. It’s a secret the church hierarchy has worked
hard to keep. The archdiocese came down hard on the
“disordered.” It was a pre-emptive strike; the goal was to
silence and condemn.

In To Kill a Cardinal, a Jewish closeted mayor served
as the pompadour cardinal’s queer-bashing wingman.
This character, based on New York’s Mayor Ed Koch,
whom many suspected was gay, stepped aside as the
Archdiocese of New York mounted a mighty advertising
campaign to dissuade AIDS activists from distributing
clean needles and condoms to those most in need of
them. New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor may or
may not have emptied the bedpans of people suffering
through the final ravages of AIDS—Rumaker appears to
think not.

Conservative Catholics have been whining for 25
years about that terrible day when the “disordered”
threw condoms and a consecrated host on the cathedral
floor. Their indignation is such that one almost imagines
they view the tossing of a consecrated wafer to the
floor as a greater evil than AIDS itself. But ever since
reading about that demonstration in the local papers
on December 10, 1989, I have always seen “Christ the
Victor,” in that putative “desecration.”
If we learn anything from the Christ who overturns
tables and snaps a whip of cords in response to the
desecration of his temple, we learn that to desecrate a
desecration may be a form of sanctification.

The commotion of doves supplants the slaughter.
In Roman Catholic iconography, the Holy Spirit is
represented by both the dove and by the fire. Rumaker,
no longer a young man, has had these pictures in his
head—of fire and the dove—since he was ten years
old. Fire and the dove recall the Upper Room of the
Pentecost, and the birth of the Christian church. The
church came into being in a simple, borrowed room as
the first priests, fearing persecution, shuddered. Gay
Roman Catholic men had found an upper room in which
to worship in New York’s West Village some 17 years
earlier, Dignity. Through Dignity gay Catholics could
practice their faith without being degraded by church
leadership. Community centers too where gay men and
lesbians could assemble, also served as “upper rooms”
for the “disordered.” As the AIDS crisis took hold, the
real-life cardinal, John O’Connor, on whom Rumaker’s
fictional “pompadour” cardinal is based, ramped up the
enmity.

Rumaker comes to the writing of To Kill a Cardinal
with intimate knowledge of behind the scenes Roman
Catholicism. In the novel, his would-be assassin has
inside help. Rumaker has been inside, and captures
perfectly the cardinal’s jittery mood on the day of the
protest. For all its biting humor, To Kill a Cardinal is a
novel written by a man who once expected something
of the church that broke the hearts of so many.
I remember John Cardinal O’Connor’s tenure all
too well. A soundbite slinger extraordinaire, he availed
himself of the best Madison Avenue spin money can
buy. He had his own television show, upgraded the
cathedral’s broadcast capability, and bought costly
subway advertising which enabled him to extend his
homophobic message beyond his flock to all New
Yorkers. He popularized the use of the term “disordered”
while systematically impeding efforts (clean needle
and condom distribution) to reduce the spread of the
disease.

Perhaps the pompadour cardinal believed as his
Puerto Rican colleague in the College of Cardinals did:
 “It is better to die of AIDS than that they use condoms.”
New York’s cardinal directed personnel in Catholic
hospitals, schools and social agencies to refrain from
distributing clean needles and condoms. He targeted
the group Dignity, whose great crime was wanting to
celebrate mass without being reviled. In short, O’Connor
declared war on LGBT New Yorkers while creating
a sympathetic image. If such orchestrated enmity in
Christ’s name is not desecration of the temple, I don’t
know what is.

Rumaker’s protagonist hatches a plan for fighting
back.

His murder plot is twisted, maniacal, funny and
holy. Ironically, Rumaker’s poet/would-be assassin
conspires within a well-established Roman Catholic
tradition. Catholic crusaders have a long, dark history
of torching and murdering infidels. The specter of T.S.
Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral hangs over the whole
novel, as we read. Throwing rubbers on the church floor
may be rude, but Roman Catholicism has a rich history
of putting those who betray the Christ to death, and
Rumaker’s gunman seeks to end the life of a bad prelate
who turned Rumaker’s church into a den of thieves.
What did the thieves steal?
Lives.

“The cardinal is the murderer in the cathedral!”
One of the great lessons of the “cleansing of the
temple” narrative relates to replacement of the physical
temple with a more metaphysical (yet still physical)
one. John’s version of the “cleansing of the temple” has
Jesus threatening to destroy the temple and to restore it
in three days.  But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
(John 2:21) 

The true temple is incorruptible because under the
new covenant the mystical body of Christ IS the new
temple. The cathedral is a bricks and mortar semblance
of the veneration of Catholics for Christ. The Roman
Catholic Church is not a building. Jesus, the god made
of flesh and imbued with spirit—is the temple. When
New York’s top bishop, with all possible zeal, led the
mob in reviling the “disordered” as they carried the
cross that was AIDS, the church became just a building.

Strewing condoms on the floor of the cathedral
did not profane the cathedral because its cardinal had
already converted the cathedral into a spiritual abattoir.
Scorning the marginalized and infirm in Christ’s name
was the real defacement.

When the 1989 ACT UP activists in To Kill a Cardinal
threw condoms on the floor—they were not desecrating
the cathedral, but inverting the desecration. They were
sanctifying it, even when they tossed a consecrated
wafer, the body of Christ, and it lay broken on the cold
stone floor.

I once dropped a consecrated host. I panicked, then
remembered what I’d learned about such accidents in
my “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion”
training. I retrieved the body of Christ off the floor and
consumed it. My children, who were young at the time,
found this public demonstration of “the two-minute
rule” nasty. I explained that Catholic teaching makes
much of revering the body—both the body of Christ
direct and the incarnated Christ that resides within the
person of the baptized. The carnality of Catholicism
began with a sense that the body with all its operations
was a fine and holy vessel in which the Risen Christ
might properly dwell.

Most Roman Catholics, born and baptized before
1960, have that Fabian Jesus with blonde highlights and
his cardiac-meat all out imprinted in his or her religious
consciousness. Catholic artists may cling all the more
tenaciously to the beauty part of Catholicism—the love
part. Kicking the power part is easy; dispensing with the
glory part is more difficult.

To Kill a Cardinal exposes the heart of this conflict.
Rumaker’s strained connection to Catholic life adds a
richness. He’s been baptized. He has eaten Jesus and
has consumed His blood. That doesn’t mean nothing to
Rumaker. The word “baptized” means intoxicated. Our
hearts are on fire. The Knights of Columbus set runs
from it, but there’s no escaping that there really is no
Roman Catholicism without the raving sanctity of the
body and a taste for body and blood.

The current cardinal of the Archdiocese of New
York is fond of alluding to that 1989 protest as if there
were no greater affront to God and humankind. I see
that consecrated host’s two halves, Jesus the broken and
the sacrificed Holy Spirit, and the one left for dead on
the floor of “Cathedral of No Christ.”

I think of a pair of white wings. I remember that
pompadour cardinal as an infidel. I think the author of
To Kill a Cardinal does too. I see the 5,000 strong lying
in the center aisle as “Christ the Victor” representing
the martyred. I think Rumaker does too.
I have noticed that refulgent bird on fire, like some
metaphysical pilot light—that flaming dove of the Holy
Spirit—is often the last thing to go when a Roman
Catholic bolts from formal worship in disgust. That
mascot of the Pentecostal Upper Room often raves when
the church stumbles and errs. Often enough, the Holy
Spirit on the move does not appear, on the face, like
devotion.


A ballsy, luminous, vivid, enjoyable chronicle of
a rough-hewn battle in a long, holy crusade. To Kill a
Cardinal operates as a crime story, an epic, and a parable
belted out by Michael Rumaker’s incendiary muse, the
Holy Spirit.