A number of theories have been floating around about what might have caused a Chicago priest to burn and “exorcise” a rainbow flag–even in defiance of an archdiocesan directive not to do so. Some say the priest my be reacting to his experience of being abused by a clergy member when he was younger. Others think that he did not receive adequate training during his seminary and formation days. Some think the priest may be a self-hating gay man himself.
Causality is always a difficult thing to prove, and without enough facts and intimate knowledge of the individual, it is hard to state anything with certainty. Still, I would like to propose that another cause also be considered about why Fr. Paul Kalchik decided to perform such a bizarre and violently symbolic act: I think that the current climate in Catholic Church and civil society has reached such a hateful pitch that hateful displays have become the “logical” next step.
In other words, I don’t think that Fr. Kalchik is the sole person responsible for such actions. Don’t get me wrong: I think he needs to be held accountable for what he did (and I hope the Archdiocese of Chicago responds strongly). However, others have contributed to a violent climate through use of inflammatory rhetoric that allow people like Fr. Kalchik to think it is “normal” to respond so viciously.
For example, I don’t think it was a coincidence that this act took place in Chicago, an archdiocese that had been led for many years by Cardinal Francis George, a prelate with a long record of anti-LGBT statements. The most egregious of these occurred in the winter of 2011 when he compared LGBT advocates to the Ku Klux Klan. He apologized a few weeks later for the comment (though only after he fhad continued defending it), but such a hateful image is likely to have remained in the minds of those already anti-gay.
And the fact that Kalchik thought he was performing an “exorcism” on the flag reminded me of the day Illinois legalized marriage equality when the Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, the state’s capital, held an “exorcism” of the entire state because of the new law. At the time, I responded to the announcement of the exorcism by writing:
“[T]he news is frightening. Did Bishop Paprocki not realize the storm that he would create by using such exaggerated language? Did he not realize the pastoral harm and confusion that such language would cause? Did he not care that his heightened rhetoric will most likely be used by anti-gay people to inflict real, physical violence towards LGBT people?
“If he did not think of these things, then one has to wonder how thoughtfully the bishop makes his decisions. If he does not think about the effects and reverberations from his decisions, it could mean that he was simply blinded by his desire to make his point about the new marriage law without concern for how people’s lives could be harmed.”
Similarly, I don’t think it was a coincidence that this act took place now, during a time when some bishops and Catholic leaders are blaming the clergy sex abuse crisis on gay priests. Again, on an intellectual level, we know that there is no evidence for such claims. But what kind of emotional impact can such destructive false charges have on Catholics who are saddened and confused by this awful crisis and are looking for simple answers?
Besides these isolated examples, it is also true that this toxic atmosphere has been building up for decades. Throughout the marriage equality and other LGBT civil rights debates, bishops and church officials have used terms like “defeat for humanity,” “nuclear arms,” “gay dictatorship,” “ideological colonization,” “totalitarian system,” “demonic, poison,” “murderers,” and “Nazi-fascism and communism.” And, of course, there’s the language of official church doctrine “objective disorder” and “intrinsically evil.” The speakers of the these words need to take responsibility for the potential violent initiatives their rhetoric can inspire.
But in addition to church leaders using harmful language, the problem also extends to the language that they do not use. Church leaders have been extremely vocal denouncing any initiative which recognizes same-sex relationships or transgender equality. They justify these messages by saying they are upholding church teaching. Yet, our church also teaches that we must respect the human dignity of LGBT people and we must include them in the Christian community. Unfortunately, our leaders are much less likely to promote these teachings than they do teachings that involve sex and gender. I will grant that some leaders have recently been adding a reminder about the teaching on accepting LGBT people to their statements condemning same-sex relationships or gender identity. Yet, why is this teaching so rarely ever the primary message? Why haven’t the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established a Committee on the Defense of Sexual and Gender Minorities the way they have done for heterosexual marriage? Why don’t church leaders ever mention the many positive contributions that LGBT people have made to the church and society?
Allow me to tell a little story about a phone conversation that I had recently. A Catholic pastor called New Ways Ministry demanding that his parish be taken off our list of LGBT-friendly faith communities. “We uphold the teaching of the Church,” he told me emphatically. “We do not support same-sex marriage.” He told me that a welcome to LGBT people had existed under the former pastor of the parish, but that he was not continuing that approach. To confirm his decision, I asked him, “Are LGBT people welcome in your parish?” His response: “No, they are not.” How does such a response uphold church teaching on respect and pastoral welcome? (I immediately deleted the parish from our list.)
Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich has been a strong voice for treating LGBT people with respect and dignity. His record shows that it will be unlikely that he will simply sweep this incident under the rug, hoping that it will go away and won’t happen again. If he does nothing or offers only a weak response, I predict more actions like the flag burning will pop up.
But beyond dealing with Fr. Kalchik as an isolated event, the whole church needs to see the burning of a rainbow flag by a Catholic pastor as a wake up call about the state of our LGBT discourse. All church leaders need to pause and examine how their language (and their ignorance of church teaching) can affect the larger community. Our church needs to return to a level of civil discourse concerning LGBT issues. In addition to church leaders checking their language, I also think that Catholic LGBT advocates should do the same. There is no place for insult and demonizing on either side of the conversation, no matter the pain that each proponent feels. We all have to rise above that hurt in our public statements. Speak out personally and forthrightly, yes, but also speak so as to do no harm.
When I first heard of the flag burning story, the immediate thought that came into my mind was a quote from the German writer, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856): “Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn people.” Decades after he wrote that, the Nazi Holocaust, which began with the burning of books, sadly proved the truth of that statement. I hope that we will learn the lesson from that tragic era in 20th century history that violent words can inspire violence towards symbols and property, which in turn can inspire violence towards people. I pray that we are able to come to our senses before we witness a repeat of a true “defeat for humanity.”
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 21, 2018