In the Fourth Nocturn

On a disappointing response by the Roman Catholic Church

This week the trans activist Cecilia Gentili was commemorated in a Catholic funeral service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The service, intended as a requiem mass, was cut short by the allegedly unacceptable behaviour of mourners in attendance.

The incident quickly became a cause célèbre for American reactionary conservatives and their outrage-mongers. They misgendered Gentili; they said that she was an atheist and a prostitute and should therefore not have been given a church burial. Most foolishly, they asserted that those at the funeral who celebrated ‘Saint Cecilia’ thereby defamed the memory of Cecilia of Rome, Virgin and Martyr, rather than taking from it what was surely intended — to commemorate Gentili herself as sacred.

The cathedral’s clergy responded by joining in the blanket condemnation of the service they had held, calling it ‘sacrilegious’ and inappropriate to the season of Lent;1 they assure us that they have offered a Mass of Reparation to atone.

The cathedral’s response is disappointing inasmuch as by failing to respond to any specific criticism of the events, they implicitly condone all of these arguments. They said nothing of the circumstances of poverty in which Gentili found herself with no other option but sex work upon moving to New York; they said nothing of her work campaigning against the unjust laws which persecuted her and many other trans women. They failed to note that, as a baptized Catholic, she was eternally bound to the body of Christ and had as much right to a church burial as any other Catholic.2 They did not correct those who referred to her as male. Moreover, in defending themselves with the claim that they knew nothing about the person whom they were burying, they hold the deceased Gentili for the behaviour of the mourners at her funeral.

Nonetheless, the cathedral’s naïveté here should nonetheless be a lesson to itself — of a rather different kind.

As it was burying a well-known trans and sex workers’ rights activist — well-known enough to enjoy a detailed biography on Wikipedia — the cathedral should have expected a large number of trans people and sex workers would wish to attend to pay their respects. The cathedral should have recognized that many of the mourners would thus be guests in a Christian church to which they do not belong — a Church which has hurt many of them.

In this context the Church must realize that it is playing host to a different culture and act in accordance with God’s commandment to hospitality. It must hold fast to its traditions and doctrines while welcoming those of the community it invites into its House. But in this specific context, it must also reflect on what it has done in the past to hurt the people of that community; what it has done to make itself the object of mockery by them.

This is not to say it should take this mockery lying down (nor that a funeral is the right context for a theological debate over the Church’s past treatment of trans people and sex workers). But to preach the message of Christ to all means also to seek forgiveness from those whom the Church has hurt by allowing a twisted version of that message to be sent out. This perversion of the gospel may not have come from the Roman Catholic Church itself, but the reaction from American conservatives shows how little the universal message of reconciliation is understood even among those who seem to think they stand with the Church.

This moment should have been an opportunity for the Church to teach and to learn; the Church wasted it by appeasing those who twist the word of Christ to mean unforgiveness and hate.

  1. Had she only been so considerate as to wait until Easter to die!

  2. Wikipedia notes that Gentili was, in November last year, ‘exploring her relationship to religion’; it is not unreasonable to suppose that she had returned to faith by the time of her death. It is certainly hard to believe that her family and friends would have requested a ‘funeral Mass for a Catholic’ if she were still an ‘avowed atheist’.