Press Watch: San Francisco Follies

I arrived in San Francisco one day too late to witness the display of blasphemy by “Sister Boom Boom” and his followers, “a troupe of men who dress in nuns’ habits and spend their days looking for people to shock,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. These horrors were on hand shortly before the Democratic National Convention to protest the presence of a pro- family group, including Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly (a Catholic) meeting in the city.

“With the whole world watching,” Steven Rubenstein wrote in the Chronicle, “six men dressed as nuns threw a rubber snake into the air in Union Square yesterday. The snake was supposed to represent the heart of the evil Phyllis Schlafly. The idea was to chase away bad spirits after Thursday’s violent protest at the Moral Majority meeting up the street. ‘We are here to exorcise lies and prejudice,’ shouted Sister Boom Boom, star of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who were putting on the show.”

The conference, entitled “Family Forum III: I Am My Brother’s Keeper,” was sponsored by Falwell’s Moral Majority and by Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation. (Veyrich is also a Catholic, and the family values that he supports are completely in harmony with Catholic social teaching as expressed in papal encyclicals at least since Rerum Novarum [18911.)

I was thus surprised to find that San Francisco’s arch- diocesan Commission on Social Justice expressed “grave concern,” not about this blasphemy and the public flaunting of homosexuality, but about the presence of Schlafly and Falwell. The Commission’s press release worried that the Family Forum’s “sponsors include some notable personalities who have in the past supported dissemination of material that has fomented violence and injustice against gay/lesbian identified persons in the city of San Francisco …”

According to an article by John Kurzweil in the National Catholic Register, “Commission Secretary Martha Wood said she could not identify the specific ‘material that has fomented violence’ referred to in the release,” but Commission Chairman Peter G. Armstrong was quoted as being “concerned about certain people from the Forum who make statements such as, ‘the Forum will be used to expose the Democrats as being the lackeys of militant feminists, homosexuals, and hordes of other liberal, leftist special interest groups.’ This is a very abrasive statement and is the type of declaration that we feel can bring about unrest and even violence.”

When Kurzweil told Father Miles Riley, director of communications for the San Francisco Archdiocese, about the outrageous activities of the transvestite “nuns,” he would only say that the Archdiocese does not normally comment on the activity of such groups, because “it simply gives them credibility.”

One has to wonder whether the Archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, can possibly have known what was going on here, and whether he countenanced the prevarications of his spokespersons. A somewhat mild characterization of what is, after all, sinful behavior, is met with an expression of “grave concern,” while a public display of blasphemy evokes a “no comment.”

Let us run over this once again. Using specifically Catholic symbols of religious orders, “Sister” Boom Boom and his supporters made a public mockery of Christian virtues. But because the street theater tactics used to achieve this end were intended (among other things) to make people laugh, the archdiocesan response seems to have been that it is really rather harmless and to respond to it is to give it credibility. We are expected to subordinate whatever indignation we may feel to the constantly-invoked virtue of toleration.

Now try to imagine what the response from the media, from bystanders, and indeed from the archdiocese would have been if a group of people had gone out into the streets and made a public mockery of blacks, Jews, Hispanics, or indeed of homosexuals. Such a display would assuredly not have been regarded as harmless. It would, in fact, have been regarded precisely as “likely to promote violence,” and the actors would have been roundly denounced as bigots and most likely set upon.

But when Catholic symbols are used by transvestites to mock the conventional morality of America, even Arch- diocesan personnel won’t speak out against it. I am reminded of the comments by James Hitchcock in his “On the Present Position of Catholics in America”: “The Church’s image as a declining institution, as an establishment losing its vitality, its sense of purpose, and its self -confidence, caused a complete reassessment of its social role. The praise that was heaped upon it for its new ‘openness’ and its ability to modernize itself was often a coded thanksgiving that it would now cease to be troublesome in the political sphere. It would now be expected to act in the diffident, subdued manner of a loser, of an establishment in the process of losing its credentials.”

I do not believe that the Catholic Church today is a “declining institution,” but some members of the American hierarchy seem to think that they should act as though they believe it is; it is true, surely, that any organization that allows itself to be guyed in public is suffering at least from a crisis of morale.

I wonder, incidentally, what the Social Justice Commission makes of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans? His denunciation of homosexuality in the first chapter is so fierce that even Jerry Falwell might have quaked. I won’t quote it in toto, in case anyone thinks I am trying to foment violence. But the next day, my first in the city, when I watched the appalling “gay pride” rally coming endlessly down Market Street — with its contingent of AIDS victims dressed in white — I couldn’t help thinking again of what St. Paul had written. (I quote here from the King James translation, 27th verse): “Men working with men that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”

That morning, a Sunday, I went to the eleven o’clock Mass at St. Patrick’s church on Mission Street, right opposite the Moscone Convention Center. This turned out to be a very pleasant surprise: liturgically, the most traditional Mass I have found anywhere in the United States in over 20 years. (It was celebrated by Msgr. McKenna.) I hasten to add that it was also canonical (not Tridentine), but it was a pleasure to find the monsignor saying Mass not only in Latin, but also at the High Altar and facing in the same direction as the congregation. There was even an “Asperges Me” procession at the beginning, with the congregation serially sprinkled with holy water — something I have not seen since the 1950s.

Unfortunately, some demonstrators across the street (addressing themselves to the Democratic Convention, not the church), were armed with electric amplification loud enough for an open -air rock concert, and their mega-decibels occasionally came washing loud and clear into the church. Among other things, the demonstrators were upset about U.S. policy in Central America, where they were in favor of “peace” and “negotiation.”

At the end of the Mass, any journalists and convention delegates who happened to be present in the congregation were welcomed, and we were told that a package of materials from the Commission on Social Justice was available outside. I duly picked up the envelope, which included a clipping from the San Francisco Monitor (the arch- diocesan paper) including Archbishop Quinn’s October, 1983, Pastoral Letter on Central America; and the Summary of the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on War and Peace.

These documents once again contrived to give a sense of solidarity with the protestors in the streets. Thus both “peace” and “negotiation” were extolled. Readers were encouraged to “communicate your opinions to legislators and to use the democratic process in every way possible. I [Archbishop Quinn] find the San Francisco Ballot Initiative, which calls for an end to military intervention in El Salvador, to be consistent with the calls of the U.S. Bishops.” As for Communism, the 1981 Bishops’ statement was quoted as saying that the church in Latin America “has hardly been complacent about it,” but we should understand that “external subversion is not the primary threat or principal cause of conflict.” Instead, the problem is “the internal conditions of poverty and the denial of basic human rights which characterize many of these societies.”

In general, in these documents, the problem in Central America is depicted as one of a lack of human rights in countries where there is not Communism, and a lack of resources in Nicaragua (increasingly Communist). Furthermore, the United States is the principal villain. The Bishops call upon the U.S. to stop flooding “the region with warships, massive military assistance and increasing numbers of U.S. military personnel.”

Communism emerges in these documents as a mere form of government that seeks to redress grievance, while the U.S. seeks to prevent this development by clinging to an unjust status quo. One is bound to conclude from these documents that the bishops, Archbishop Quinn in particular, fail to understand the nature of Communism and the outlook of those who seek to make it a reality. Those who want to impose Communism do not have the slightest interest in negotiating anything. They seek a total victory over the human soul. They seek to expel God from human existence, and they seek a reorganization of life without God. Anyone who seeks to prevent the use of force against them is, whether he knows it or not, implicitly encouraging the spread of Communism. (May I recommend to the attention of the Social Justice Commission the National Catholic Register’s interview with Managua’s Archbishop Obando y Bravo in the July 29, 1984 issue?)

As for Archbishop Quinn’s Pastoral Letter on Political Responsibility, I couldn’t help noticing that he calls upon us to “deal realistically with all the implications of abortion, personal and social” (bearing in mind that “personal choice and privacy are important human values”); while, rather more forthrightly, “logic and consistency require us to oppose capital punishment in view of our belief in the value and dignity of human life.” Furthermore, “discrimination and violence against homosexual persons cannot be justified by the gospel nor by the teaching of the Church.”

One evening, on my last day in San Francisco, I went to a large and beautiful church in the Sunset district, Saint Anne’s, and my faith in the endurance and fidelity of the American church was revived. Quite by chance, I went just at the right time. The church was in the midst of a Novena to St. Anne, and there was quite a respectable congregation present on the weekday evening. We were blessed by relics of St. Anne, and I had the pleasure of hearing a most cogent and perhaps the best-delivered sermon I have ever heard in a Catholic church. The priest was Father James Schuster, a Redemptorist father from Tucson, Arizona. The sermon, the holy atmosphere in St. Anne’s, and the traditional Mass in St. Patrick’s (don’t miss either if you happen to find yourself in San Francisco) more than made up for the gay/lesbian parade, the blasphemous transvestites, and the peculiar politics of the Social Justice Commission.


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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