A Mess & How It Got There

A man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.
Oscar Wilde

Every embarrassment is not a scandal. Egg on the face washes off. Scandal, by contrast, does not. It cuts to the core. A Church scandal poisons trust in those we look to for guidance through the thicket of our own caprices. And it negates those teachings and practices that exist to purify our own desires.

That in mind, I turn to this flurry of recent emails clamoring about the impending gay rites between the organist at St. Agnes in midtown Manhattan and his partner. Yes, that is awkward. A public relations pickle to be sure. But in itself, this news is askance of the real issue. The heart of scandal  beats elsewhere.

Caravaggio. Musicians (c. 1595). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Caravaggio. Musicians (c. 1595). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

A newly appointed parish organist Christopher Prestia is marrying his boyfriend in an Episcopal church out of town. But for Facebook, it could be a discreet event. No Catholic priest is officiating; no scandal applies on that score. Besides, an organist’s being gay is nothing against his musicianship.

That said, what was Prestia thinking by leaving notice of his wedding up on the same public Facebook page as the announcement of his position (“officially the musician-in-chief at St. Agnes Parish, New York City”) with a Catholic parish? He knows the Church’s position on homosexual behavior in general, and on gay marriage in particular. Public broadcast on Facebook was as provocative as it was self-indulgent. A self-described “adult convert”, the man had to know it would give scandal—a quaint old phrase—to the institution that employs him.

Prestia jettisoned Charles Kingsley’s “fig leaves of decent reticence” for what amounts to a gratuitous taunt destined to strike at the parishioners he plays for. The move suggests confidence that the trumpet blare would not jeopardize his job. There is logic to the assumption. A signal to abandon reserve was implicit in Cardinal Dolan’s decision to officiate at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade—the first in which participants were permitted to march under the banner of sexual preference. That nod capitulated to identity politics and relinquished all sense of trespass. It sent a coded message: The Church’s tutelage is a dissolving form.

Once the title of a Menninger Clinic book for three-year olds, Look at Me! Look at Me! has become  a rallying cry for adults. In some respects, St. Agnes’ organist was  justified in expecting his exhibitionism to be greeting with an indulgent smile.


Joseph Goupy. I Am Myself Alone, a caricature of Handel (1754). Photo: Eileen Tweedy.
Joseph Goupy. I Am Myself Alone, a caricature of Handel (1754). Photo: Eileen Tweedy.

Count today’s trouble at St. Agnes as the latest ripple to billow from the archdiocese’s deliberate plunge into murky waters. It swells with an overt challenge that the pastor chooses—so far—not to notice. That raises the question: What kind of pastor wants on board an injudicious pup who sticks a finger in the eye of those paying for his gig?

Supposedly, Fr. Myles Murphy knew nothing of Prestia’s life or wedding plans when he hired him at the beginning of July. But Steve Skojec, at One Peter Five, reports that Prestia mentioned his partner (“my gay fiance”) on his Facebook page back in October, 2014. Maybe Murphy does not read Facebook. Nevertheless, he is up to speed by now.

The Church can survive sinners in the choir loft. After all, there are plenty of us downstairs in the pews. What it  cannot survive is the gradual seepage of credibility from its own witness and the things that sustain it. The Church has nothing to fear from conscientious dissent based on reasoned argument. It has everything to fear from the slow drip of subversion. Dissolution follows the complicity— however unmeant—of clergy too complacent or too cowed to fight for what the Church holds as normative.


Andreas Feininger. Graffiti (late 20th C). Museum of the City of New York.
Andreas Feininger. Graffiti (late 20th C). Museum of the City of New York.

On a different note, a reader who identifies himself as M.T. claims to have come into possession of an alarming communiqué intercepted from a long-standing demonic mail route. The sender believes the letter has bearing on what has been discussed recently on this weblog. I take no position on the accuracy of M.T.’s claim. I simply offer it to you. You will come to your own conclusions. Herewith:

My dear Wormwood,

That dreadful Mystery! We must eliminate any sense of it wherever it is found so that our subjects come to believe that their faith is a perfectly ordinary affair; so much so that they stop that blasted practice of attending mass (or at least pay it no more mind than their grocery list). You see, without a sense of Mystery, “going to church” becomes just that — another thing to do, and with all the things to do nowadays, why keep doing it at all?

This is why it so pleases me that you have been able to get into the ear of that certain Father on Park Avenue who finds himself quite unexpectedly with a fearsome arsenal at his disposal. You have been brilliant in this regard, whispering to him of pride and vanity — all things that these Catholics are already predisposed to associate with great works of art. It was finely done, appealing to his desire to appeal to the common man. Yes, yes. The common man, most of all, should be protected from coming into contact with any sense of Mystery within the walls of a church. Because they are the least likely to find Mystery anywhere else and the most likely to fall away from the vile nourishment of The Enemy when that nourishment feels like nothing more than a banal routine. There are television shows to watch, after all. Keep at it, my dear nephew.

I suggest also that you try turning his mind to the poor — there is nothing more likely to provoke an aversion to art among the socially-minded than to suggest how many mouths such art could feed (you would do well to recall how our division finally won the soul of a certain Judas Iscariot). Yes, yes. Feeding mouths, not souls. You must keep his attention properly focused. You could have those horrid icons boxed-up and put in storage in no time at all! We must quietly disarm the Enemy at every opportunity.

Your affectionate uncle

Note: The blurb for this posting which appeared in First Things‘ broadcast email to subscribers was written by an editorial assistant who misread the posting. Mr. Prestia’s announcement appeared on his own Facebook page, not on the parish’s.