Desecration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Published February 22, 2024

First Things

The controversy surrounding the recent funeral for Cecilia Gentili at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York has been well-documented in the press. Gentili was a transgender prostitute, an atheist, and a misogynist who denied that women’s bodies were of any real relevance. The service has been decried by Catholic conservatives as blasphemous—among other things, it featured prayers for transgender rights and a eulogy that praised Gentili as “Saint Cecilia, the mother of all whores”—and celebrated by Catholic progressives. The priest in charge of the cathedral has issued an apology, claiming that when he agreed to host the service he had no idea of what was to transpire. A mass has even been offered by way of atonement. 

The incident is eloquent testimony to the nature of this moment in American, even Western, culture. That actor Billy Porter played a lead role at the funeral is unsurprising: If anyone could be said to represent the real presence of the absolute absence of intellectual or cultural substance, it is he. Only a cultural vacuum could be filled by such a caricature, and his comment on the funeral bears testimony to this: “There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. But just make sure that you do, you allow yourself to do that, so that we can get to the other side of something that feels a little bit like grace.” What exactly that means is anybody’s guess. 

One obvious question is why an atheist man convinced that he is a woman and committed to a life of prostitution would wish to have a funeral in a church. One answer is that the struggle for the heart of a culture always takes place in two areas: time and space. As the Christian transformation of the Roman Empire was marked by the emergence of the liturgical calendar and the turning of pagan temples into churches, so we can expect the reverse to take place when a culture paganizes. The pagans will respond in kind. And so we have a month dedicated to Pride and church buildings used for the mockery of Christianity. Time and space are reimagined in ways that directly confront and annihilate that once deemed sacred. A funeral in a Catholic cathedral for an atheist culture warrior is a first-class way of doing this. 

This goes to a point I have made before: Our age is not marked so much by disenchantment as by desecration. The culture’s officer class is committed not merely to marginalizing that which previous generations considered sacred. It is committed to its destruction. Disenchantment has passive connotations, a dull, impersonal, somewhat tedious but inevitable process. But desecration speaks to the exultation that active destruction of the holy involves. When Gentili is celebrated as a “great whore” in Spanish by trans rights advocate Liaam Winslet in a eulogy greeted with wild applause, then “desecration” seems the only word that captures both the blasphemy and the exhilaration of the moment. 

To quote another person present, artist Rio Sofia, “It’s Cecilia day. She’s an immigrant, so it’s international. It’s a day to celebrate the fact that we flooded Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with trans people. That was nothing less than historic.” Notice the language of celebration. The same note was struck by one Oscar Diaz: “To have St. Patrick’s Cathedral full of trans and queer folks, sex workers, immigrants, Black and brown folks, folks in solidarity with Palestinians—a crowd roaring her name—cements the sainthood of the legacy she left behind.” The question of whether the typical Palestinian would find much solidarity with “queer folks” and trans activists is a matter for another day. What is clear is that none of these individuals speaks the language of mourning or loss. These are not words of disenchantment. They are the exultant words of desecration. To quote the commentary at CNN, “Gentili may not have been a believer, but she likely would have delighted in the spectacle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

Yet there is an irony here. Gentili is dead. There are limits to human self-creation. You can pretend your body has no authority. You can kid yourself and other people that you are a woman when you are a man. But you cannot defy your bodily limits indefinitely. Sooner or later, your body has the last word and you will, to use the American idiom, sleep the big sleep.

And that is where the irony becomes tragedy. As a number of individuals associated with the funeral commented to the press, Jesus did not turn people away and even welcomed prostitutes. That is true. But the key thing to remember is that he did not offer them affirmation. He offered them the possibility of forgiveness and grace and liberation from the self-destruction to which they were in bondage. Affirmation of such self-destruction and of rebellion against God is neither loving nor kind. And it too is a form of desecration—the desecration of man, man denied the opportunity to live freely as God intended. Billy Porter might use the word “grace,” but upon his lips it is an empty cypher that connotes nothing but feckless sentimentalism and impotence in the face of an overwhelming reality—death—to which he has no response. And, most tragically of all, he and his friends seem to think that is something to celebrate. Desecrating the cathedral is not the only thing they should be ashamed of.

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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