The Catholic blogosphere has been roiling these last few days with the story of what happened recently in San Francisco.
It should be noted that Archbishop Niederauer has apologized; but since Bill O'Reilly plans to discuss the matter on his program tonight it would seem that this is not necessarily the end of the story.
Nor should it be.
This is not an incident where two people sneaked quietly into church wearing some tiny button indicating their association with some dissident group, who were given communion all but inadvertently by a prelate who overlooked this small badge of dishonor. This is an incident where two men, dressed as nuns, with white painted faces, exaggerated makeup, and garlands of flowers, marched up during Communion and demanded the Sacrament--and were allowed to receive.
I have seen priests refuse people Holy Communion before, and you might have, too (especially if your dad, like mine when I was young, thought the first or second bench from the front was an ideal place to seat your brood, which caused my mother's occasional consternation when the discreet removal of an unruly toddler was difficult from so public a place). If a priest suspects that a person may not actually be Catholic, for instance, because he reaches the front of the line and doesn't appear to know what to do when the Body of Christ is proffered, the priest will quietly bestow a blessing, perhaps giving a quick word of explanation or reassurance, and send the person on his way. If you're not sitting in the front row, chances are you'll miss the whole thing.
So if two or three men in drag, costumed as nuns, appear before you, chances are good that you're going to react in much the same way as you would to someone else who clearly should not receive Holy Communion. It appears from some of the videos circulating about this incident that this is exactly what Archbishop Niederauer attempted to do! Notice how he tries to give the first "sister" a blessing, only to have the "sister" bend forward and appear to request Communion. Bear in mind that the gentleman in question has a large mustache; it is clearly a man dressed as a woman religious who is attempting to receive; further, this parish is located in the infamous Castro district, known as a gay center for many years.
Which is why it is troubling that the Archbishop's first statement on the matter attempted to deny that he had even noticed much about these two "strangely-dressed persons" who came forward to receive; he noticed, and immediately responded to them with the intention of denying them Communion. Only on the apparent insistence of the first "sister" did the Archbishop distribute communion, a fact that was highlighted here by the talented American Papist two days ago.
Some commenters on the Internet are saying, well, okay, but the Archbishop has apologized, now, and it's uncharitable not to take him at his word, or to impute bad motives to him on this matter. It would be uncharitable to attempt to read the Archbishop's heart, or to judge him guilty of graver things without any evidence of them, but it is not uncharitable to say that this situation appears to be a matter, first, of gross negligence, and second, of knee-jerk episcopal denial mode, a mode we're supposed to believe no longer exists.
In all justice, it must be said that the gross negligence may not be on the part of the Archbishop himself. He may not have been aware of just who these people were; after all, in his previous job as bishop of Salt Lake City the only strange garments highly prevalent in the region would be the secret Mormon underwear, which of necessity would only interest Mormon bishops. But someone at the chancery should have realized that at some point in his parish visits the archbishop might encounter some of these pseudonuns, and this person or persons should have tried to prepare his excellency for the encounter. Leaving such a politically-fraught situation wholly to chance was clearly a deficiency on someone's part, and that person should probably be demoted from his or her current rank at the chancery to a position writing this section of the archdiocesan newspaper.
But though the negligence may have been someone else's fault, the near-instant denial of the incident was the archbishop's own decision. As much as we might like to overlook that, I don't think we can afford to, given the huge role knee-jerk episcopal denial syndrome played in the recent Scandal. If the incident involving the "sisters" hadn't been videotaped, the whole thing would have boiled down to the archbishop's word against the words of anyone who witnessed this scene--and the pressure would have been heavy on faithful Catholics to believe the archbishop, who surely wouldn't bend the truth over a matter so small.
After all, there isn't one of us who wouldn't feel some sympathy for Archbishop Niederauer had he said, "Look, I tried to get away with just a blessing, but the big guy leaned forward and told me I'd better give him Communion. I could see that there were more of them and was afraid they'd get violent, so for the safety of the other people there and the integrity of the Blessed Sacrament I was still holding I gave them Communion--but I spoke to the ushers about what they need to do in the future if these goons show up." There isn't one of us who would judge him too harshly for making a quick decision that turned out to be imprudent--I'm certainly not about to cast that stone, and I don't know anyone else who would. But the problem is that that isn't what the archbishop said:
"At Most Holy Redeemer Church Oct. 7, I noticed no protest, no demonstration, no disruption of the Sunday Eucharist," said Archbishop Nierderauer. "The congregation was devout and the liturgy was celebrated with reverence. Toward the end of the Communion line two strangely dressed persons came to receive Communion. I did not see any mock religious garb. As I recall, one of them wore a large flowered hat or garland." (First statement)
"At Communion time, toward the end of the line, two strangely dressed persons came to receive Communion. As I recall one of them wore a large flowered hat or garland. I did not recognize either of them as wearing mock religious garb." (Current apology)
Both statements stick to the idea that the archbishop simply had no idea who these people were--which means that someone at the chancery has failed to do his job.
Or does it?
Again, from the current apology: "Although I had often seen photographs of members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, I had never encountered them in person until October 7th. I did not recognize who these people were when they approached me." (Emphasis added by R.C.)
So the archbishop knew about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, he had seen photographs (in which they often wear religious garb and white, mime-like makeup; I'd link to a Google Image search but you'd probably throw up after a picture or two, believe me) but he had NO IDEA that a MUSTACHE-wearing MAN with white makeup and a nun's habit was, just possibly, a member of that group?
As I see it, there are only two possibilities: one, that the archbishop is being less than truthful about this, or two, that he is suffering from a terrible vision problem.
Let's all pray for the archbishop's eyesight, shall we?