A People Adrift in San Diego: Damage Control Seen, as Overshadowing Gospel in Funeral Controversy
Johnston, Rosemary, National Catholic Reporter
Editor's note: Rosemary Johnston, an occasional contributor to NCR, lives in the San Diego diocese. NCR asked if she would provide an account of her impressions of life in the diocese during the past few weeks.
As San Diego Catholics absorb the fallout from a recent decision by Bishop Robert Brom to deny a Catholic funeral for the owner of a gay night-club and the bishop's subsequent apology, it is clear that the polarization of red and blue states that characterized the 2004 presidential election also holds true for the local church.
The 31-year-old nightclub owner, John McCusker, had died unexpectedly March 13 while vacationing in Mammoth, Calif. His parents had arranged for a funeral at the Immaculata, a Spanish Renaissance-style church, the largest in the diocese, located on the campus of the University of San Diego. However, when "concerned Catholics" learned of impending funeral services from a death notice printed in the March 16 San Diego Union-Tribune, they immediately contacted the chancery about the nature of McCusker's business activities, demanding that the bishop prohibit the planned March 18 services at the Immaculata. Brom announced that none of the 98 Catholic churches in San Diego County or Imperial County would be allowed to provide services.
When the story first broke on Page One of the Friday, March 18, Union-Tribune, the reaction from both blue and red Catholics was intense and immediate. McCusker's family had by then scheduled services at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, headquarters for the San Diego Episcopal diocese. As the cathedral's rector said: "Our basic philosophy is whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, we welcome you."
By Saturday morning, March 19, the Union-Tribune's letters to the editor brimmed with responses from readers, gay and straight, Catholic and non-Catholic. One letter pointed out that the convicted pedophile priest John Geoghan, who was killed while incarcerated, was granted a full Catholic service in Boston while McCusker, a businessman who operated an "establishment for mature, consenting adults," was not. Yet another letter writer insisted the bishop had done the right thing, that allowing Catholic funeral services for McCusker would be tantamount to Jesus "inviting pagans to the Last Supper."
Meanwhile, diocesan chancellor Rod Valdivia issued a series of backpedaling statements in rapid succession, claiming the bishop's decision, described as a "pastoral action," should not be interpreted as a "condemnation of Mr. McCusker." Rather, the bishop's action was intended to prevent the faithful from being "misled" by concluding that, if a Catholic funeral service had been allowed, the church would be condoning McCusker's business activities. The e-mail contained an attachment showing marketing material for porn videos filmed at two clubs owned by McCusker.
Apparently, diocesan officials believed this explanation would justify what was fast becoming a major public relations disaster. On Saturday morning, the Union-Tribune published an editorial condemning Brom's decision. "Intolerant bishop: Denial of funeral contradicts human dignity," the head line read. The scandal, the editorial said, was not the nature of McCusker's business, but the bishop's "narrow-minded ostracism," a gaffe that sends a message that is "the sheer antithesis of charity and tolerance. …