Anne Rice, come on back

Anne Rice is best known for writing about vampires, but she has me thinking lately about a Paul Simon song I loved as a kid.

Rice made headlines when she returned to her childhood faith in Catholicism back in 1998, and she's made headlines again this week by walking away from the church one more time. She says she believes in Christ with all her heart -- but belief in the church? That's another story.

Rice's posting on her Facebook page speaks for the frustration of many Catholics who have watched the church move into the messy culture wars that have roiled the nation for nearly fifty years. Immersion in the politics of division did little to burnish the pastoral credentials of such inside-the-Beltway creatures as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; it is a path U.S. bishops should fear to tread. But no.

Says Rice: "I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."

Hard to remember now, but it was not always this way. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Catholic clerics actually made news for championing progressive causes. On TV when I was a kid, you could see priests like Fr. Louis Gigante from the South Bronx, who fought for tenants rights and decent housing. By 1981, he and the group he founded helped gain federal funding for more than one-thousand new apartments in the poverty-plagued Hunt's Point neighborhood, not far from where I grew up. Gigante even became a New York City council member, where he continued the fight from within the system.

He was one of my heroes, one of the guys who made being Catholic -- honestly --a little bit cool. In his 1972 hit tune "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard," Paul Simon sang:

When the radical priest come to get me released
We was all on the cover of Newsweek...

...And I knew exactly the kind of cleric he was talking about, men like Louis Gigante.

But in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II ordered priests out of elective politics, in order to focus on their main job -- ministering to the faithful. Fr. Gigante left the city council. In Massachusetts, Fr. Robert Drinan ended his career as a progressive congressman. But, of course, politics and the church did not part ways -- instead, Catholic politics among the most visible church figures simply took a conservative turn.

The priests speaking out now don't seem to have the same up-from-the-streets credibility of men like Gigante; they more closely resemble the right-wing talking heads on cable television who apparently have spent far too many years relating to real people from the comfort of marble-clad think-tanks tucked away in the leafier suburbs of our nation's capital.

These are the leaders from whom Anne Rice is now running away. She is not alone, but I wish she was. Somewhere, I've got to believe, there is another Fr. Gigante, another Dorothy Day, a fresh crop of people ready to step in with Fr. Greg Boyle, the Los Angeles Jesuit who works tirelessly among the gangs of the city's Latino quarters. But they won't be there, they won't -- not if everyone who despairs of today's church sound-bite culture war mentality just ups and leaves.

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