Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sacrament or publicity stunt?

Progressive Catholics all over the world fell in love with this picture of an elderly Argentine priest, Fr. Carlos Varas, baptizing little Umma Azul, the daughter of a married lesbian couple, Soledad Ortiz and Karina Villarroel, in the grandiose setting of the Cordoba Cathedral, a moment the two then sealed with a subversive kiss. Moreover, the use of the cathedral for the baptism had been approved by the Archbishop himself, Mons. Carlos Ñañez.

Serious Catholics, however, should read more deeply and take this event with a huge grain of salt. Ortiz and Villarroel are far from the most suitable poster children for gay Catholic families. First, Villaroel, a police sergeant, has candidly admitted to various media outlets that she and the baby's biological mother, Ortiz, a hairdresser, are "not practicing Catholics." Despite this, she claims that having their child baptized is important to them. But baptism is not about making a statement; it's a commitment on the part of the parents and godparents to raise that child in the Catholic faith. We can only hope that down the line we will be seeing Umma Azul's First Communion and her Confirmation, and that her parents will find a parish where they feel comfortable and attend Mass regularly.

This baptism became front page news primarily because the couple chose Argentina's president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to be the girl's godmother. And, again, they were explicit that they chose the president to show their gratitude to her for promoting the country's marriage equality law. They had hoped that Fernández herself would attend the baptism but instead the president sent her naval aide-de-camp, Claudia Fenocchio, to represent her at the event. But godparents are to be chosen because they are Catholics in good standing who can help the parents raise the child in the faith, not for political or material reasons. An additional unnamed couple who are friends of the couple also served as godparents after the archbishop told the priest to instruct the couple to find someone who would realistically aid in their child's religious education. Another red flag.

The baptism was immediately hyped worldwide with gay Catholic support groups such as New Ways Ministry claiming to see the influence of Pope Francis' more pastoral approach to homosexuals in the Archbishop's decision. These groups need to step back and hold their applause. This is the same Archbishop Ñañez who, in 2010, initiated the process that ended in 2013 with Fr. Nicolas Alessio's formal dismissal from the clerical state. Fr. Alessio's crime? Publicly supporting marriage equality while the Catholic Church in Argentina was aggressively campaigning against it.

And Fr. Alessio, interviewed by Telam, takes a much less rosy view of this baptism/publicity stunt. "First of all, I want to clarify that the archbishop (Carlos Ñañez) didn't 'authorize' this baptism, because it's a sacrament that's denied to no one. It's not some benevolent act." Mons. Ñañez said the same thing in remarks to the Catholic news agency, AICA, in which he lamented the media's exploitation of the event and stressed that the case of the little girl was "like that of any other person seeking baptism. The girl is the one who will be receiving baptism. It's her right."

Alessio said that the baptism "did not mean any change whatsoever on the part of the Church, but it's a proselytizing gesture to regain believers, but the underlying issue hasn't changed. It's just a change in strategy." He also added that this is not the first case of the child of a same-sex couple being baptized since he himself had performed two such baptisms, although without the high visibility. So while it's tempting to look at this cute couple and their sweet little daughter receiving her first sacrament and think it means change has come, real equality in the Roman Catholic Church is still a long way off.

For the record, Archbishop Ñañez also denied rumors that he had given authorization for the couple to be confirmed in the Church, much less married, as some media accounts have suggested the couple's next demand might be. He said he did not talk to them personally but that they "came here and, without speaking to me, and with precise instructions were sent on their way to a parish where they had to meet the necessary requirements for baptismal preparation. Her mother and the elected godparents. That's all."

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