People with flowers and a banner of Cecilia Gentili outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, February 15, 2024 (Sheetal Banchariya/New York Daily News/TNS)

On Thursday, February 15, a group of gay, lesbian, and transgender activists briefly hijacked a funeral service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. They filled the front pews costumed in carefully chosen funeral garb: the skimpy, the glitzy, the gaudy, and the drag. One eulogist led the congregation in repeated chants of “Cecilia, Cecilia,” the deceased’s name; another celebrated her as “St. Cecilia, mother of all whores”; and one woman interrupted the “Ave Maria” by twirling down the aisle with the refrain of “Ave Cecilia.”

The subject of this sudden canonization was Cecilia Gentili, a transgender activist, former prostitute, and accomplished lobbyist for the rights of streetwalkers and the decriminalization of prostitution. She was a sometime actress and writer and an inveterate performer—in sum, a prominent member of the high-glamor wing of trans and queer New York society. (Her fullest obituary appeared in Vogue online, punctuated by Gucci ads.)

The St. Patrick’s funeral was a stellar example of what, in 1961, Daniel J. Boorstin, called a “pseudo-event.” For Boorstin, a conservative American historian and later Librarian of Congress, a pseudo-event is an event that might have the appearance of a genuine news event but is in fact staged and orchestrated mainly to generate publicity.

Provoking publicity may not have been the only objective behind the staging of the Gentili funeral, but it was surely a major one. The day before the funeral, a clearly alerted New York Times reporter called the archdiocese for comment on St. Patrick’s holding such a rite for a transgender activist. The Times story on the funeral ran for two columns, filled with colorful details, for example, about the “daring outfits—glittery miniskirts and halter tops, fishnet stockings, sumptuous fur stoles and at least one boa sewed from what appeared to be $100 bills.”

In line with the familiar culture-wars script for covering things Catholic, the story proposed that the funeral might be a landmark event. Was the notoriously repressive Catholic Church catching up to the enlightened, progressive worldview of, say, Vogue or the New York Times? Surely that possibility was worth two columns—the space that in my time as the Times’s senior religion reporter might have been allotted for a major papal decree.

The story pinged everywhere. Outrage duly followed. Some Catholics fell ill at the very thought of a priest blessing the casket and commending to God the soul of a transgender person. Others managed to blame Pope Francis. But the common, overriding reaction was indignation and pain at a sacred rite in a sacred space denatured into street theater—and reported as though this were an unambiguously positive thing.

That was certainly my initial reaction. It was magnified by disappointment in the paper where I had prized my own decade as a religion reporter and my two decades as a biweekly columnist. The Times story contrasted the present welcome for Gentili’s funeral with the December 10, 1989 ACT UP protest at Cardinal John O’Connor’s opposition to publicly supported, condom-based “same sex” programs, especially ones mandated for Catholic schools. The article accurately described the massive 1989 protest as “a touchstone in the city’s gay history.” It did not mention that the protest had involved the disruption of a liturgy and the desecration of a consecrated host—and was widely condemned by public officials, media editorials (including in the New York Times itself), and many in the LGBTQ community.

Most disappointing was that the Gentili funeral story, though written by a newly appointed metropolitan-area religion reporter, was religiously tone-deaf. That the event might have abused a religious ritual and setting was apparently not worth even a hint of attention.

My immediate mortification was quickly eased. Hadn’t Jesus warned his followers to anticipate abuse and persecution, indeed in forms far more severe than this? And hadn’t the cathedral been clearly ambushed—and hadn’t it acquitted itself well? The Times reported that the person requesting the funeral had kept Gentili’s transgender identity “under wraps.” One can understand a cathedral official not being aware of Gentili’s identity, whether gender or sexual or political or, for that matter, religious. (She was a self-proclaimed atheist with, it seems, a vague and perhaps growing openness to faith.) The cathedral later explained that it does not do “background checks” on those for whom a funeral was requested, though one wonders whether it will feel compelled to do so now. But Ms. Gentili’s gender status was not really the point. Indeed, when the Times reporter raised the question of that status in his call to the archdiocese before the funeral, Joe Zwilling, an archdiocesan spokesman, refused the bait. The funeral was routine: burying the dead “is one of the corporal works of mercy,” he said; it demonstrated the way “we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise.”

That was the right answer. And once the funeral was scheduled, any backing off would have provoked more public controversy. Imagine refusing entrance to the garishly or inappropriately dressed, or censoring the petition for gender-affirming health care, or confiscating the “mother of whores” imagery, or cutting off the microphone when eulogies turned offensive, or ushering away the “Ave Cecilia” dancer. The event would have gone from provocation to eruption.

Days later, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said on the radio, “I think that our cathedral acted extraordinarily well.” He might want to modify that, at least a little. Are the cathedral’s procedures for accepting and overseeing funerals so bureaucratized or understaffed that the hijackers had free rein? Arrangements are apparently turned over to a funeral home chosen by the person requesting the funeral—in this case, one that had worked with LGBTQ groups. Indeed, what was scheduled appears to have been an actual funeral Mass, which would have raised still more fraught issues about the distribution and reception of Communion. Much like a quarterback switching a play at the line of scrimmage, the soundtrack of the service contains a last-minute “audible”—a cathedral official telling (or reminding) the celebrant to conduct only a funeral service without a Mass.

Then there were the eulogists. One of them, identified as Gentili’s longtime partner, was personal and genuine in his loss. The other two were deliberately provocative and disruptive. Were they vetted? Many dioceses have regulations regarding the always sensitive issue of family requests for “words of remembrance,” as they are properly called. In the Archdiocese of New York, certain standards are recommended while actual policies and practices are left to the discretion of parish pastors, admittedly often a delicate task. In this case, however, the cathedral parish can probably be faulted for being completely missing in action.

Still, having watched the entire film of the service days before the cardinal’s remarks, I had to agree with his basic conclusion. Despite everything, at the service for Cecilia Gentili, the Gospel was proclaimed and preached, the meaning of death explained, God’s love and mercy invoked. Rather than a defeat for Catholicism, it was a victory. 


Whether it was a victory or defeat for the memory and causes of Ms. Gentili is another question. A native of Argentina, she was sexually abused as a child and then trafficked. She came to the United States illegally, and survived homelessness and heroin addiction as a prostitute before advocating for people with HIV and becoming an effective organizer, fundraiser, and lobbyist. By all accounts, she was fiercely generous and dedicated to others in similarly marginalized or criminalized circumstances. True, much of this remarkable life story rests on the testimony of Ms. Gentili herself—a “born storyteller,” according to friends and admirers. Was it the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Enough is on the public record—her overcoming of obstacles, her gifts for friendship, her pursuit of housing and health care for those in need—to elicit compassion, awe, and gratitude despite deeds and convictions to which some might take grave exception.

The common, overriding reaction was indignation and pain at a sacred rite in a sacred space denatured into street theater.

At the funeral the celebrant wisely steered clear of all this. At moments he looked like an aging high school teacher bewildered by the hijinks of unruly students, but he soldiered on. He proclaimed the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. In words he had obviously spoken many times before, he preached the good news of dying and rising in Christ. He added a reflection from an Anglican woman priest about love of life, hatred of death, and hope of resurrection.

At the end of the service, he blessed the casket and commended Gentili to the “Father of mercies in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, she will rise with him on the last day…. Open the gates of paradise to your servant, and help us who remain to comfort one another with assurances of faith until we all meet in Christ and are with you and with our sister forever.”

Was such a prayer inappropriate or even blasphemous? Some may feel so. But to me it was profoundly moving, the triumph of our liturgy over provocation.

Of course, the hour-long film I watched kept the camera on the cathedral’s sanctuary, celebrant, cantor, lectors, petitioner, eulogists, and front pews. Was there snickering elsewhere? Or contempt? Or tears? Or boredom? I wasn’t there to know. When the camera followed the casket up and down the main aisle, glimpses of the congregation showed many dressed like ordinary funeral-goers. Seen and heard from afar, many also appeared unfamiliar with a Catholic rite; perhaps they could be forgiven for mistaking a Catholic service for more exuberant ones found elsewhere or for a rally or a theatrical memorial, where applause and cheering might have been appropriate. (The organizer of the funeral said that if St. Patrick’s had been unwilling, she would have sought a theater space.) At the same time, it was not hard to believe that a significant number of these mourners might have been deeply touched by the readings, the homily, and the prayers.

Responding to outrage at the spectacle, St. Patrick’s swiftly held a “Mass of Reparation,” and the Times promptly ran another story, suggesting that the Mass of Reparation represented backtracking on the cathedral’s willingness to host a funeral for a transgender person. Other media took the same tack. Nothing I read from archdiocesan officials suggested that they regretted allowing a service to be held for a transgender activist. Their distress, they said, was at the deception that preceded the service and, above all, at the conduct that accompanied it.

And now it was the turn of the funeral’s organizers to be outraged. The “community Ms. Gentili served,” they insisted, deserved “a public apology” from the archdiocese. Her right to the “full Catholic Mass that was agreed upon” had been violated because “she was an ex-sex worker.” The archdiocese had employed “painful and exclusionary language” in its criticism of the event, and the remarks of an archdiocesan official amounted to an incendiary “hate rant.” Then they played the inevitable sex-abuse card: “Did those priests that raped those young men get an honorable burial?”

Was this response utterly cynical, one more ploy in the orchestration of a pseudo-event? Many people, especially many Catholics, will see it that way. Because motives are always mixed, they would not be altogether wrong. Still, I see something else at work here, something sincere and for that reason all the more serious. It is a sense of entitlement common to the glossier sector of the LGBTQ world. It is the entitlement of victimhood—the entitlement of an identity that defines itself by its victimization.

“We still gonna show up as us!” said a trans eulogist at the funeral before whipping up the congregants into the initial chanting of “Cecilia, Cecilia.” Showing up “as us” seems to have meant not surrendering their identity to the Gothic arches and Catholic expectations of reverence for a rite at St. Patrick’s. Showing up “as us” meant: This is our space now, our time, and we proceed by our own norms. It meant parading one’s derision of traditional sexual or social codes and reveling in the transgressive as an expression of freedom and a path toward fulfillment. If the words “bitch” and “whore” are terms of endearment in certain trans settings, then they should be no less welcomed as part of queer culture in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as two authors argued in the National Catholic Reporter. If the Catholic Church employs the title “saint” in a very particular way and we don’t, then tough luck for the Catholic Church.

No matter that flaunting this defiant scorn for a religion and its norms both misrepresents most gay, lesbian, and transgender people and makes life harder for them. It has broader consequences as well. Is it really surprising, for instance, that so many Americans suspect the liberalism that defends and applauds Drag Queen Story Hour? Or that sympathy with pride flags and marches is fading? Or that questions about “gender-affirming” medical treatments for children, who gets to use which school bathrooms, and who can compete as male or female in athletics have escalated so quickly to the top of our cultural politics?

It would be wrong to think that the sense of entitled victimhood that rendered the organizers of the Gentili funeral insensible to the norms and feelings of millions of Catholics is in any way unique. On the contrary, variants of it are currently inflaming American life, from left to right. Everyone has an identity, and every identity is a victim of some other identity. Consequently, every identity is entitled to its own form of assertion. If that assertion is excessive or even a little false, so be it. We are, after all, the real victims, and we are entitled to fight fire with fire.

It would be wrong to think that the sense of entitled victimhood that rendered the organizers of the Gentili funeral insensible to the norms and feelings of millions of Catholics is in any way unique.


The “we” in this outlook is, of course, very flexible. The fundraising letter from the Republican National Committee in front of me warns of the “dismantling” of the foundations of “the American way of life we once knew.” Who is this victimized “we”? All of us? All Republicans? All who disagree with the “agenda” of “Joe Biden and his socialist allies” to “normalize gender-dysphoria, high-taxes, and…endless handouts to illegal immigrants and criminals”? This is nonsense of course, but it is part of the rhetoric of victimhood that seethes all around us. Not all versions of that rhetoric are equally plausible, not all claims of victimhood equally persuasive. But they all have a similar logic. Whenever we don’t like this kind of rhetoric, we call it self-pity and resentment; when we do, we use phrases like “showing up as us.”

For years, scholars have puzzled over the growing appeal of what is not so much sturdy conservatism as aggrieved anti-liberalism. Why does it flourish in the very small towns and rural areas that have benefitted from liberal government programs? Why do fanciful or unspecified MAGA promises (“I will fix it”) enjoy so much more trust than imperfect but solid liberal programs? Liberal pundits scratch their heads, parse the latest numbers on inflation and unemployment, and wonder why these economic factors get so little traction. In the wake of the president’s State of the Union address and its many claims about past economic achievements or future economic initiatives, the head-scratching may only redouble.

The answer might lie not in the economic factors at all but in cultural factors that create the distorting filter of distrust through which the economic factors are viewed. This is a very large topic. It could easily go back to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century making of middle-class progressivism and its two wings: the cultural and bohemian wing rebelling against the religious and sexual conventions of late-Victorian “genteel” America, and the socioeconomic wing combatting new monopoly powers, urban poverty, immigrant slums, frightful working conditions, and political corruption. The story might skip over the Roaring Twenties, when the cultural rebels were in the ascendancy, and take up with the New Deal and its economistic legacy in politics and social analysis. But its most accessible starting point might be the sixties and the profound shaking of taken-for-granted notions about race, sexuality, gender, religion, and the meaning of America.

In the ensuing “culture wars,” politicians, especially Democratic politicians, often waffled and dodged, but liberal and progressive thinkers and activists did not. They lined up on the side that viewed traditional values as obstacles to liberation and progress—and in many instances they were right. When they found themselves at a popular disadvantage, however, they went in several directions. With great success, they went to the courts. (This is now conveniently forgotten.) Or they turned to what might be called the “commanding heights of the culture”—higher education, movies, television, theater, professional organizations of everyone from doctors to teachers and librarians—to promote what remained unwinnable in legislatures. Or they hoped that the genuinely needed economic benefits of active government would soothe the pains of cultural shocks. Or they simply counted on time and demographics to win their battles for them in the long run. One thing they did not do was to treat cultural resistance as something to be engaged, conciliated, possibly learned from. Instead, all such resistance was assumed to be intransigent and unalterable—the atavistic remains of racism, sexism, homophobia, Evangelical nationalism, or xenophobia.

For many liberals and progressives, cultural factors—a.k.a.“social issues”—were to be understood as the tools that right-wing demagogues wielded on behalf of entrenched wealth to bring out backward people and fool them into voting against their own economic interests. Or, conversely, cultural issues were cheap diversions that neoliberal elites favored to distract voters from challenging corporate power. Either way, economic benefits and losses were where the political action was. The culture, at least traditional culture, was a sideshow.

It’s been over a month since the hijacking of St. Patrick’s. If any liberals have criticized it, their voices have been lost in the vast galaxy of opinion-makers. The event is already receding from view, and its details will soon be forgotten as it becomes in retrospect just one more drop in the drip, drip, drip feeding the impression that the leading edges of liberalism view Catholic convictions and customs in essentially negative terms, ranging from inexcusable ignorance and insensitivity to outright hostility.

But overstate this impression, and one sinks back into the quicksand of entitled victimization. No one was faster out of the blocks in denouncing the Gentili funeral than the MAGA-mouthpiece CatholicVote. Still, the point remains: those who would take the threat to liberal democracy seriously should lift their eyes from economic factors and register the impact of provocations like the St. Patrick’s funeral and the apparent inability of mainstream liberalism to view it as anything but a blow for inclusivity and progress. It’s a small but striking example of a large problem. 

Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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