“American Pietà” is considered one of the iconic photographs of 9/11. You’ve seen it: the photo depicts five men, amid the dust and rubble that enveloped the World Trade Center that day, carrying the dead body of Fr. Mychal Judge out of the ruins. Judge, a Franciscan priest and Fire Department of New York chaplain who had rushed to the scene of the terrorist attacks to administer the last sacraments to the dying, was killed as the building collapsed. People instinctively recognize that at life-and-death moments like this, a clergyman ought to be there. There are no atheists in foxholes.
The April 26 Wall Street Journal carried a commentary by Jennifer Graham, reporting that although local priests rushed to the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing to anoint the dying, police prevented them from reaching victims. They had to stand outside the yellow tape lines.
Boston police did not comment on the “no priest” policy, and the reporter even threw local authorities a bone, writing “in light of the devastation in Boston, the denial of access to clergy is a trifling thing, and it might even have been an individual’s error.”
Yet “denial of access to clergy”—especially at the hour of our death—is no trifling thing. Have we now decided that clergy are not first responders, that only physical life is worth saving, that spiritual life is a private affair that has no relevance in the midst of a terrorist attack? One might say that priests can pray on their own outside the police cordon, with no actual tangible contact, but for a Catholic, whose tradition is sacramental, i.e., symbolic and physical, such disembodied ministry is alien.
Reading some of the comments on the Wall Street Journal piece, I was struck by the resilience of anti-Catholicism: That nativist prejudice remains alive and well, given a booster shot by the Church’s pedophilia scandal, one of whose epicenters was the Archdiocese of Boston. But, let me suggest, there is another prejudice at work here: the relentless quest to sanitize anything public of any religious presence.
Undoubtedly, there will be those who claim that the need to control a crime or accident scene is such that, with a large influx of clergy, chaos might ensue. Such theoretical images of hundreds of Wiccan, Santería, Satanist, and other exotic “religious” descending along with Christian, Jewish, and Islamic clergy on a scene might deter some contingency planners, but in the real world—where people are dying—such unrealistic fantasies deny real people real ministry. The answer is not simply “secularizing” the scene of the event.
Yet that is just what Boston did: it de facto marginalized clergy, relegating their ministry to the sidelines as unessential to the “real” assistance that the state’s authorities thought it had a monopoly on. The message is clear: Disasters are Caesar’s turf, not God’s.
Perhaps the ban on priests at the site of the Boston attacks was a mistaken ad hoc decision. But two things ought to follow: (1) Boston authorities should clarify what happened; and (2) religious groups in Boston (and elsewhere) should immediately demand public clarification of local policies regarding clergy access to sites of accidents or mass casualties. Where those policies are obstructionist, those religious groups need to work to correct them . . . or make an appropriate public stink.
John M. Grondelski is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.