An Associated Press feel-good story surfaced recently concerning the festive send-off and theatrical suicide of a 75-year-old Seattle man named Robert Fuller, who claimed to have terminal cancer. “Claimed” is necessary here, because hard facts pertinent to the story's background aren't easy to come by.
According to Fuller, he was the product of serial tragedy. His parents struggled in a loveless marriage. When he was eight, his mother walked into a river to drown herself, and Fuller saw her corpse in the water. His own marriage ended when he told his wife he was gay, whereat he plunged into a frenzy of sexual activity that bordered on suicidal, and contracted AIDS as a consequence. Later in life, he overcame addiction to drugs and alcohol and resumed some manner of association with the Catholic Church, at the same time presenting himself as a bestower of kindnesses on the needy. And a shaman.
The AP journalist gives no indication of having verified any of Fuller's assertions, and there is a suspiciously cinematic quality to his disclosures (Fuller’s seeing his mother's body while still in the river) that invites skepticism. Still, we can recognize in Fuller the familiar character of a talented but selfish man ravenous for attention and skilled at making his neediness amusing by putting it on center stage. It's no surprise that Fuller was a lector at his church, “sometimes delivering insightful or funny remarks off the cuff.” The liturgy, the good of the whole, must yield to the giddiness of self-display.
Such men are adept at manipulating the tenderness of others to their own advantage. Having arranged to do away with himself on May 10, Fuller cajoled his parish into permitting him an extra-liturgical blessing at the end of a Mass held the Sunday preceding. A television news team and an AP photographer were adventitiously on hand to record and transmit the proceedings to friends unable to be present. The AP article says that “a group of white-clad children who were receiving their first communion . . . raised their arms and blessed [Fuller]” after his “last communion.” An accompanying photo shows him sitting in his pew while little girls apprehensively extend their hands toward him. For those doleful First Communicants, the day will forever be remembered as the Ruse of the Gay Death Wish. The willingness to sacrifice children's happiness and memories to one's own gratification is perfectly in keeping with Fuller's cravings—and the political agenda of the prestige media. It remains disputed which parish personnel, if any, had foreknowledge of Fuller's imminent suicide.
Fuller himself had matters well in hand. On May 3, two days before the Mass of the extorted blessing, the AP photographer accompanied him to the pharmacy where the poison to be used in his suicide was compounded. On the big day itself, with journalists at the ready in his apartment building, Fuller began a chillingly deliberate sequence of actions calculated to thrust him out of this world in a state of mortal sin.
First, in his own apartment, Fuller was “married” to his same-sex companion, in a sacrilegious caricature of Christian matrimony (to invoke the theology of Ephesians 5, is it the male who represents Christ-as-bridegroom while the male represents the Church-as-bride, or is it the other way around?). Awareness that this union could only have been “consummated” before the ceremony, and this in lethally sinful ways, only added to the camp naughtiness of the occasion.
Next Fuller went downstairs to a macabre reception, at which he made his farewells and treated himself to the words mourners would normally utter to his relatives at the funeral. We're told, “A gospel choir sang. A violinist and soprano performed Ave Maria.” It would appear no blasphemy was left unspoken.
That done, Fuller returned to his apartment with a smaller group of friends for the main act. At a traditional Catholic deathbed the dying person is given the viaticum—i.e, he receives Holy Communion as “food for the journey” into new life. In a truly horrifying parody of the viaticum, Fuller, now clothed in satin pajamas and supine on his bed, “plunged two syringes filled with a light brown liquid—a fatal drug combination mixed with Kahlua, his favorite alcohol—into a feeding tube in his abdomen.”
Selbstmord, self-murder, as the German has it, is condemned by the Catholic Church—and until the last century was condemned by most Christian bodies. Though aristocratic paganism viewed suicide as a gesture of nobility, G. K. Chesterton saw through the self-deception to the underlying solipsism:
Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.
Chesterton's words apply to suicide chosen as a deliberate and free act. Most of us know of cases in which, as the Church also recognizes, the censure does not obtain, most particularly where psychological disorders are so severe as to impair the freedom of the tormented individual. But Fuller went to great lengths to make it unambiguously clear that his self-murder was freely, even gleefully, chosen. The AP story reports:
In the kitchen, two volunteers with the nonprofit End of Life Washington mixed the drugs and Kahlua in a glass measuring cup. They said they considered themselves to be like midwives, helping usher people out of the world instead of into it.
“You know if you do this, if you put this in your system, you’ll go to sleep and you won’t wake up?” one, Stephanie Murray, told him as she delivered the syringes.
“I do,” Fuller answered.
Fuller plunged the syringes.
It doesn't get any clearer than that.
Of the many alarming aspects of this story, particularly dismaying is the consideration that, notwithstanding Fuller's ostentatiously provocative contempt for Church teaching, no one of his acquaintance showed concern for the fate of his immortal soul. It wasn't as if Fuller hid himself in the shadows in the back of the church. He lived, as he claimed, “out loud,” and made no effort to disguise his shamanism or his relationship with his gay companion or his theatrical heterodoxies, any of which would call forth a remonstrance from a believing Catholic, for the sake of Fuller's salvation and that of his fellows—if, that is, their religious concern were genuine. Was it?
The word hypocrite, in origin, is simply the Greek word for stage-actor. The hypocrites of Jesus's time were actors, feigning piety and virtue and brotherly love they didn't have, neither godly themselves nor conducive to godliness in others. As the AP story portrays it, the Catholicism that Fuller's acquaintances indulged in was rife with one species of hypocrisy, of acting: that of “playing church.”
We've all seen playing church in action, most conspicuously where the community believes that we're all already “in” the Kingdom of Heaven in the only sense that matters. It turns sacred things into occasions of amusement, or endearment, or political sanctimoniousness. When the liturgy is interrupted to sing happy birthday, or when a non-ordained person gives the homily, or when the celebrant improvises or emends the rite to prove himself an adorable priest, we're playing church. Key doctrines—such as those touching on judgment and damnation—are treated with frivolity. Self-congratulation floats up to take the place once held by fear of the Lord. Where Catholics are playing church, there are no lines outside the confessionals.
Jesus's revilement of hypocrisy concerned not only duplicity on the part of the villains, but spiritual harm to the innocent. “Woe to you, hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in.” Yet where playing church is the norm, the notion of scandal becomes risible in itself, and fear of giving scandal to “these little ones” disappears. Avoiding wounded feelings is more important than defending truths.
The Archdiocese of Seattle even permitted a funeral for Fuller. “The purpose of the funeral,” the archdiocesan press release said, “was to pray for his soul and bring comfort and consolation to those who mourned.” The same reasoning might be offered for the Catholic burial of Osama bin-Laden or of a Poor Clare nun who died in the odor of sanctity at 92. More to the point is that Fuller's own counter-Catholic convictions, his sacrilege, his Kahlua-&-cyanide cocktail—every word and act he saw as expressing the true meaning of his life—were deemed irrelevant, in ritual terms, to the life of the local Church.
The victory goes to the shaman.
Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.