So a Chicago priest who was once abused burns a rainbow-cross flag: All heck breaks out

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Well, here is a hot-button story if I’ve ever seen one. Take a look at this headline atop the report at NBCNews.com: “Parishioners defy Chicago Archdiocese, burn rainbow flag in 'exorcism' ceremony.”

Just to give you a hint of how complicated this case is, that headline actually jumps the gun and settles one of the issues that is in dispute. According to parish leaders, the archdiocese ordered the church not to burn the rainbow flag in a ceremony in front of the sanctuary. So parish leaders burned it privately, without a public media show.

One other thing about that headline: It’s crucial to know that this is more than a rainbow flag. This particular flag combined the LGBTQ symbolism with a cross — a move that raised the theological stakes much higher.

So let’s look at a few key sections of this story. Here’s the overture:

In a church bulletin posted this month, the Rev. Paul Kalchik, a Roman Catholic priest at Resurrection Parish in Chicago, announced that he would burn a rainbow pride flag that had once been prominently displayed at the church.

“On Saturday, September 29, the Feast of Saint Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, we will burn, in front of the church, the rainbow flag that was unfortunately hanging in our sanctuary during the ceremonial first Mass as Resurrection parish,” Kalchik, who joined the church 11 years ago, wrote.

A footnote on his announcement stated, “US Church homosexual scandal is a sequel to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

A bit of translation: Obviously, at one point in its history, this parish was on the left side of the American Catholic spectrum. The flag, for example, was prominently displayed during a Mass led by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a leader whose memory is cherished by gay and progressive Catholics.

Clearly, times have changed at this parish. Here is another crucial passage:

“We did so in a private way, a quiet way, so as not to bring the ire of the gay community down upon this parish,” Kalchik said in a lengthy interview Monday with NBC News. “It’s our full right to destroy it, and we did so privately because the archdiocese was breathing on our back.”

“We put an end to a depiction of our Lord's cross that was profane,” he added, noting the flag had a cross and a rainbow intertwined. To use the image of the cross as anything other than a “reminder of our Lord’s passion and death,” he said, “is what we consider a sacrilege.”

Kalchik said that the archdiocese had told him not to burn the flag in front of the church, as planned.

“So in a quiet way we took matters into our own hands and said a prayer of exorcism over this thing," he said. "It was cut into seven pieces, so it was burned over stages in the same fire pit that we used for the Easter vigil mass.”

Now, let’s pause for a second. I have seen this NBC story posted in several places and a reader also sent me the URL. However, anyone who looks up the Chicago Sun-Times story about this event will quickly realize that there are crucial facts that needed to be added into this fiery mix.

For example, Kalchik was ordained in 2007 by the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago — a heroic figure among doctrinally conservative Catholics.

The current leader in Chicago, with whom Kalchik is clashing, is Cardinal Blase Cupich — a hero on the Catholic left who is closely associated with Pope Francis. It also helps to know that Cupich plays a key role in the dramas surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been accused of abusing young boys and, for several decades, seminarians.

This leads to a crucial fact about Kalchik that REALLY should have been included in the NBC report. Why is this priest so upset about this liturgical symbolism?

Again, this is from the Sun-Times:

Kalchik — who says he was sexually abused by a neighbor as a child, and again by a priest when he began working for the church at 19 — says the sex-abuse crisis plaguing the church is “definitely a gay thing.” Cupich has rejected a connection between the scandal and gay priests but has drawn criticism in recent weeks for comments claiming the church should focus on other priorities instead of being “distracted” by the sex-abuse crisis.

Oh, and there’s this crucial detail. Soon after Kalchik arrived at the parish, he burned the parish’s Bernardin-era rainbow liturgical vestments worn by priests. He said he missed the flag, during that search through the parish’s closets.

So what is at stake here? Once again, here is the Sun-Times report:

The priest says the archdiocese threatened him with “canonical penalties” if he went through with the flag burning, and that Cupich has since blocked Kalchik’s request to transfer to a diocese in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Kalchik has family.

OK, so what is the end game?

The key issue here, in terms of church law, is not the burning of the flag. The question is whether this priest disobeyed his bishop — Cardinal Cupich.

Ah, but what if Kalchik had permission, during the Cardinal George era, to burn the rainbow liturgical collection used in sacramental rites at this parish? It appears that if he had burned the rainbow-cross flag at that time and it would have been acceptable.

However, a new liturgical sheriff can change the rules in the town he controls, especially when he is in good standing with the pope.

The bottom line: It will be interesting to see if — during the firestorm surrounding McCarrick — Cardinal Cupich decides to punish this conservative priest.

One other passage in the NBC story is worth noting. Read this carefully:

When asked about his views toward homosexuality, Kalchik was unequivocal, saying he’s “quite literal” when it comes to what the Bible says in Leviticus, Corinthians and Ephesians. Leviticus 20:13, according to the King James Bible, states: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death.”

Obviously, there needed to be a follow-up question at this point.

Did this priest really advocate the death penalty for acts of gay sex? Did the priest quote the older Leviticus text, or did NBC producers choose to look that one up on their own?

If so, why not focus on the text at 1 Corinthians 6:9 or in the 5th chapter of Ephesians? Why turn this into an issue of physical death, in the Old Testament, as opposed to sin and brokenness, in the New Testament? The priest is saying to look at the three passages together.

Whoever did this interview really needed to ask the priest to explain his views. What we needed here was an act of journalism, not a sneak attack.

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