When I was in Catholic high school, some 15 years ago, even as the last of the marble altars were being pulled out of America’s churches, the ornate wooden confessionals uprooted in favor of plywood-and-plexiglass “reconciliation rooms,” one devotional custom persisted from centuries before, in the undershirts and blouses of the Vinnics, Patricks, and Marias at Mater Christi High School in Astoria, Queens: the wearing of the scapular. Perhaps because of its simplicity, because of its deep roots in the culture, in the example of grandfather and older sister and Mama, or maybe thanks to rank superstition, this devotion seemed likely to survive the iconoclastic frenzy unleashed by Vatican II. Consisting of two square pieces of brown rough cloth linked by a string, the scapular bears an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and carries a promise that he who wears it faithfully will die in a state of grace—that Our Lady will intervene and place him if not in Heaven, at least on the bottom rung of Purgatory, which is about as high as most Catholic teenagers back then were aiming.

Of course, this promise was hedged about with all sorts of theological restrictions, warnings from dusty French theologians about “presuming on God’s mercy” and “the need for a penitential life”—but none of these were heeded by us feckless, fantastical teenagers. We knew a loophole when we saw one. So in those months when we were unwilling to crawl into the “reconciliation room” and repent of the dreary list of impurities, blasphemies, intemperance, gluttony, and rebellion that described most of our waking hours, we were careful to put on our scapulars—especially before climbing in a Pinto behind a drunken driver.

Things are different now. I do not know whether the kids I ran around with in high school are still wearing their scapulars, or whether any of them frequent the “reconciliation rooms” anymore. They were surely married in church, and a good number of them probably still make it to Mass each week. If they conform to statistics, half of them have done their duty and divorced. Of these, the most devout are filing for annulments. This last group is the most likely still to be wearing scapulars. But perhaps the custom is dying out after all. When I pass my old high school—since renamed and repopulated—I see more gang colors than little brown tags with Our Lady on them.

I spend much more time in Manhattan than in Astoria, now. It is there that I see another curious religious custom, which seems to have arisen to replace the scapular, although it has taken root among a different sort of people. I am talking, of course, about the little red AIDS ribbon, which adorns the lapels (often in enameled, 18-karat form) of America’s artistic/ managerial class, the well-intentioned liberals who mug for us and mug us. (Try to spot someone at the Tonys or the Oscars without one.) So commonplace has the ribbon become that the very gay activists who endorsed it have begun denouncing it as “meaningless.” (The last straw was the homely model who had the ribbon tattooed over and over, all the way down her spine—perhaps an attempt to endear herself to designers. It worked.)

This presents a problem for me, too, this “devaluation” of the AIDS ribbon. You see, I thought it was virtually meaningless all along, even when only a select few choreographers, museum donors, and fag-hags were sporting the little doodad. What exactly did it mean to declare that you were against a deadly disease? Did it imply that everyone else—unribboned, perhaps scapulared—was for it? Did the ribbon signify that you had a special concern for the health and well-being of well-off, promiscuous homosexuals—over against the health of Vinnies, Patricks, and Marias? Or did it mean (as I suspect) that you wanted everyone who saw you to know that you were sympathetic to the plight of one of the most influential, tightly knit, and well-funded social groups in America—that you were both socially conscious and socially connected, perhaps by close acquaintance to some Pulitzer-winning playwright who was even then languishing in Maui?

Now, with the universalization of the ribbon—I see it even in Astoria, where there are 102 video rental shops and no bookstores—it has indeed lost this primary meaning, this social cachet it used to carry. There is nothing bohemian about AIDS now; plenty of skanky hetero drug addicts have caught it, and its rate of spread has slowed among homosexuals, many of whom wised up just in time. The AIDS movement has found its Leni Riefenstahl in Jonathan Demme, whose brilliantly manipulative Philadelphia taught the masses how to weep on command. AIDS compassion is fast becoming a populist sentiment.

No longer must the “gay” movement worry about its constituency being “scapegoated” for the arcane African disease that they made an epidemic, spreading it to millions through a wave of promiscuity almost unprecedented in human history. (I refer to the 70’s, the “golden age” of random, impersonal restroom sex still celebrated by such writers as the nostalgic Edmund White.) Mention of these dirty facts is deemed uncompassionate and forbidden. By now, the existence of AIDS has become a positive political benefit, a marketing edge, for the “gay” movement. Unable to get techniques of sodomy taught in ordinary classrooms as “sex education,” “moderate” groups such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis teach these activities to 12-year-olds in public schools in suburban New Jersey under the rubric of “AIDS avoidance.” (Perhaps the next step is to invite drunk drivers convicted of vehicular manslaughter to teach Driver’s Ed: “And here’s how to accelerate without spilling your drink . . . “)

Besides breaking down residual squeamishness about sexual perversions, the phenomenon of AIDS has done for queer activists what Bull Connor and his attack dog did for the civil rights movement—turned them from apparent aggressors into apparent victims. And there is nothing Americans love more than victims, those sweet little substitute Christs. When we look at weak, fading celebrities such as Rock Hudson and Liberace, we forget all, seeing only wasted cherubs whose sins have been washed in their own blood, sacrificial lambs who have suffered passion and died, spiritualized martyrs for carnal love. AIDS is no longer an issue of sexual politics or even public health. It is an extension of popular religion.

This fact has been noted by the most radical queer activists, the jackbooted members of ACT-UP, who singled out conservative Christians (especially Catholics) for attack. Assembling outside churches, disrupting Masses, showering newly ordained priests and their aged family members with condoms, stealing communion Hosts and trampling them into dust, the “gay” mobs accused mildly orthodox cardinals such as Bernard Law and John O’Connor of “murder” for their unwillingness to grant religious approval to sodomy and dispense condoms to junior high school students. Waving enormous signs that said “Stop the Church,” they stormed the gates of cathedral and parish nationwide—never troubling the gay bathhouses and porn parlors where the disease was in fact being spread.

Irrational, you say? Nonsense. These activists knew exactly what they were doing, just as St. Boniface did when he cut down the sacred groves of the Germans. They realized on some level that their cause is not sexual but religious; they are the partisans of a new faith—a kind of infertility cult—which centers on the “sacred” mysteries of sexual initiation. Whenever its Genesis occurred (perhaps with Margaret Sanger and Havelock Ellis), this cult found its Exodus at Stonewall, its Promised Land in the 70’s, its Golgotha and Easter with the onset of AIDS. The movement we are witnessing now, with the elevation of AIDS to a sacred form of suffering and sign of conquest, the little red ribbons scattering everywhere like so many tongues of fire, is the new religion’s Pentecost.

Now perhaps all of this is a natural development, the final unfolding of the poisonous logic of romantic love as diagnosed by Denis de Rougemont, the last revenge of Sodom and Gomorrah on a culture that embraced Tristan and Isolde as exemplars. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the residual Christianity of America has been effeminated and nutrasweetened until it is everything Nietzsche railed against and worse, in Walker Percy’s words “a fornication of spirit.” It may very well be that the “last man” has arrived, when a culture that used to launch Crusades kneels before the figures of dying promiscuous perverts—not in simple compassion, but in active admiration.

But a Christian is forbidden to think so. We must find meaning even in the debasement of our society, Providential purpose in the sufferings that we and others endure—for we believe not in a blind organic mechanism of history that grinds higher values into dust, but in Christ the King, Lord of History, Who is with us even today. We must reflect, with all due humility, on the profound meaning of AIDS in light of the truths of faith and reason and search for its place in the deep things of God.

What are we, then, to make of the AIDS epidemic? What, if any, religious meaning can we derive from the grim spectacle of an incurable, horrific disease—really, in a sense, the ultimate disease, since it cancels one’s resistance to every sort of infection—with which hundreds of thousands of people are infecting themselves and each other, almost exclusively through behavior that is against God’s will and the natural law? Remember, AIDS is not primarily spread by making love to your spouse, going to the dentist, getting a blood transfusion, or even playing with green monkeys. Every activity that typically transmits this disease—drug abuse, sodomy, and promiscuous fornication—is an act of rebellion against God and His created order. But so is every sin; that is the very definition of sin. And every one of us is a sinner—so why are we not all afflicted with a plague like AIDS?

But, of course, we are. How many 200-year-old men do you know? Ah, they were plague victims, all. And where will you be in a hundred years? Dead, of course. Each one of us is afflicted with a drawn-out version of AIDS, which operates over 70 years rather than 10, but which nevertheless afflicts our every muscle, bone, taste bud, and brain cell with irreversible decay, weakening our immunity to diseases and reducing us finally to helpless wraiths at the mercy of doctors and nurses who are ever more eager for euthanasia to empty our expensive bed for the next patient.

This plague—death—is the result of sin, we are taught. The original sin of Eve and Adam brought the bitterness of death to our frame, whose effects not even the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ could undo. Even baptized souls, full of sanctifying grace and reconciled with God, must suffer the bitterness of aging and the pains of death, under the long shadow of that tree in Eden. Some of them must hang from it as martyrs, earning the sweetness of heaven with the tears of suffering. No earthly scene, however innocent and joyful, is free of the taint of our common curse. What is more touching than the sight of a six-year-old girl kneeling to receive her first Holy Communion? How easy it is to forget that the Bread of Life that she consumes is the Body and Blood of Jesus, confected by a priest in a sacrificial rite that reenacts His violent death on Calvary. The sacrament’s very efficacy grows from tragedy, as every blessing flows from Christ’s wounded side.

So if we go so far as to say that AIDS is a plague sent by God to punish sin, we are not singling anyone out. We would mean only that the general curse of death is applied a little more quickly in certain cases, as a divine response to particular sorts of sin. Is there biblical precedent for that? There is plenty. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (wherein two entire cities are destroyed because of their inhabitants’ aggressive homosexual behavior) is only the most hackneyed example. The Old Testament is full of similar incidents, where the enemies of Israel are afflicted—sometimes innocent and guilty alike. Of course, “innocence” is always a relative term for men; still we may ask, what did the first-born children of Egypt ever do to Moses?

Nor is that method of divine instruction limited to the Old Covenant: Christ promises worldwide tribulation in Matthew 24 and elsewhere, while the Apocalypse is one extended prophecy of the destruction of the earth in retribution for sin that must precede His Second Coming and the Last Judgment. In apparitions from La Sallette to Fatima, Catholics believe that Our Lady predicted untold temporal suffering for the nations if the world failed to repent. We have since reaped the whirlwind she warned us against—the horrors of this century, from World War I to the slaughters and pogroms that stained all Europe with innocent blood. It seems the price of sin is still death.

Clearly, no orthodox believer—that is, no Catholic, and no Protestant or Jew who takes Holy Scripture as the Word of God, rather than a mere soccer ball for archaeologists and religious studies professors—can deny that temporal punishments have been a part of divine Providence. Records of them exist in the Old Testament, and abundant warnings about them occur in the New. There is a clear connection established between the commission of grave sins against the divine and natural laws and sudden temporal punishment. There is precedent both for individual condemnation (Onan) and for collective punishment (Sodom in the Old Testament, Babylon in the New).

Moreover, there seems to be a special connection between two particular kinds of sin and the direct expression of God’s wrath. The first sort of sin is idolatry, frequently characterized as a type of adultery (“whoring after strange gods”). The second sort is sins of the flesh, especially perversions. These are most concisely catalogued by St. Paul in I Corinthians 6:9: “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind [i.e., sodomites] . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God.” If that sounds like a sociological taxonomy of Western society today, my apologies for everyone’s peace of mind. (Get out your scapulars, folks, and head for those “reconciliation rooms.”)

But that is precisely the point, is it not? That our situation might be very grave indeed, that we may have wandered so far from God’s laws—and nature’s—that we can barely distinguish right from wrong. Only a violent reassertion of the laws of reality can revive our dreary consciousness to the fact that we are bodies living in a world with rules of its own that derive not from our wishful thinking but from God’s will acting upon fallen nature. We do not create our own universes merely by the way we think about them. Any New Ager who really believes that is welcome to stand in front of my 78 Nova while I am behind the wheel and think my car out of existence. It will be a scientific experiment—Galileo would approve.

Only by hitting us with a car, by drawing in huge strokes and loud noises for the half-blind and near-deaf (to quote Flannery O’Connor), can the God we have exiled force Himself upon our attention. In a society that cares only about results and the bottom line, the only language in which He can speak to us is punishment and ruin. If all we care about is good sex, long life, and lots of money, then those are precisely the things He will deprive us of—in His mercy.

But why is God so especially outraged at those two special classes of sin—idolatry and impurity? At first glance, these may seem less important than, say, sins against justice (like theft and the exploitation of the poor) or against the sanctity of human life (like abortion or unjust warfare). These latter crimes have obvious social effects that damage the lives of other men. What is it about the special crimes I have pointed to that merits their temporal punishment?

With idolatry, the answer is simple: sin is simply and purely a rebellion against God, a denial of His sovereign rights to worship and obedience by the creatures whom He freely created out of nothing and whose very existence would wink out like a spark were He for one moment to disregard them. Idolatry is this sin in an especially pure form, a direct attack on the dignity of God as (to quote the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) Commander of the Universe. It is an act of mutiny or treason—crimes which when committed against merely human institutions are punished with death. And justly. How much more justly may God dispense it to His creatures? Idolatry undermines one’s understanding of the entire universe, toppling God from His throne and enshrining some created image or concept or philosophy that better suits human fashion. Such gods are rarely benign in their demands: Think of Carthage, where the goddess Tanit demanded the sacrifice of first-born infants, which were supplied by thousands of eager parents for hundreds of years. Or Mexico, where the Aztec gods required and received the hearts of thousands of men every year, ripped beating from their living breasts.

God’s punishment fell heavy on both nations—in the form of Roman legions and Catholic conquistadors. Neither civilization survived, and no living trace of these idolatries exists today—except perhaps in the dark new feminist nature cults, which combine worship of the earth with a fervent embrace of abortion. One Episcopalian priestess. Carter Heyward, went so far as to suggest that abortion be made a sacrament in a new “women’s religion.” This is not surprising; the old nature gods whom the Hebrew prophets condemned, like Ishtar and Baal, frequently demanded the sacrifice of unborn or newborn children.

So much for idolatry. What about impurity? What is it about sodomy, adultery, and the like which God considers so grave that He sends us plagues and afflictions to warn us about them and call us to repent of them? The case is parallel to idolatry; it is a sacred dignity that these sins attack—the dignity of man as the image of God and of baptized Christians as His adopted sons. One of the things that most sets man apart from the beasts is his ability to restrain his sexual passions with bonds of emotion, fidelity, social responsibility, and morality. This morality (which we can deduce rationally from looking at man’s nature but which God offers to us complete in Revelation), sets us apart from the animals, many of which commit acts of incest, sodomy, rape, and cannibalism as a matter of course.

We are not horrified when dogs fornicate—it is what we expect of them. What baboons and chimps do with their hands—well, the sight can be funny or disgusting, depending on your sense of humor. Certainly no sane person is disappointed or appalled by the knowledge that simians masturbate compulsively or that the males mount each other just to prove who is tougher. We demand no better of these beasts.

Conversely, when we look at humans the same way, and make no more demands on their self-restraint than we do of apes, we think less of them. By applying a bestial standard to men, we start to see men as beasts. This is obvious in the rhetoric of sex and AIDS educators who want condoms handed out in grammar schools: “Of course, abstinence is the best thing for children. But you can’t rely on them to have self-control, so it makes sense to be safe.” In other words, human children are really no more than animals and it is senseless to try turning them into anything more. Our image of children has moved from an exaggerated Victorian innocence that denied Original Sin to a repulsive prurience that invites sexual abuse. After all, if these kids really are barely human sex machines just waiting to go into action, what is wrong with an adult having a little fun with one of them? Why should he be expected to control himself? This exact point is the message of Walker Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. The sexual abuse of children may be the next taboo to go. (One gay group, the North American Man-Boy Love Association—NAMBLA— has adopted this as its sexual ideology, calling for “Sex before Eight or It’s Too Late.” The more “mainstream” gay groups reject this position, requiring only that anal and oral sex be taught to first graders, not performed on them. Thank God for moderation.)

My point is not that homosexuals are child molesters: no doubt, few of them are. But the ideologies that grant their “lifestyles” public acceptance and advocacy also hammer at taboos—such as child molesting and incest—that some homosexuals would consider valid. The sexual urge is so powerful, and in the absence of grace so overwhelming, that only a harsh set of social mores—or a leviathan state—can keep it in check. We have abandoned the former and are rapidly slipping toward the latter.

My thesis—and it is simply the thesis of Christianity and Judaism before it—is that sex is not safe and love is not free, at least among human beings. Sex is both sacred and dangerous. It is the mode God chose for transmitting human life. It is the metaphor He uses (in the Canticle of Canticles and in Ephesians 5) to represent Christ’s relationship with the Church and with each human soul. His Church considers sex such an important sign that renouncing it takes on a deep meaning for her, signifying a direct wedding of oneself to Christ here on earth—hence the rise of monasticism, a celibate clergy, and the special celebration of the sacred Virginity of Mary. Removing all controls from human sex organs debases the currency of human sexuality from the sacred bond of marriage, inextricably linked to procreation, to the level of a cheap thrill, a glandular drug with certain ugly side-effects (like diseases or children), all of which can be counteracted by latex, pill, and suction machine. Just keep it sterile, and keep it safe.

It is possible to deny my thesis, to assert that human beings cannot and should not be held to a different standard of sexual behavior from that of beasts. It is possible to construct other sexual codes, less demanding than the Christian one, based on pleasure, social usefulness, or eugenics. But it is not possible to believe and practice these systems, teach them to generations of children, and still hold onto the elevated notion of human nature that grew up in the Christian Church. One cannot nod at every form of sexual perversion and still hold onto that traditional vision of man. That view of man was the source of ideas like individual rights, social justice, and the sanctity of human life. It is from the mouth of Christ—not Malthus or Darwin—that we hear the injunction to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and tend the sick. Shall we reject His authority on one occasion—sexual ethics—and invoke it on another? Some have tried, notably the liberal Protestants who inhabit both the National Council of Churches and the National Council of “Catholic” Bishops. These clerics, eager to please the unappeasable radicals in their ranks and the atheists who control the information flow in our increasingly totalitarian country have thrown out the Baby—and are trying to drink His bath water.

It will not work. Let me prove this by the following thought experiment: I cannot accept the idea that AIDS is a punishment from God for sins against purity. In fact, I cannot accept the notion that sodomy and related actions are evil in themselves. I reject the traditional sexual ethics of the Church and the biblical authorities that support them. And since Jesus said, “If you love me, do my will,” I must reject Him, too. The Bible that speaks of Him is little more than a beautifully written historical document filled with moral injunctions modern men cannot follow. It forbids sexual behavior that our laws, our culture, our schools, and now our military have come to approve. When read aloud, certain sections of it could be considered hate speech. It advocates opinions so extreme they could not even be printed in the New York Times. I therefore renounce Christ and all His works and all His empty promises. I am now a neopagan, and proud of it. Therefore, I no longer have a religious reason to disapprove of homosexuals and their behavior, so I can look on AIDS as simply a tragedy.

Or a comedy. Because strictly speaking, there is no reason why I am obligated to feel compassion for anyone. What is more, on a purely visceral, nonmoral level, I find / still do not like homosexuals. The things they do to each other strike me as grotesque and repulsive. I would rather not have them around, setting awful fashion trends, camping it up at night clubs, holding drag queen balls at Mardi Gras. I do not happen to like modern dance or Broadway musicals, and I get my hair cut by an old Italian grandfather from Palermo. In fact, as I look at the obituary pages, filled with designers and choreographers and mime stylists fading away like dried flowers, felled by euphemisms, laid waste by “a prolonged illness” and mourned by their “long-time companions,” it is all I can do not to fall over laughing or hoist a drink to the thought of all those job openings waiting for guys who are “straight like me.” (Just think what straight guys could do to, say, interior decoration! We would bring back the overstuffed recliner and the prints of poker-playing dogs, find creative ways to frame Penthouse pinups and Polaroids of our cars.)

And why not? I have no obligation to love my enemies, or to visit the sick or comfort the afflicted. Those irritating obligations vanished with the ghost of Christ. Now I am a different man, empowered to follow my feelings. And my feelings lead me to chuckle, gently, over the sudden blight on the pansy crop. The only downside to the whole business is the incredible expense of keeping all these festering lilies alive. That money could be much better spent. For instance, did you know that hundreds of small breweries throughout America are on the verge of closing? That’s right, America’s rich tradition of locally brewed beers is in grave peril. I would like to see some money diverted from the “AZT for Aesthetes” fund to something really useful.

There is no reason for them to die painfully, of course. I am not one of those guys who sits around watching mice die slowly in glue traps, just for the hell of it. (Well, not anymore.) We might as well save the gay-boys a slow, lingering death and save America’s endangered breweries with one clear, straightforward solution: euthanasia.

It worked in the 30’s when the Germans got tired of paying for the upkeep of the mentally ill. You did not find homeless psychos on the streets of Hitler’s Nuremberg, pestering people for money with stupid little limericks that rhymed “fast lane” with “spare change.” No siree. Those neopagans knew what they were doing, and so does this one.

There is nothing ennobling about suffering, nothing valuable in the lives of the weak and the unproductive. Neither the unwanted fetus, nor the drooling retard, nor the old cancer patient, nor the AIDS-rotted old graphic designer—none of them is sacred. They are like sick pets, deserving of a merciful death and no more. If people may fornicate like beasts, then they must expect to be treated like beasts.

Of course, you may disagree with me. You may like decaying sodomites, for whatever reason. (I myself would fork something over to keep the Pet Shop Boys alive, should they need it.) That is your choice, and in my new neopagan faith I am now pro-choice. But it is an arbitrary choice, with no more moral force than my preference for endangered beers. Queers or beers, the neopagan is free to choose, without the heavy weight of the Christian tradition pressing down on him, demanding that he treat every life as sacred, pray for sinners’ conversion, tend the dying, and try to see in human suffering some religious meaning. Once you leave Christ’s world and His Word, all of that is so much nostalgic hogwash. You cannot borrow Christian compassion for man without accepting the Christian view of man; like a pig in a wedding dress, the trick will fool no one and will irritate the pig.

Had enough of neopaganism? It is all the rage in Europe, among the skinheads. They admit that Christianity is the greatest barrier in their quest to create a racist society, since it asserts the fundamental sanctity of all life, regardless of ethnicity. They explicitly reject it as Hitler did, and for the same reasons. The sexual radicals in our country do not realize it, but by chipping away at Christianity, they are helping to prepare the way for similar movements in America. If they are not careful, they may get more than they deserve.

For the Christian, AIDS is a summons to conversion, not merely for those who have the disease, but for the whole corrupted mass of society, drunk with pride and lust and the love of power that comes with technology. It is God’s punishment not just for sodomy and drug abuse, but also for promiscuity, contraception, divorce, abortion, and all the other crimes we have committed against the natural law and God’s will. This plague is a challenge for us to hate the sin but love the sinner; to tend the dying without deceiving or scandalizing the healthy; to turn the Church into a hospital and hospice for sinners, united by their deep imperfections and fear of Cod and their hope in His infinite mercy.

Which brings me back to the scapular, that little square brown tag designed to scratch the flesh and remind the sinner of his mortality, his obligation to repent, and the nettlesome persistence of God, His relentless desire for the salvation of each and every soul. Perhaps it is not like the AIDS ribbon at all; it is meant to be felt and not seen.