Montana Bishop’s Divided Thinking in Communion Denial Case

When the pastor of St. Leo parish in Lewiston, Montana, found out that a gay couple there had been joined in a civil marriage, his response was to tell them they were not longer welcome at communion or to participate in any of the parish’s volunteer ministries, even though both had been actively involved in many of them for a number of years.

Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick

In the Great Falls TribuneRev. Samuel Spiering acknowledged he had learned about the relationship of Paul Huff, 73, and Tom Wojtowick, 66, through a rumor, though the couple did confirm it.  To make matters worse, Spiering offered a resolution which requires the couple to deny their commitment to one another.  The Tribune states:

“Huff and Wojtowick were also told that to regain full privileges within St. Leo’s, they must first obtain a divorce, cease living together and write a statement renouncing their prior marriage.”

Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings diocese supported the pastor’s decision, noting, in The Billings Gazette:

“Warfel said he knows Wojtowick and Huff ‘to be good people.’

“ ‘This is not animus against someone who happens to be a homosexual; this issue is the same-sex marriage,’ he said. ‘A lot of people put those two together, and obviously there’s a connection, but it’s not the same thing.’

“Warfel called same-sex marriage ‘the issue of our era,’ acknowledging that in the U.S., polls show that support for it has edged higher than those who oppose it. But the fact remains that stands in conflict with Catholic teachings.

“ ‘As a Catholic bishop I have a responsibility to uphold our teaching of marriage between one man and one woman,’ Warfel said. . . .

“ ‘Either I uphold what Catholic teachings are or, by ignoring it or permitting it, I’m saying I disagree with what I’m ordained to uphold,’ Warfel said.”

For me, the bishop’s statements very clearly show the problem with this kind of thinking. While on the one hand, he knows, in reality, that these men are “good people,”  his theoretical ideas about what are the proper uses of sexuality force him to reject them.  His heart tells him one thing, but his head tells him something else.  I hope that he would use this opportunity to discern a little deeper how to resolve that dividing of responses.

Although he claims to want to uphold church teaching, he seems intent on only upholding the church’s teaching on marriage, not any teachings on effective pastoral ministry, the human dignity of gay and lesbian people, the respect for people’s conscience decisions.  When and why did the teaching on marriage trump all other teachings?  When and why does church teaching ask the bishop to deny what he knows from his own experience that these two men are “good people” ?

As in similar cases of dismissal, many people in the parish have come to the support of this couple.  Over the weekend, Warfel had a meeting with parishioners to discuss the situation, but according to The Great Falls Tribune“No substantive changes have resulted.”

The dismissal occurred even though the couple had explained that their marriage was not intended as a challenge to church teaching.  According to the Associated Press:

“Wojtowick said the men married in Seattle in May 2013 so they could make medical and financial decisions for each other.

“During an Aug. 25 conference call with Spiering, Warfel and other diocesan officials, Huff and Wojtowick agreed to write a restoration statement that, in part, would support the concept of marriage being between a man and a woman, Huff said.”

Others have joined in support of Huff and Wojtowick.  Patheos blogger John Shore thinks that Pope Francis should be involved in this situation:

“ ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’ Which means, of course, ‘Homosexuality is an abominable offense to God.’

“Which is a morally reprehensible thing to say—especially, of course, to a gay person—and especially to a gay person who has given their life to honoring the very God they’re now being told—and being told by His authorities on earth, no less—finds them, purely by virtue of them being the person they were created to be, repugnant to Him.

“Please, please join me in calling upon the good Pope Francis, in his role as defender of the weak and champion of the oppressed, to recognize the moral travesty being visited upon Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick, of the tiny parish of St. Leo in Lewistown, MT, as an absolutely stupendous opportunity for the Catholic Church to once and for all come down unequivocally on the right and just side of the homosexual issue.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA points out a list of injustices evident in the pastor’s decision:

  • It is unjust for Church leaders to ban people from the Eucharist because of who they are or whom they love.
  • It is unjust for Church leaders to single out LGBT people for dismissal from ministry and leadership roles, when others who disagree with Church teaching do not suffer the same penalties.
  • It is unjust for Church leaders to bar LGBT people from exercising their civil rights.
  • It is unjust for Church leaders to demand that a couple separate and divorce.

As our church leaders prepare to begin discussing marriage and family issues in the upcoming synod, one topic that appears to be attracting a lot of attention is doing away with the ban on divorced and remarried people from receiving the Eucharist.  That would be a welcome change which would bring pastoral comfort to so many individuals and families.

Church leaders should also offer similar attention to gay and lesbian couples who choose to marry civilly.  They, too, should not be denied access to the Eucharistic table.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Queering the Church:  “When a Priest DEMANDS that a Couple Divorce!”




Following the Courage of Her Convictions to a New Parish

Debbie Regala’s story is remarkable not because it is unique, but, I suspect, because it is becoming fairly common.  Hers is a story of a strong conviction in faith, and for paying to price of living out that conviction passionately.

Senator Debbie Regala

Ms. Regala, a Catholic, is not an ordinary citizen, but a state senator in Washington State.  Her faith commitment to justice and equality motivated her to vote for the state’s marriage equality law in the last legislative session.  However, after doing so, she received a torrent of negative reactions from fellow parishioners.  The experience made her question whether she and her husband were welcome at their parish, and so they left the community and found another, more welcoming one, in their hometown of Tacoma.

Sen. Regala describes her experience in an interview with

“Shortly after that vote [for marriage equality], and to her surprise, Regala received a flurry of emails from fellow parishioners — friends, acquaintances, and lesser-known church members — expressing criticism of her position on this issue. Well-versed in the process of responding to constituents’ feedback, both positive and negative, after almost two decades of experience as an elected official, Regala felt that these messages had entered, literally, a sacred place.

“Comments ranged from general disapproval to disappointment to outrage; according to Regala, one parishioner questioned her right to partake in the Eucharist while another scolded her for the years she had spent counseling engaged couples prior to their wedding ceremonies.

“Shaken by the intensity of these parishioners’ reactions, and uncertain of how her presence would be received the next time she attended Mass, Regala consulted with people she trusted inside and outside her parish; ultimately, these conversations led her and her husband, Leo, to the decision that it was time to move on. Regala’s belief that LGBT couples should be granted equal civil rights under the law, as a matter of conscience shaped by her life experiences, her understanding of democratic values, and her adherence to Christian teaching, wasn’t up for debate. If such a perspective was unwelcome within her faith community, then it was clear to Regala that, by association, she was unwelcome too.”

Regala’s faith, and, I daresay, her conscience, have been shaped by her life experiences.  In addition to having a gay brother and a lesbian sister, she states that she has had many conversations over the years about LGBT issues.  The story of her own marriage also she light for her on the issue of marriage equality specifically:

“Though Regala’s parents were influenced to some extent by the stereotypes and prejudices of their time, they raised their children to believe that everyone is equal. It’s why Regala never listened to those who warned her, in 1968, that she shouldn’t marry her husband, Leo, who is Filipino. ‘God never intended for races to intermarry,’ one woman told her, disregarding the fact that interracial marriage had been legalized nationwide the year before. ‘That’s why He made us different colors.’ Confronting discriminatory comments at that time was an experience that deepened Regala’s growing awareness of the ways prejudice and insensitivity can permeate social, cultural, and religious values and mindsets.”

Not surprisingly, her husband, Leo, supports the senator’s thinking and approach to faith:

“. . . Leo learned that Catholic men and women have the responsibility to inform and follow their consciences, and even question elements of their own faith traditions that may contradict personal beliefs or insights thoughtfully and prayerfully arrived at. Their deepening friendship introduced Debbie Regala to new (Jesuit) ways of thinking about faith, public service, and moral conscience that she found, and continues to find, socially inspiring, mentally challenging, and spiritually uplifting. In Leo’s words, ‘The Catholic Church supports free will, and I was taught to question.’ “

The interview with Regala describes leaving her parish as a “wrenching process,” because she never thought she would have to do so.  She has found a new home at St. Leo parish, Tacoma, and has also found the transition helpful to her spiritual journey:

“For Regala, changing locations for attending church hasn’t changed the essentials of her own faith, described simply though meaningfully at different points during our conversations as her ‘personal connection to God.’ Yet the process of rediscovering a community to celebrate this personal faith with has proved an enlightening journey, in that she has continued to learn about herself and others along the way. Parishioners at St. Leo have also affirmed their decision through smiles, embraces, supportive words.”

Regala describes receiving internal confirmation that her parish move was the right decision through a sermon she heard at the new parish.  It is a story worth repeating:

“[Rev. Byrne] told the story of a beloved Quaker nurse who died at the end of World War I in a Polish village. The parishioners asked their priest if she could be buried in the Catholic cemetery, the only one in town. The priest, feeling that the rule that only a Catholic could be buried in the cemetery must be obeyed, suggested the nurse be buried just outside the cemetery’s fence instead. The next morning, the priest discovered that the fence had been moved around her gravesite, so that she could be included among those she had served. Love had had its say. Byrne later explained, ‘Now this all flowed from the Gospel text of Jesus always stretching the boundaries to include those who were outcasts. It is this moving of the fence … that is the call of the Gospel.’ The homily confirmed for Regala what she had sensed in the deepest part of herself: she was right to trust her own conscience. Christ didn’t build fences. Neither would she.”

Have you had to move to another Roman Catholic parish to find a more welcoming atmosphere for LGBT issues?  What has your experience been like?
Please share your stories and experiences, and any other reactions to Regala’s interview, in the “Comments” section of this blog post.

If you are looking for a welcoming parish near you, you can consult New Ways Ministry’s list of gay-friendly parishes and communities.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

April 11, 2012:   ALL ARE WELCOME: Going Beyond the Boundaries