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.
In the Great Falls Tribune, Rev. 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
Queering the Church: “When a Priest DEMANDS that a Couple Divorce!”