St. Stephen Catholic Church and School is a traditionally inclusive community that has been in turmoil due the recent denial of Holy Communion to gay parishioners by a new priest. The story became national news appearing on the homepage of CNN and in Forbes following an initial story that aired on local news. My perspective as someone deeply involved in the crisis is shared here in a letter to the Bishop of the Grand Rapids Diocese. Copies of this letter were also sent to Archbishop Allen Henry Vigneron and Pope Francis.
Letter to Bishop Walkowiak
December 4, 2019
Dear Bishop Walkowiak,
I am writing as a parishioner of St. Stephen School and Parish and a member of the Grand Rapids Diocese. Never in my life have I been so discouraged by my faith. There are two topics in this letter. First, my perspective on the denial of Communion at St. Stephen as someone who has been deeply involved with the situation since it began last winter. Second, my disappointment in the response of Church leaders. This situation started as a call to defend the values of my parish community but has revealed a more serious issue with the reluctance of Church leaders to engage with all Catholic voices on a basis of respect and compassion.
I’ll start by sharing my background so you can appreciate the demographic that I represent, one in which is being driven away from the Church by how these scandals are handled. I came to Grand Rapids 31 years ago at the age of three when my father, Dr. Robert Marko, began his 30 year tenure teaching Theology at Aquinas College. I attended Catholic schools all my life, including as a student at Aquinas where I now serve as the President-Emeritus of the Alumni Council. I have continued to be a practicing Catholic throughout that time even though nearly every Catholic person that I know from my generation has stopped attending Mass. I am politically moderate, typically seen as more conservative than most of my personal acquaintances. I consider myself pro-life. I have never really cared about LGBT issues, although I have had many gay acquaintances and friends because some people happen to be gay. That is just the way God made them.
Before continuing, I would like to empathize with the challenges faced by Fr. Scott. It is daunting to discern how Church doctrine is properly applied in a rapidly changing and increasingly polarized society. I believe that Fr. Scott is genuinely following his conscience and doing his best to fulfill his duties. I imagine that it must be particularly challenging for him to reconcile a personal conscience that is at odds with the tradition of a community as has been the struggle at St. Stephen. The concerns expressed in this letter are not intended to be disrespectful to Fr. Scott or yourself, but I feel called to candidly share my God given conscience with fellow Catholics that may be struggling with these same issues. My perspective is shared by many in the Church even if it is not agreeable.
Why Denial of Communion has Resulted in Conflict and Pain at St. Stephen
I joined St. Stephen three years ago, shortly after the time Fr. Scott was assigned to the Parish. My ex-wife and I were seeking a community that would provide our daughter with a loving environment for her childhood. St. Stephen had a strong tradition as a diverse and inclusive community. This tradition was evident in the parents and fellow parishioners that I met. Early on, however, many did express concerns about how fitting Fr. Scott’s decisions were with that culture. I was always careful not to be over-reactive to those concerns and to default by placing my faith in Fr. Scott’s leadership. This changed when Fr. Scott publicly denied Communion to a gay couple without advanced notice in front of their child at the Mass last winter. Even then, I attempted to provide a voice of patience and understanding regarding Fr. Scott’s leadership. My voice was a minority. I share this background in hopes that you will see that I have made every attempt to find common ground with Fr. Scott and encourage others to “give him a chance”. For nearly a year we have been working to heal the community until the recent denial of Communion to Judge Sara Smolenski threw St. Stephen back into turmoil.
There are two reasons that I disagree with the selective denial of Communion to those in gay union: 1) it is generally inconsistent application of Church teaching, and 2) it is poor pastoral practice at St. Stephen.
It is inconsistent application of church teaching. Church teaching states that those “persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” The Catechism identifies many instances of “grave sin” in addition to homosexual acts: marriage outside of the Catholic church, divorce, use of contraceptives, alcohol abuse, use of drugs, theft, lying, gluttony, and so on. Denying Communion selectively to gay parishioners is inconsistent application of church teaching and harmful to an already marginalized group of the Catholic community. The stance of much of us at St. Stephen is that if Fr. Scott is denying Communion to gay folk, then he should be denying it to many other people as well. The practice is also contrary to the guidance of Pope Francis, the highest authority in the Church, who states that “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Many will argue that gay union is a particularly heinous sin that should be addressed with a special degree of condemnation. I frankly don’t understand this oddly suspicious obsession with homosexuality. Are there not more consequential issues facing Catholics and the world at large? Is the condemnation of the private lives of gay people really the issue that the Church wants use as a standard-bearer?
It is poor pastoral practice at St. Stephen. Many priests do not deny Communion to folks in a same sex union. Unfortunately it is not newsworthy when this happens. I understand if you disagree that the denial of Communion is poor practice, but why must it be done at a community that has its foundation in values of diversity and inclusion? Why at a community where there has not been a single known case of denial of Communion in its 95 year history? Fr. Scott is placing his personal interpretation of pastoral wisdom ahead of the established values and precedence of the St. Stephen community. Rather than shepherding people closer to one another and to God, our community is experiencing fracture and alienation. Fr. Scott’s perceived righteousness in presuming to know who is worthy to receive Communion also creates a barrier for him to establish trust with individual parishioners. Many people have left the community. Seven out of eleven teachers left the school and student enrollment has plummeted resulting in the termination of student support services. There are other Catholic communities where Fr. Scott’s brand of clericalism may be welcomed. I request that the Diocese explore a more compatible Parish placement for Fr. Scott as a step toward the healing of St. Stephen.
Reluctance for Compassion by Church Leaders
The most troubling part of this experience has been the apparent lack of concern by Fr. Scott and the Grand Rapids Diocese for struggling members of the faith. I am trying very hard to find respect and compassion for the challenges faced by Church leaders but that is increasingly difficult when all of our attempts at outreach have been disregarded.
When a huge portion of the St. Stephen community expressed concern to Fr. Scott last spring he responded by publishing quotations of church canon. He was completely unresponsive to the many dozens of messages sent to him on the issue by parishioners and parents. In this more recent episode with Sara, he has once again offered no outreach to his community other that to say than this is a “private spiritual matter between him and a parishioner”. It is not a private spiritual matter when your community is in turmoil and an ostracized parishioner is speaking out on the national news.
The management of the situation by the Diocese has also been disheartening. Many members of our community made repeated attempts to reach you to discuss these issues last spring but you were unresponsive. The press release issued by the Diocese in response to the recent media coverage was further disappointment. It made no attempt to show compassion or understanding for Sara or the many distraught members of St. Stephen but rather it denigrated the dedication we have shown to our community. I find the quote of Pope Francis shared in the press release particularly ironic: “Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members.” Many of us, myself included, believe Fr. Scott to be creating “scandalous distinctions and divisions among [the Church’s] members”.
My community has been working since last winter to respectfully address our concerns through outreach to Fr. Scott and yourself while making every attempt to keep the crisis out of the hands of the media. It is so very frustrating to receive an indignant bump on the snout from the Diocese after receiving nothing but disregard to all our previous attempts at dialogue.
A consequence of the Diocese’s response is that it emboldened a hateful response from ultra conservative Catholics. I was in disbelief seeing the anger poured onto members of my community by people who I would have presumed to be my brothers and sisters in Christ. My community is experiencing a crisis. Instead of supportive outreach we were attacked by people waving a war banner stitched from your words. These people invaded the Mass at my church to celebrate the pain of my community with theatrical genuflections to receive the Eucharist. It was disgusting to see Communion used as a bludgeon to exacerbate conflict when that is the antithesis of its meaning. Yet this abuse is not just tolerated but encouraged by your words.
Can you not see that people are struggling with their faith? Is it wrong to demonstrate empathy to those in need? Fr. Scott refused to allow parishioners and parents to gather in the St. Stephen Family Center to discuss Building a Bridge by James Martin, SJ. The book is harmless and fully aligned with church teaching. Fr. Martin simply suggests that Catholics approach the LGBT community with respect and compassion as Christ would have. This shouldn’t be controversial but unfortunately anything that is not explicitly condemning of the LGBT community is seen by many as a threat. We had hoped that discussion of the book would provide some healing for the pain inflicted by the denial of Communion last winter, which it did when we gathered for the discussion at an alternate location.
Censorship of these issues damages trust in the Church. Will discussion among the discouraged and dispossessed continue to be driven underground? Or, will you choose to have a voice within that group that offers support and hope? I appeal to you, Bishop Walkowiak, to be thoughtfully compassionate in how you engage with all members of the Church in order to bring the community closer together rather than to widen divisions and continue to drive life-long Catholics away from the Church. This will be needed in 2020 more than ever.
Joshua David Marko