On June 12, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois issued a decree regarding same-sex “marriage” (SSM) and “related pastoral issues”. In it, he reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching that marriage can only be “a covenant between one man and one woman …” and promulgated diocesan norms relating to SSM. Norms included that no member of the diocesan clergy or staff is allowed to participate in a SSM service in any way, nor is church property to be used for SSM services or receptions. Persons in SSM relationships may not receive Holy Communion, and when in danger of death, persons in SSM relationships may not receive Holy Communion in the form of Viaticum unless they express repentance for their lifestyle.
Additionally, persons in SSM relationships may not receive a Catholic funeral unless they offered some signs of repentance before their death, nor may they serve as lectors or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass. Children of parents in SSM relationships may receive the sacraments and attend Catholic schools; however, such parents should be aware that their children will be instructed in the fullness of Catholic teaching.
In a follow-up statement released June 23rd, Bishop Paprocki added that “the Church has not only the authority, but the serious obligation to affirm its authentic teaching on marriage and to preserve and foster the sacred value of the married state.”
While the decree was applauded by some Catholic commentators and pundits, it drew vehement criticism from others. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter said that the bishop should be “sacked,” and that the decree is “so completely at odds with the direction Pope Francis is trying to take the church.” Christopher Pett, the incoming President of DignityUSA, described the decree as “mean-spirited and hurtful in the extreme. It systematically and disdainfully disparages us and our relationships. It denies us the full participation in the life of our Church to which we are entitled by our baptism and our creation in God’s image.” Fr. James Martin, SJ, who frequently comments on issues related to same-sex attraction, complained, “To focus only on LGBT people, without a similar focus on the moral and sexual behavior of straight people is, in the words of the Catechism, a ‘sign of unjust discrimination’ (2358).”
Bishop Paprocki, who was interviewed by Catholic World Report last December, spoke with CWR about his recent decree and the controversy that has followed.
CWR: What prompted you to issue this decree on issues related to same-sex “marriage”?
Bishop Paprocki: These norms regarding same-sex “marriage” and related pastoral issues were prompted by changes in the law and in our culture regarding these issues. Jesus Christ Himself affirmed the privileged place of marriage in human and Christian society by raising it to the dignity of a sacrament. Consequently, the Church has not only the authority, but the serious obligation, to affirm its authentic teaching on marriage and to preserve and foster the sacred value of the married state.
CWR: Have you been surprised at the extensive national media coverage it has received?
Bishop Paprocki: Yes, to the extent that the decree is a rather straightforward application of existing Church teaching and canon law. The Catholic Church has been very clear for two thousand years that we do not accept same-sex “marriage,” yet many people seem to think that the Church must simply cave in to the popular culture now that same-sex “marriage” has been declared legal in civil law. From a pastor’s perspective, it is quite troubling to see that so many Catholics have apparently accepted the politically correct view of same-sex “marriage.” This just shows how much work needs to be done to provide solid formation about the Catholic understanding of marriage.
CWR: Fr. James Martin, SJ, has complained (on his Facebook page) that this decree is “discrimination” against people with same-sex attraction because it does not include heterosexuals who commit sin or non-sexual sins. Additionally, relating to people in same-sex “marriages” receiving Holy Communion, he recently told The New York Times, “Pretty much everyone’s lifestyle is immoral.” How do you respond?
Bishop Paprocki: Father Martin gets a lot wrong in those remarks. Everyone is a sinner, but not everyone is living an immoral lifestyle. Since we are all sinners, we are all called to conversion and repentance. He misses the key phrase in the decree that ecclesiastical funeral rites are to be denied to persons in same-sex “marriages” “unless they have given some signs of repentance before their death.” This is a direct quote from canon 1184 of the Code of Canon Law, which is intended as a call to repentance. Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming the Gospel of God with these words: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Applying this biblical teaching to the specific issue of funeral rites, people who had lived openly in same-sex “marriage,” like other manifest sinners that give public scandal, can receive ecclesiastical funeral rites if they have given some signs of repentance before their death.
Father Martin’s comments do raise an important point with regard to other situations of grave sin and the reception of Holy Communion. He is right that the Church’s teaching does not apply only to people in same-sex “marriages.” According to canon 916, all those who are “conscious of grave sin” are not to receive Holy Communion without previous sacramental confession. This is normally not a question of denying Holy Communion, but of people themselves refraining from Holy Communion if they are “conscious of grave sin.” While no one can know one’s subjective sinfulness before God, the Church can and must teach about the objective realities of grave sin. Speaking objectively, one can say, for example, that all those who have sexual relations outside of valid marriage, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, should not receive Holy Communion unless they repent, go to confession and amend their lives. This includes the divorced and remarried without an annulment, as is well known from all the recent media attention on that issue.
CWR: Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, said that the decree will drive people with same-sex attraction away from the Church. What is your response?
Bishop Paprocki: The real issue is not how many people will come to church, but how to become holy, how to become a saint. The Church is a means on the path to holiness. Jesus teaches us how to be holy, but not everyone accepted His teaching, for example, the rich young man who walked away from Jesus sadly because he did not want to sell his possessions to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22). People are free to accept or reject Church teaching, as they are free to accept or reject Jesus Himself. It is disappointing when people leave the Church, just as it surely must have been disappointing for Jesus when people walked away from Him.
CWR: When you read the press coverage relating to the decree, are there any common misunderstandings or misinterpretations you see?
Bishop Paprocki: A lot of people seem to have missed the whole point of the call to repentance and conversion. They seem to think that the decree is a blanket condemnation of people who are gay and lesbian. It is not. My decree does not focus on “LGBT people,” but on so-called same-sex “marriage,” which is a public legal status. No one is ever denied the sacraments or Christian burial for simply having a homosexual orientation. Even someone who had entered into a same-sex “marriage” can receive the sacraments and be given ecclesiastical funeral rites if they repent and renounce their “marriage.”
CWR: What comments are you receiving privately about the decree? Have any of your fellow diocesan bishops spoken to you privately about it (if so, what are they saying)?
Bishop Paprocki: I have received many supportive comments and assurances of prayer.
CWR: What reaction have you received from your diocesan priests? My first reaction is that many must be grateful that you have taken the heat off them. For example, should a person in a same-sex “marriage” come for Holy Communion or asking for a Catholic funeral for a recently deceased (and unrepentant) lover, the priest can simply say, “I’m sorry, I work under the authority of the diocese and its bishop, and diocesan regulations do not permit me to do that.”
Bishop Paprocki: I have received positive reactions from my priests for the clarity of the Church’s teaching and expressions of gratitude for providing guidance regarding how to respond to such situations as they may arise.
CWR: Do you believe other dioceses will issue similar decrees?
Bishop Paprocki: I believe some already have, but for whatever reason they did not receive much, if any, publicity.
CWR: Has the negative press on this issue been difficult for you personally, or have you come to see that it goes with the office you hold?
Bishop Paprocki: I’ll take my cue on that question from my patron saint, Sir Thomas More, who said, “I do not care very much what men say of me, provided that God approves of me.”
CWR: Any other thoughts?
Bishop Paprocki: Gay activists have harassed my staff and me with obscene telephone calls, e-mail messages and letters using foul language and profanity, supposedly in the name of love and tolerance. I am sorry that people around me have been subjected to such hateful and malicious language.
CWR: Is there anything you’d like to see Catholics who support the decision do to help?
Bishop Paprocki: Please pray for the conversion of sinners.