This is the story of one of the strangest moves that I’ve ever heard of coming from a bishop. A little over a week ago, we reported that Nicholas Coppola, a gay man who had been dismissed from his volunteer ministries at a Catholic parish on Long Island because he married his partner, delivered a petition with over 18,000 signatures to Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre diocese, asking to be re-instated.
This week, we’ve learned that Bishop Murphy has returned the petition and signatures, with a cover letter which simply stated: “From your faithful Roman Catholic bishop.” A copy of the letter can be viewed here.
GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) reported this development on their blog this week. They quote Coppola’s reaction to this latest development:
“I really don’t understand what sort of message Bishop Murphy is trying to send. Is he no longer listening to the voices of the faithful? I have more questions than anything now.”
The strangeness of the note baffles the mind. Is the bishop being vindictive? Pretentious? Humorous? Sarcastic? The move is certainly unprofessional, and clearly not pastoral. The message it sends is an authoritarian one, not one of responding to human needs or concerns.
The Washington Post notes that the diocese confirmed that the letter did indeed come from the bishop:
“Sean Dolan, a spokesperson for Murphy, on Thursday confirmed that the bishop had sent the 300 sheets of paper with the signatures back to Coppola.
“In a statement, Dolan said the petition and the way its delivery was staged for the media ‘was designed to misinform the press and the intended recipient,’ and was ‘only designed to promote the organizations behind this spectacle.’
“ ‘All legitimate correspondence sent to the Office of the Bishop either by email or regular U.S. Mail is responded to,’ Dolan said in a statement. ‘Online petitions of this nature lack legitimacy (and) are not considered correspondence and therefore do not warrant a response.’ “
On-line petitions are a new form of media and expression, but they are now ubiquitous, and certainly a legitimate form of communication. The diocese disregards such communications at its peril, and will continue to be out of touch with the real world.
GLAAD points out an interesting church law fact about the diocese’ response:
“According to canon law, the bishops must respond to letters that have been delivered. Later the same day that Nicholas delivered the petitions, the diocese issued a media statement reaffirming Nicholas’ ouster. It is unclear if returning the petition is the official response, per canon law.”
U.S. Catholic magazine has opined on the serious pastoral error that Murphy has made:
“Whether or not Coppola should have been removed from ministry, and whether Catholics who enter into a civil union or same-sex marriage with their partner should be allowed to participate in the life of a parish, are questions that will surely get a lot of arguments on both sides. But the fact that many Catholics were upset with the way Coppola was treated isn’t something that should just be ignored–a good bishop should at least engage with his flock and, if not to debate the decisions he’s made, should at the very least be open to explaining his reasoning in a pastoral manner. If nothing else, the bishop should see it as a teachable moment rather than something to turn away from and refuse to acknowledge.”
Coppola has a second petition campaign going in which he asks New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan to have a meal with his family. On Easter Sunday, Dolan stated on a television talk show that the church needs to do better outreach to gay and lesbian people. You can sign the petition here.
GLAAD’s Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives, stressed the importance of this second petition:
“Nicholas Coppola is a faithful Catholic who loves his church, and he is now being treated like a threat by his own bishop. Now more than ever, it is vital that Cardinal Dolan break bread with Nicholas to hear how he is being treated by the church that he loves so much.”
New Ways Ministry urges you to sign this petition.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry