(Most) Rhode Island Clergy Offer Lesson in Pastoral Priorities

Bishop Tobin at the Young Republicans meeting

At the beginning of August a newly married gay Catholic couple in Rhode Island was denied Communion by their pastor, just about the same time that Pope Francis made his “Who am I to judge?” comments returning from World Youth Day. The same priest who denied this couple communion also criticized pro-equality politicians.  Similarly, remarks by Providence’s bishop on LGBT issues further demonstrate that Catholic leaders remain unsettled months after Rhode Island passed marriage equality. This situation has left many clergy in disagreement about the best response to new realities, while other Catholics wish for more sensitivity from their priests.

Fr. Brian Sistare, the communion-denying pastor, told legislators who voted for the marriage law that he would use his clerical position to defeat them in coming elections, doing so in an email filled with inaccuracies and anti-gay language. Aside from risking the Church’s tax-exempt status with such partisanship, his endeavor seems futile given Rhode Island Catholics’ overwhelming support for LGBT rights. You can read Fr. Sistare’s full email at RIFuture.org.

Meanwhile, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence addressed marriage and the pope in a meeting with Young Republicans, where he coincidentally announced he had transferred parties from the Democrats because of their stands on social issues. Tobin reiterated his opposition to marriage equality and his belief that Pope Francis’ remarks on gay priests revealed nothing new. The Providence Journal also reports he spoke about denying Communion:

“On the question of whether priests should deny Communion to couples they know are living together — be they as gay couples or cohabitating heterosexual couples — Bishop Tobin said that question would be best left to the individual parish priests who know the individuals and who have counseled the couples about the church’s teaching.”

For their part, priests in the diocese are not following Fr. Sistare’s example of vilifying LGBT people and their supporters. In a piece by The Providence Journal, the response of clergy to the marriage law is viewed in light of a pope who wants more mercy and less judgment:

“Some of the topical questions facing priests now: Should they deny communion to an unmarried couple who lives together? Should they tell gay couples that their lives are disordered and they should refrain from Communion or go elsewhere? Or should they welcome the couples with open and forgiving arms?

“Interviews with Catholic priests around the state suggest most have a good idea as to what to say or do, even while they may disagree among themselves about the best approach. Most, however, are inclined toward following the lead of the new pope, even when they feel they must ‘speak the truth in love.’ “

Many parish priests equate same-gender couples with mixed-gender couples who live together and may be sexually active before marriage. This means that these priests allow Catholics to act according to their consciences when it comes to Communion:

“Father Thurber says he understands that ‘everyone is in a different spot in their place with God,’ and so he tries to meet people where they are. When couples who have been living together come to see him about getting married, he says, he extends ‘an open arm of welcome’ and leaves the question as to whether they should receive communion to their consciences and to God.

“ ‘I am not in the business of denying Communion,’ he says flatly. ‘As Pope Francis said, it’s not fair to judge. I preach the Gospel, and whoever hears it, hears it.’ “

Priests with a harder line insist their emphasis on rules about Communion is for everyone, not just LGBT people or couples, although they would remind a same-gender couple of the hierarchy’s teachings. Less concerned with regulations are priests like Fr. Charles Grondin who focuses on bringing people back to Mass and not on their perceived sins. He criticizes those who investigate parishioners’ lives and those who constantly remind Catholics about the rules about Communion. In a sign of hope, of the ten or so priests interviewed, all rejected the idea of denying Communion to parishioners in same-gender relationships.

Yet, Bryan Cones at U.S. Catholic asks the most pressing question about clergy’s priorities relevant to Catholics everywhere, citing the example of Bishop Tobin and the Young Republicans. Contrasting Tobin with Bishop Thomas Lynch, who recently defended the Church’s efforts on behalf of those in poverty, Cones writes:

“Something’s wrong with the world when one bishop is trying to defend the charitable efforts of the church while another is addressing the Rhode Island Young Republicans about–you guessed it–gay marriage. As Scott Alessi notes in his blog post, Bishop Thomas Lynch of St. Petersburg [Florida] has stepped into defend Catholic Charities…Meanwhile, Bishop Tobin is up in Rhode Island licking his wounds over yet another loss in the civil same-sex marriage debate. Poor people? What poor people?”

Cones correctly notes the difference in priorities expressed here, and it seems that clergy understand that pastoral care and concern for the poor override any opposition to marriage, even if their bishop fails to do so. Cones concludes with a statement very relevant for Rhode Island, and beyond:

“Churches should be, of course, above partisan politics, calling politicians of every stripe back to the basic demands of the Bible: justice for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the poor. One reason for the current pope’s popularity is surely his basic message that the church should be a church of the poor. It would be nice if a few more of his brother bishops in this country would take note.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

8 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    Well, there goes any hope that Tobin will be disciplining rogue priest Sistare any time soon. I think it’s going to take a revolution among the parishioners themselves to knock some pastoral sense into the heads of the Diocesan leadership. Perhaps a conscientious boycott of both the communion rail AND the collection basket would be a proper response to the hateful antics of both Tobin and Sistare.

  2. terenceweldon
    terenceweldon says:

    This is an important point, Bob. Thanks for highlighting it. The handful of isolated cases of people being discriminated against in their parishes hit the headlines – but that’s precisely because they;re so rare. On the other hand, the countless numbers who continue to serve without incident, as musicians, readers, Eucharistic ministers, catechists, liturgists and parish councillors, attract less attention – because in most parishes, it’s routine. Years ago, my partner and I served together on a local parish council for four years, with the full knowledge of all concerned that we were a couple and living together – and nobody turned a hair. (That was 20 years ago, in South Africa – even before the political transformation that put protection from discrimination into the constitution, and when homosexuality was still technically a criminal offence)..
    I’m pretty certain that over those past 20 years, things have improved in most parishes – and will continue to do so, following the more example of Pope Francis’ clearly more pastoral emphasis.

  3. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    Dear Friends:
    I would not follow the example of the clergy who abuse the Eucharist and use it as a spiritual weapon. But I no longer donate a penny to the institutional church. I made that decision many years ago with great sorrow, but I was weary of lies and obfuscations about the use of the money. Now I donate (generously) to reputable charities like Homeboy Industries. Concerning the Eucharist, I have made the commitment that if I ever see someone being refused communion, I will break my piece and share it with my brother/ sister.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Good on you, and blessings, Rosa! We need many more committed Catholics to set a principled moral example such as yours — precisely as the priestly Berrigan brothers (Phil and Dan) did, in witnessing against the horrific and misguided Vietnam War. It’s gratifying that most Rhode Island priests interviewed in the newspaper article held out for a strong and conciliatory personal pastoral approach. It’s only a handful of ideological zealots in leadership positions who are generating this needless disharmony and discord.

  4. Teri
    Teri says:

    Committed Catholics? Really? The Catholic Church does not recognize gay marriage. There are plenty of other faiths who do. No one is forcing anyone to belong to the Catholic church..just who is intolerant?
    No matter what an individual priest may say, the truth the faith remains the same. Thank God for priests like Fr Brian who uphold its teachings.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Teri, a few points in response:

      1. NO CHURCH, including the Catholic Church, will ever be required by law to perform a marriage ceremony which violates its theological tenets. This issue is not even in question.

      2. That said: the Second Vatican Council, under Pope St. John XXIII, held that: “The Holy Spirit speaks through the witnessing of the Faithful” — at least as much as (if not more than) through the hierarchy.

      3. When a large proportion of Rhode Island’s Catholic priests themselves — according to the newspaper reports — believe that the extreme attitude taken by their uber-conservative bishops is pastorally broken, with whom do you think Jesus Himself would stand? I believe He would stand squarely with Pope Francis and with his prophetic words: “Who am I to judge?” Under the official documents of the Second Vatican Council, practicing Catholics have a FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT OF CONSCIENCE regarding contested issues where there is no clear social consensus. The interviewed priests overwhelmingly affirmed this right and this principle. Do you have a problem with the theological declarations of Vatican II?


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