Montana Bishop's Divided Thinking in Communion Denial Case

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.

Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick

In the Great Falls TribuneRev. 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

Related article:

Queering the Church:  “When a Priest DEMANDS that a Couple Divorce!”




15 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    One of the features that disturbs me, is that the bishop is reported to have noted that they did not publiicize their marriage, and that seems to have been OK with him – but once it became public knowledge, the Church was forced to step in.

    In other words, gay relationships are fine, even marriage is not necessarily a problem – just don’t let anybody know. Don’t ask, don’t tell. That’s the very antithesis of so much else, in the bible and in the Catechism.

  2. Kathleen Fallon
    Kathleen Fallon says:

    Perhaps marriage doesnt seem necessary to committed couples who arent planning to have children. Then one day, as time goes on, this same committed couple who have had mutual love and affection for one another for many years comes to a crossroad to choose marriage or remain unmarried. The choice to marry may include other reasons than simply the obvious, two people devoted to one another. The choice to marry may very well involve a couples religion, faith, finances, legal protections, family and friends encouragement and many other factors. So many good reasons to choose marriage as Tom and Paul did. Until now. The Catholic Church has become an even more powerful tool for cutting people out now that it cant abide a marriage license between certain catholics. I no longer in good conscience can go to a church that is so cruel to so many good, loving people. So sorry to Tom and Paul for the harm committed against them by the Church. So sorry.

  3. Bede Baldry, FSC
    Bede Baldry, FSC says:

    Gee, This Fr. Sam makes changes before he knows the people. I wonder where he learned such administrative skills. Sad story. I wonder what Jesus would have done?

  4. Jim McCrea
    Jim McCrea says:

    Let me get this straight (no pun intended): these men are in a marital relationship that is not recognized by this church. However, in order to be back in the good graces of the unelected clergy, they have to get a divorce …. an action that is, in the eyes of this church, a sin.

    Got it. My faith is saved once again.

  5. Friends
    Friends says:

    Suggestion: Pope Francis could work wonders for the RCC’s public image and esteem by setting up a VATICAN HOT LINE, which aggrieved parishioners could call, to request his direct intervention, when something totally outrageous like this takes place. There is no way that I believe he would allow stupidities like this to take place, if he knew about them. Bottom line: Pope Francis is the CEO of the RCC, and is therefore the direct boss of the diocesan bishop. Is there anything we could do to help implement this crucial “check and balance” against such abusive behavior by local Church administrators?

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Just to elucidate a bit further: Pope Francis FIRED the “Bling Bishop” in Germany, who had built himself a lavish palace, and then sent him into semi-exile in an obscure outpost. So this Pope WILL react, when bishops behave outrageously and wrongfully, if those outrages are brought to his attention. It’s getting his attention that seems to be the logistical problem — since so many outrages, such as the one described above, seem to occur almost on a daily basis in the RCC.

  6. James M. Murck
    James M. Murck says:

    Some people are Completely Unable to absorb paradox… How they, then, could claim to have even the most rudimentary understanding of Christian Theology simply must be a theological mystery unto itself… And to Think that the diocese of Orange in California have just unvailed their plans for the Crystal Cathedral /err – Christ Cathedral, which was designed by none other than Phillip Johnson himself – who would surely feel rather unwelcome in his own building… Moving Forward?…


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  1. […] September 23, 2014: “Montana Bishop’s Divided Thinking in Communion Denial Case” […]

  2. […] answer to another question touches on another tragic trend here in the U.S. church:  thedenial of communion to lesbian and gay people. In answering a question about both divorced/remarried and lesbian/gay people, Marx sees […]

  3. […] answer to another question touches on another tragic trend here in the U.S. church:  the denial of communion to lesbian and gay people. In answering a question about both divorced/remarried and lesbian/gay people, Marx sees […]

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