A Montana priest’s social media posting which criticized the inclusion of a gay couple as co-chairs for a Catholic schools fundraiser has sparked a controversy that has received national attention.
Father Ryan Erlenbush, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Great Falls, Montana, recently took to Facebook to express his disagreement with the fact that a gay couple is at the helm of local church leadership in chairing a fundraiser for Billings Catholic Schools. The post has created polarizing discourse, including comments from the local bishop, and it has since been removed.
Travis Heringer and Dan Sutter, two of the six chairs of the Mayfair Gala Dinner and Auction, the largest annual fundraiser for the Billings Catholic Schools Foundation, are known as a gay couple. The Foundation is an organization independent of the diocese and the schools.
Because of their participation in the planning, Erlenbush called for a boycott of the fundraiser, according to The National Catholic Reporter. In addition, he stated:
“Why would any Catholic (Indeed, any Christian) attend or donate to Mayfair 2018?” he asked in the post. “What does a Catholic School have to do before people say ‘enough’ and take their kids (and their money) elsewhere?”
An alumnus of the very schools for which he is advising a fundraising boycott, Erlenbush claims that having a gay couple represent the school communities is not representative of Catholic teaching, and that the school system has “lost its way when a prominent homosexual couple is advertised as the chairs for the annual fundraiser.”
Responding to the controversy through an open letter, Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings Diocese, addressed the controversy caused by the priest’s remarks, noting the difference between the school system and the school’s fundraising foundation and also outlining the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. He disagreed with Erlenbush’s criticism of the Catholicity of the diocese’s schools,. In an interview with KQTV, Warfel said he did not think addressing the issue on Facebook was appropriate.
The National Catholic Reporter carried the response of the Foundation’s leaders:
“In an interview at the Billings Catholic School Foundation offices, Janyce Haider, the foundation’s president and executive director and Shaun Harrington, Billings Catholic Schools president, ‘both said they stand by all six of their co-chairs,’ according to the Billings Gazette.
” ‘We have six wonderful chairs,’ Haider said. ‘They’re doing a great job, and we’re going to get through this Mayfair, and it’s probably going to be the best Mayfair we’ve ever had. They’re loving, kind, caring people. They’re living a good life, and they’re giving back.’ “
At the end of Erlenbush’s Facebook post, the priest noted his ties to the schools, and concluded with “I say ‘enough.’ ” Perhaps the larger question, though, is what Erlenbush has had “enough” of. Enough of gay people in the Church? Enough of gay people participating in their communities? Some things we haven’t yet had enough of is allowing and celebrating the gifts of LGBTQ people in the Church, and recognizing that they can contribute to the communities around them. It is disappointing that LGBTQ people living their lives and participating in the Church still raises controversy for those in Church leadership.
In an ironic twist, his private Facebook post has become public, and so has a gay couple’s private life.
Darrell Ehrlick, editor of the Billings Gazette, commented on the dissonance between the priest’s words and actions and those of Pope Francis regarding treatment of gay people in the Church. He argues that seeing “an adult leader of their religious community shun other adults for their sexuality . . . sends a powerful and wrong message to [the students]… They see parents and community leaders who are torn down and not uplifted; whose help is belittled because of something as unrelated as their sexuality.”
Erlenbush’s indignance demonstrates a refusal to engage with LGBT people in the Church. Instead, his immediate reaction is to point out their sexuality as reason to condemn them. As lay people raising money for area Catholic schools, these two men’s sexuality is unrelated to the project, and they should not have been attacked in such a public and demeaning manner. With stories like these occurring across the country, it is clear that increased dialogue and understanding needs to take place in order for clergy and the LGBTQ community to exist peacefully in the Church.
–Lindsay Hueston, New Ways Ministry, May 6, 2018