Diocese Supports Priest with Pattern of Denying Communion to, Firing LGBTQ Catholics

Judge Sara Smolenski

A diocese in Michigan is backing one priest’s decision to deny Communion to a longtime lesbian parishioner because of her same-gender marriage, part of an alleged pattern of the priest discriminating against LGBTQ Catholics.

Sara Smolenski was denied Communion by the pastor of the parish, St. Stephen Church, East Grand Rapids, Michigan, which she has attended on and off since being baptized there as a child. WOOD 8 reported:

“But it was just last Saturday that Smolenski got a call from the parish priest, Father Scott Nolan.

“‘The way he said it was “because you’re married to Linda in the state of Michigan, you cannot accept communion,” that’s how he said it,’ Smolenski explained. ‘I try to be a good and faithful servant to our Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is a huge part of who I am, but it is the church that made that faith, the very church where he is taking a stance and saying ho-ho, not you.’

“It was a devastating revelation for the lifelong Catholic who months earlier gave $7,000 to the parish building fund.

“‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to get Jesus at the church I have devoted my life to,’ Smolenski said, fighting back tears. ‘I thought of my mom and dad who devoted their whole life to raising us Catholic, spending all that money at the Catholic education.’

“Smolenski was not the first person to be denied, according to a dozen people News 8 talked to Tuesday, including one same-sex couple who was denied the Eucharist during their child’s communion service.

“‘The public shunning — everything about it was offensive,’ Smolenski said of the denial months before her own.”

Smolenski, a District Court judge who has served on the judicial bench for almost three decades, said she told the media about the denial and the priest’s behavior as a way to make other people’s lives “a little bit easier.” It was simply a matter of speaking the truth, she stated.

Parishioners are pushing back against Nolan’s behavior. Micki Benz, a parishioner at St. Stephen for forty years, shared that the priest had fired gay teachers at the parish school and “made it clear that gay people are not welcome,” in addition to excluding non-Catholics from church services. Concerned, parishioners drafted a letter to their community encouraging people to write the local bishop, Grand Rapid’s Bishop David Walkowiak, as well as the local metropolitan, Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron, about Nolan. The letter reads, in part:

“The St. Stephen community is experiencing a crisis of leadership involving selective discrimination against gay parishioners. . . .[Denying Communion to Smolenski] by Fr. Scott is a clear indication that he will continue to practice selective discrimination against members of our community. These acts have been destructive to the culture of inclusion and diversity that are hallmarks of St Stephen. There has been a massive decline in school enrollment, and an exodus of teachers and staff. Many individuals have withdrawn financial support from the parish and Diocese, and transferred those funds to support to the St. Stephen school or other causes.”

But the young priest and the Diocese of Grand Rapids are defending the denial of Communion to Smolenski. Nolan told WOOD 8 that he disagrees with accusations that he has been discriminatory, citing Bishop Walkowiak’s support and the teachings of Pope Francis as evidence he acted rightly. Nolan added he was the “right person” to lead the parish, while also acknowledging a sharp decline in parish and school enrollment. For its part, the diocese released a statement affirming the priest’s decision to deny Communion to a married lesbian woman.

Reports of Fr. Nolan’s behavior are troubling. Pastors should be unifiers and reconcilers, not sources of division. Denying Communion once because of a person’s sexual orientation and marital status in itself grounds enough to question whether the priest should be kept in ministry. But the alleged pattern of discrimination this priest has carried out against LGBTQ people demands intervention by church leaders before any more harm is done.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 2, 2019

10 replies
  1. Carol Parker
    Carol Parker says:

    Sara, I’m so sorry you were denied communion. I was denied communion at my mother’s funeral back in 2013, because I was living with my partner, Josie. We had been together for 25 years. It was a terrible thing to have happen and I was devastated . We had no time to get another priest and we had everything arranged. But, we ended up going to another church and found a welcoming priest.

    • Loretta
      Loretta says:

      We support you. If they want to hold the sacraments hostage, we won’t pay the ransom. Christ is in you and me with or without receiving the sacrament.

  2. Don E Siegal
    Don E Siegal says:

    Denying Communion to LGBTQ Catholics

    This is a multi-factorial problem that is not going to have any satisfactory resolution until Church teachings on marriage and human sexuality change.

    Many newly ordained priests are very conservative and embrace clericalism because of their conformist formation. Many of the progressive seminaries have closed.

    The civilly married queer Church community cannot expect reconciliation of Eucharistic participation until the parallel situation of straight couples who divorce and remarry civilly without an annulment is also reconciled.

    There is a lot of work needed to bring all these factors to the table for reasonable resolution. The leadership for that to happen rests in the hands of Pope Francis. The need for a synod on human sexuality has been called for by many expert theologians. Such a synod would have to consider not only Church teachings but include input from experts in contemporary psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

    It is also of interest that the response of the diocese to WOOD TV 8 used a single fragment quote from Amoris Laetitia, “The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members.” (#186) to support its response. The paragraph then describes what was meant by scandalous—failure to follow social justice. That same paragraph goes on to conclude: “On the other hand, families who are properly disposed and receive the Eucharist regularly, reinforce their desire for fraternity, their social consciousness and their commitment to those in need.” This confirms that Amoris Laetitia can be used to deny or support a particular position by taking parts out of context. This was one of the criticisms of the document when it was published. As I recall, Amoris Laetitia made both the best things and the worst things of New Ways Ministry’s end of the year lists.

  3. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    Most reasonable people, and most Catholics , would take offense at what the priest ,Scott Nolan, has done. Nobody wins. Parishioners will find better uses for their funds and look for a more sympathetic and supportive pastor. Scott Nolan may find himself preaching and posturing to an empty church.

  4. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    The common thread I keep seeing time and time again in all these reacurring incidents, are priests, bishops, and dioceses doing ‘their own thing’, making their own individual judgement calls, while they are all suppose to be following our Pope’s directives in all these matters. Instead it depends where one lives, which diocese you are under, which church you attend (a welcoming LGBTQ one or not) and this is shameful to all those priests and Bishops who are not following the Pope’s words of inclusiveness and love to all our brothers and sisters. I say shame on every one of these priests, dioceses, and Bishops who have chosen to be their own Pope and make their own rules. Shame on them!.

  5. Barbara J Karamon
    Barbara J Karamon says:

    I, too, am cradle, practicing Catholic and have this advice. Fr. Nolan can and did refuse Eucharist to you. I honestly don’t know how he could do this in good conscience. Yes, we must be in the state of grace to receive. How does he know what’s going on between you and God, or for that matter how do you know if Fr. Nolan is in the state of grace when he consecrates the host. It works both ways. Christ came/died/loves all of us. At the last supper, he denied NO one, the Eucharist even though Judas betrayed Him and Peter denied Him. Begin attending Mass at another church. What goes between you and God is yours and yours alone!!!!

  6. Hal G Wing
    Hal G Wing says:

    I am so tired of priests (and bishops) taking it upon themselves to interpret what Jesus taught. Are they not acting contrary to what Pope Francis is teaching?

  7. Gene Swain
    Gene Swain says:

    Here is a simple question: If Jesus stood at the pulpit of St. Stephen’s church, would he say this? “My Father was wrong to create these sinful lesbians. Fr. Nolan was right and if he calls upon some to condemn these women, I will be ready to throw the first stone.”
    Can we not remember that Grace requires Love and rejects hatred. I’ll pray that Fr Nolan and his bishop may come to accept God’s grace.

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

    In line with this, judges who sentence people to death must be denied Communion. CEO’s who support destruction of the environment must be denied Communion. Politicians who promote the persecution of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers must be denied Communion. Etc, etc, etc.
    BTW. Who did Jesus turn away from the table?

  9. Kevin Welbes Godin
    Kevin Welbes Godin says:

    Grand Rapids was my home diocese. I’m saddened to hear that this young priest can exercise such cruel power to alienate Sara a probably others. He likely has something to hide — ya know, like control issues, power tripping, thinking he supersedes Jesus, misogyny, homophobia, etc. none of which have to do with authentic Church ministry and following the path of Jesus. I’m even more saddened for those victimized by a Church that likes to carve in stone characteristics like love, empathy, community, welcoming, on and on. Fr. Nolan might learn a thing or two by reading the life and times of St. Stephen.


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