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Can We Force Priests to Give Communion?

The Situation at Hand

Judge Sara Smolenski, a chief judge of the Kent County District Court, in Grand Rapids, Michigan was in the news this past Tuesday because her pastor Father Scott Nolan denied her Holy Communion at the church where she has been a parishioner for more than six decades. Why? As a lesbian she civilly married her long-time female companion, Linda.


Attacking the Messenger

The priest is being attacked, not only by her but by sympathetic parishioners and a slanted media. They are demanding the removal of the priest who has served as the pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Church for the last three years. It sounds like the young priest has been under pressure for some time as we are told that he was compelled to include non-Catholic readers in liturgies. However, Church law stipulates that readers at Mass should be Catholic. Further, while it is the questionable practice of blessings being substituted for Holy Communion for non-Catholic children at school Masses; the Eucharist is reserved to “Catholics in good standing.” It is this last point that makes the demands of Judge Smollenski problematical.

Real Social Justice & Intimidation

The comparison is being made to the integration of the school back in 1966 when 40% of the student body was non-Catholic. However, the Catholic faith, while urging justice for all persons, would not equate racial equality or religious liberty with the acceptance of homosexual sin. This is the real divide. The judge makes mention that she has donated $7,000 to the church building fund. I am sure that the pastor and parish are appreciative for her generous donation; however, if such is intended as a bribe so as to keep quiet or to compromise Catholic moral teaching then I would suggest giving it back.

Condemnation of a Compassionate Priest

prI am certain the priest would not tell her (a parishioner for 62 years) to go elsewhere or that she is now unwelcome. Apparently, all he told her was that because she had publicly married another woman that she should not come up for the Eucharist. More than an issue of homosexuality, heterosexual couples married outside the Church should have their bonds regularized prior to receiving the sacrament. A spokesman for the Diocese of Grand Rapids stated that “This is a spiritual matter between her and her pastor.” That is where it should have been left. But Judge Smolenski insisted that it was time “to bring this into the light.” The judge has taken a public stance and this makes her reception of the sacrament into an act of dissent and political manipulation. The judge wants to step forward and speak the truth but it is not the truth of Catholic or traditional Christian teaching. The question is asked, why would the bishop send such a man with his views to this church? What? Literally the upset voices are perplexed that a Catholic priest with Catholic beliefs would be assigned to a Catholic church. This is nonsensical. Note that the priest did not seek to shame her in public. He proceeded as directed by canon law. He contacted her outside of Mass with a phone call. Given that he has shared similar concerns about others, she was not singled out. This reflected no personal enmity. The judge was the one who made this a “public” issue and he sought to avoid any “public shunning.” Further, as a learned priest who appreciates the effects of the sacrament, he knows that the Eucharist brings life to some and death to others. If not spiritually prepared, then the reception of Holy Communion can convict us of sin and leave us in a worse situation than before receiving it. The Eucharist is medicine to some and a poison to others. I suspect that the pastor was concerned for the woman’s soul and about the souls of others due to the scandal and miscommunication that her reception entailed. Failure in this regard can constitute a dereliction of his duty as a priest. However, the judge neither thanked him for his pastoral consideration nor for his spiritual instruction. She turned his confidential council into an opportunity for public dissent (which she said she did for others) and personal retaliation.

Fidelity or Dissent to Catholic Teaching

Nothing is said by the dissenters or the media reporters about the fact that both the Bible and the universal Catholic Catechism teach that homosexual acts are mortally sinful. She is the one who went to the press. The priest is criticized for firing teachers living a homosexual lifestyle and yet this is a general policy for dioceses across the country. Those who work in our parishes and schools should reflect or witness Catholic teachings and values. Such employment is more than a job, it is a participation in the missionary mandate given the Church.  Would the judge have the local church skip biblical passages in the lectionary for Mass that target the sinfulness and dire consequences for homosexual sin? Can she really paint herself as a good Catholic in sync with the faith given her by her parents?

Did the Pope’s Ambiguity Give Ammunition to this Priest’s Attackers?

A few nebulous remarks or a footnote in Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium does not override several millennia of Jewish and later Catholic doctrine and morals. The Pope writes [EG 47]:

“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself ‘the door’: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”

As with so many other statements, the papal quote sidetracks serious elements and inserts a level of ambiguity. The doors of our churches are open. We welcome sinners. We ask donations but there are no ticket prices for attendance. Ushers and not bouncers stand at our doors. The Pope says that “the doors of the sacraments [should not] be closed for simply any reason.” This is true. But there remain reasons why some people should not receive. Catholicism practices a “closed-table” when it comes to non-Catholics. Reception is a sign of unity or communion with Christ and the universal Church. While many Protestants practice a so-called “open-table” it must be remembered that they often see the ecclesial community as a place of fellowship, not as a supernatural and sacramental mystery of saving encounter with Christ. While the Eucharist may be a means toward unity, it most essentially expresses a unity already realized.  We do not want to make liars out of people. Most Protestants would regard Holy Communion as simply a symbolic or representational presence or even just as a sign of nostalgic remembrance. Catholicism views the Eucharist as the REAL body and blood of Christ substantially present behind the accidentals of bread and wine. Our Eucharist is the risen Jesus, God come down from heaven. When we say, “Amen,” this truth is affirmed as well as our unity with the Catholic Church and all that she holds to be true. Reception by a non-Catholic (who does not believe what we believe) would not only be a broken or deceptive sign— many of the Protestant ministers would contend that it would be an act of idolatry (as they would deny the divine presence). The reception of the sacrament should affirm truth, both about the Eucharist and about what the communicant actually believes. Further, the Pope is right that the Eucharist is “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Yes, those who are in venial sin and struggling with temptation can find great healing benefit in the Eucharist. However, a person in mortal sin is forbidden to receive it. Why? Because that which would bring healing and sanctification to those in a state of grace, constitutes sacrilege and condemnation for those in serious sin and/or not spiritually prepared to receive it.

Was Anything Done Worthy of Censure?

The woman in the news story has committed two public acts that are deemed the matter of mortal sin: she has feigned the sacrament of marriage with a civil union and she has announced a same-sex relationship that is inherently disordered with implied intimate acts regarded as seriously sinful. As with former Vice President Joseph Biden recently denied Holy Communion due to his stance enabling abortion, Canon 915 in the Code of Canon Law applies here as well:

“Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

It seems to me that the judge’s problem is not so much with the priest but with Jesus and the Catholic Church in general. We need to keep matters of this sort in prayer. We should also be quick to forgive those who are angry, hurting and belligerent— all the while not renouncing the truths of the Gospel or what is right and wrong.  Pray that the priest will not be punished for what he knew in conscience he was compelled to do.  Pray that the judge and her friend will embrace a sisterly relationship and return to good standing with the Church.  Pray that other parishioners will realize what is truly at stake and humbly accept Catholic teaching.  Pray that this will be a teaching moment for the media and society around us about the conflict between the laws of God and a secular modernity at war with people of traditional faith.

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We appreciate Judge Sara Smolenski’s service to the community. We are grateful for her past generosity. These facts are not at issue in this matter.

As Pope Francis explains in 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) Lifelong Catholics would surely be aware of this.

Inclusion and acceptance have been a hallmark of Catholic Churches in the Diocese of Grand Rapids throughout the diocese’s history. They remain so. They presume, however, a respect on the part of individuals for the teachings and practice of the wider Catholic community. No community of faith can sustain the public contradiction of its beliefs by its own members. This is especially so on matters as central to Catholic life as marriage, which the Church has always held, and continues to hold, as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.

Father Scott Nolan, pastor of St. Stephen Parish, has dedicated his priesthood to bringing people closer to Jesus Christ. Part of his duty in pursuing that end is to teach the truth as taught by the Catholic Church, and to help it take root and grow in his parish. Mercy is essential to that process, but so are humility and conversion on the part of anyone seeking to live an authentically Catholic Christian life.

Father Nolan approached Judge Smolenski privately. Subsequent media reports do not change the appropriateness of his action, which the diocese supports.