You may have seen the story last week: an older Missouri woman whose mother had died was denied communion when the mother’s obituary listed her and her female “partner” as survivors. Her Catholic pastor saw this, and called her to let her know that she was not to receive the Eucharist if she was living with another woman.
The woman had been a member of the parish for twelve years, was a cantor and lector and sang in the choir. While the priest was newly ordained -why does that not surprise me?- and did not know the woman well, she apparently was not calling attention to herself.
Until her mother died.
Aside from the appalling timing of his decision to deny communion to her, was this at all justifiable? Would he treat a heterosexual that he suspected of sin the same way? Call every couple who had been married for over ten years but had only one or two children and announce that he knew they were using contraception and were to no longer approach communion?
The question answers itself. I have attended Sunday liturgy my whole life, aside from a late adolescent lapse. I can count the times I have heard contraception mentioned on one hand. And I have never heard it said from the pulpit that married couples who are not toeing the line on all matters sexual are to abstain from communion. One can never presume anything about a particular couple and what they do at home, alone. If one could make such assumptions I know a lot of married Eastern Catholic priests who would be in big trouble; I know of few with more than two children.
No priest can ordain himself as moral inquisitor; such matters are best left to the confessional. It would be different, of course, in the unlikely event that a contracepting couple was bragging about it at coffee and donuts, or hosting seminars on the Pill. Then the priest would have an obligation to act to avoid scandal.
And so with the woman in question: all the priest knew was that she was living with another woman in some sort of committed relationship. Obviously, she was not flaunting her orientation or her alleged sins. She was discreet, and for all he knows, committing no sin at all.
In fact, many homosexuals have found that life and virtue are much easier if they are in a committed relationship with another person. Many faithful priests who have worked with those who experience same-sex attraction agree that this is the case; that isolation and loneliness are greater “occasions of sin” than than living in a committed and affectionate relationship.
Here is one woman, from a Catholic online forum:
I am a 24 year-old lesbian and a recent convert to the faith. Deciding to become Catholic was a difficult and wonderful process (falling in love with the Faith but also realizing I had to let go of my sexuality). Ironically the person who introduced me to Catholicism was the lesbian woman I was falling in love with. We both new that we had a choice: continue to be sexually active with one another, or commit to and follow the teachings of the Church. As hard as it is to give up the desires of the flesh, we knew by reason and faith…our only choice was to follow God through the Church’s teaching. We have both been celibate for roughly a year. We have also been living together as companions … I believe this may be a rare phenomenon and this situation is not something that has been addressed by any church leaders to the best of my knowledge. I did however speak to a nun who said that although we are not committing a mortal sin by living together and loving one another, we may be putting ourselves into an “occasion of sin,” meaning we could easily be tempted into sin by our situation. The thing is, I think it would be more of an occasion for sin if I did not have this woman as my partner because she constantly supports me and encourages me to resist sin. If I were alone I would be much more likely to be impure. Plus, like many people I need to be close to someone in a relationship of love, trust, and commitment. I am wondering what other thoughtful Catholics think and feel about this.
In fact the Church is facing a new situation in its pastoral life. For the first time “out” gay people who love Christ and want to participate in the life of the Church are in our midst. Eve Tushnet has written about this situation at some length. The Church need not change any of its teachings to react to this new thing with love and with understanding. Certainly emotionally committed relationships ought not be discouraged, and assumptions ought no more be made about them than with heterosexual couples. Probably they should refer to each other as “companions” rather than the more charged “partners”, but same-sex attraction ought not be a sentence to a lonely life. Catholics in such companionate relationships ought not be the targets of suspicion any more than married couples are.
For polls show that some 90% or more of Catholic couples do not observe church pronouncements on contraception. Should couples with suspiciously few children receive phone calls from their pastor cautioning them against approaching the Eucharist?
And I don’t know of any polls on the matter, but I am willing to guess that 90% or more of single Catholic men masturbate, at least sometimes. Should pastors assume that unmarried men are in sin, and deny them communion?
Of course not, and homosexuals should not face a higher standard than heterosexuals.
Some may object that if the Church accepted such relationships that many, or most, involved in them would fall into sexual sin at some point. Granted. We are all prone to sin, and sexual sin is not uncommon: the married man who pulls out at the last minute to avoid pregnancy, the single person who falls into masturbation, the priest who looks at internet porn in a weak moment. But of all sins, a sin of weakness committed with a loving companion is surely among the least.
We are called to view others’ actions in the most charitable light, not assuming evil of them. Even if we are shocked and let down by them over and over -and I guarantee we will be- we must persevere in this, for the good of our souls and the salvation of others.
And for those who sin, we owe only mercy,