A Michigan Catholic priest has stirred up controversy by telling a married lesbian parishioner and lifelong Catholic she is barred from receiving the Eucharist ― a key Christian rite.
Rev. Scott Nolan recently informed Kent County District Court Judge Sara Smolenski that she should not come forward to receive communion at his church, St. Stephen Catholic Church. The Diocese of Grand Rapids said Wednesday that it supports Nolan’s decision.
The diocese said “inclusion and acceptance” in its parishes hinge on an individual’s respect for the “teachings and practice of the wider Catholic community.” As a result, it deemed Nolan’s ban to be appropriate.
“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,” the diocese said in its statement.
The Catholic church considers the Eucharist to be the “summit and source” of Christian life, which means denying this rite to a parishioner is an extremely significant gesture. Some Catholic priests have made political statements in the past by refusing to offer communion to certain public figures ― most commonly over the culture war issues of abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Just last month, former Vice President Joe Biden was denied communion at a South Carolina Catholic church over his support for abortion rights.
Smolenski’s family has a long history at the 95-year-old East Grand Rapids parish. Her parents were married at the church, she was baptized there and attended the parish school with her siblings as a child. The 62-year-old judge told local NBC affiliate WOOD-TV 8 that she donated $7,000 to the church’s building fund a few months ago.
Smolenski said that St. Stephen church “helped form my faith.”
“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,” she said.
Smolenski, who married her longtime partner in a civil ceremony in 2016, told Michigan Live that she has never been denied communion before. As an elected official, she has been open about her sexuality and her marriage was covered by local media. Smolenski said that Nolan had in fact offered her the rite on Nov. 17. She said she received a phone call from Nolan about his new rule on Nov. 23.
It’s unclear what prompted the change. The diocese and Nolan did not respond to requests for comment.
Nolan told WOOD-TV that he didn’t want his conversations with parishioners about receiving communion to be made public. He said that his actions were not discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and that Catholic church teachings left him with no choice but to deny Smolenski communion.
“To me, this is also a cause of great sadness in my own life as a priest,” Nolan said.
Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor at Manhattan College who studies Catholic ecclesiology, believes that because of how central the Eucharist is to Catholic life and ritual, denying communion to someone is actually a “very violent act.”
She pointed to the example of El Salvador’s St. Oscar Romero, whom she said offered communion to members of paramilitary squads, to government officials, and to the people who were victims of both groups during a period of heated civil conflict. Romero had the humility not to place himself in the way of God, she said.
“To deny a parishioner who approaches the altar for communion … is to replace her conscience with his own, and to usurp the mercy of God,” Imperatori-Lee told HuffPost. “I can’t think of anything more antithetical to ministry than that.”
Catholic doctrine is clear on its stance toward same-sex marriage ― the church teaches that it cannot be approved under any circumstances. At the same time, American Catholics have gradually become more accepting of queer love. Most Catholics (61%) now say that they support same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center.
Some have argued that LGBTQ parishioners are being unfairly singled out, while other Catholics who publicly or privately contradict key church teachings ― on topics like the death penalty, environmental justice and welcoming the stranger ― don’t receive the same level of scrutiny.
In the U.S., the reasons a Catholic priest gives for denying someone communion are almost exclusively about sex and gender, according to Lisa Sowle Cahill, a theology professor at Boston College. While Pope Francis hasn’t changed official church teaching, he has urged Catholics to stop making that set of issues their main priority and instead pay more attention to poverty and the environment. He’s also made an example of welcoming and reaching out to LGBTQ individuals, she said.
“Excommunicating a faithful, long-term parishioner because she is in a same-sex marriage does not seem to fit this trend, nor will it attract or retain the majority of Americans and Catholics who favor the availability of same-sex marriage,” Cahill told HuffPost. “However, some Catholic leaders are more interested in winning the culture wars.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the advocacy group DignityUSA, told HuffPost she’s aware dozens of incidents where priests denied communion to LGBTQ Catholics. One of the most notable occurred in 2012, when a priest in the Washington, D.C., archdiocese denied a lesbian woman communion at her mother’s funeral. (The archdiocese later apologized for the priest’s “lack of pastoral sensitivity”). Duddy-Burke said she’s personally been at funerals where the priest stated that people in same-sex relationships should not present themselves for Communion.
Duddy-Burke said that the Grand Rapids diocese’s support of Nolan is “very disturbing.”
“It tells every LGBTQ Catholic in the diocese, their parents, siblings, grandparents, children, friends and other family members that they are not fully welcome,” she told HuffPost.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who has advocated for the greater inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics, questioned whether priests in cases like Smolenski’s would also deny communion to Catholic employers who refuse to pay their workers a living wage, or married couples using in vitro fertilization, which the church has deemed immoral.
“The Catholic Church is called to proclaim church teaching. But church teaching is, at heart, Jesus’s message of love, mercy and forgiveness,” Martin wrote. “The church also has rules. But these rules must be applied across the board, not selectively, and not simply to one group of people.”
“Otherwise it is no longer ‘church teaching.’ It is merely discrimination,” he said.