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Politicizing Catholic Communion

Michigan Judge Sara Smolenski, a married lesbian, has been denied communion at her Catholic parish (WOOD-TV screenshot)

If you take the liberal side of the dispute, a Catholic Church in Grand Rapids is the scene of a hate crime. If you take the orthodox side, then a Catholic priest has done his duty by a parishioner’s soul, and the teaching of the Church about the Eucharist. Here’s a local news report:

Judge Sara Smolenski, chief judge of the Kent County District Court, has been denied Communion at the church where she has been a parishioner for more than six decades because she is married to a woman.

It is a move that for many was the final straw in a pattern of behavior that has them calling for the removal of a priest — a priest who came to St. Stephen Catholic Church about three years ago.

In 1966, under the leadership of  Rev. Msgr. Edward N. Alt, St. Stephen Catholic School became the first integrated Catholic school in Metro Grand Rapids and had a student body that was nearly 40 percent non-Catholic.

This tradition of inclusion and acceptance would be the essence of the school and the church for 50 years.

But now, some here say that is changing.

Ah, you see? The priest is just like the segregationists. The TV journalist who did this story is not a journalist, but an advocate. You have to read, or watch, the piece. The bias is off the charts. The lack of basic contextual information in the story about what the Eucharist is in Catholic teaching, and why a priest might have denied it to the judge, is journalistic malpractice. More:

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.”

Ma and Pa Smolenski invested all that money for a Catholic education, but their daughter didn’t learn what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage and sexuality, or the Eucharist. Nobody is entitled to receive the Eucharist. I understand that Judge Smolenski, who was catechized in the post-Vatican II church, may not have received this teaching. But it is the teaching. I can understand why the judge is personally upset, but the fault lies not with the priest, but with her understanding of what it means to be a Catholic. More from the story:

Parishioners met with Nolan and were hopeful that he was changing his ways, until last Saturday when the beloved judge was denied Communion.

Nolan talked to News 8 briefly Tuesday, promising he would speak on the issue but then did not call back or return messages.

There are those who believe Nolan is in the right, but they would not go on camera. Others with kids attending school would not go on camera due to fear of reprisal, but all say they love the church and want healing.

Now, look: if you were a reporter who actually wanted to tell the truth about this story, wouldn’t you wonder why people fear reprisal in that parish? What, exactly, do they think is going to happen to them? Though I don’t know a soul in this parish, I’m 100 percent certain that they’re afraid that they will be denounced in the community as “haters,” and be attacked at work and elsewhere. But you know what, silent parishioners? You need to find a backbone. Your priest is doing the hard work of defending the Eucharist and defending Church teaching, and is being held up by the local media and gay activists as a pariah. You are wrong to let him stand there and take all this contempt and abuse by himself. Conservative Christians often complain that the clergy won’t take tough stands on issues. Well, here’s a priest doing exactly that, but it appears that he’s standing all by himself. This is a test for him, certainly, but also for the orthodox Catholics of Grand Rapids.

I’m told by a lay Catholic source in Grand Rapids, someone who is close to the situation, that Judge Smolenski was part of a group of gay local Catholics who skyped with Father James Martin about his pro-LGBT book “Building A Bridge” (they talked about it on Facebook). A week or two later, Judge Smolenski and others showed up at mass wearing Pride pins. Father Nolan gave the judge communion, so as not to cause a scene, but phoned her later and told her not to present herself for communion any more. If true, that shows that the priest was willing to tolerate the gay-married judge receiving communion, but not if she was going to turn it into a political stunt.

Now she’s leading a campaign within the parish to demand Father Scott’s ouster for acting according to Catholic teaching.

Back in 2016, when Judge Smolenski and her partner married, the same reporter, Barton Deiters, did a story, featuring her fighting back tears on camera because neither her church nor her partner’s church would allow them to marry within either church. So she’s been public for years in her anger at the Catholic Church over this.

A Michigan Catholic priest who is not part of that diocese writes:

Of course, there is a group of parishioners demanding the pastor’s ouster, and mounting a letter-writing campaign. They generously allow that they are “prepared to be very respectful.” But having been involved in these sorts of things myself in the past, I can all-but guarantee that that respect won’t last an hour into any meeting or confrontation. I’ll also note that for the letter-writers, the only conceivable solution is to get rid of the pastor. There is no thought of conversion or submission to church teaching on their part. They also mention their expectation that the *pastor* needs to change. Ecclesial reeducation camps, anyone?
Predictably, they cite Pope Francis, that the church should be “a place for everyone.”
I’ll also point out that the article says that there were parishioners who support the pastor, but they refused to go on camera, some specifically mentioning fear of reprisal. This seems to be an example of the growing cultural silencing of orthodox voices even within the church – they don’t want to be outed as haters.
The Bishop of Grand Rapids, David Walkowiak, has not commented or apparently taken any action yet. A diocesan spokesperson would only say that this is a “spiritual matter between her and her pastor.” I think it’s nearly certain that it’s not going to remain so for very much longer.
It won’t. Will the local bishop defend his priest, the Eucharist, and the Church’s teaching? Or will he throw Father Scott Nolan under the bus to placate loud, liberal, gay Catholic activists, in particular one (Judge Smolenski) from a prominent local family? Whatever happens, this is going to be a teaching moment. (And for the local media too: the TV story makes it seem like a mean priest is denying to a married gay judge what is rightfully hers, but the theology behind the priest’s action is meaningful; and besides, if the judge was part of an organized campaign within the parish to force Father Nolan’s hand, that is an important fact. Will it be reported? Let’s have some real journalism here, shall we?)
I know it’s hard for parishioners who support Father Nolan to stand up publicly for him. But there he is, facing a ridiculously biased local media, and a well-publicized campaign to have him thrown out of his position, and made a pariah in the community, all because he is a faithful Catholic. The way the laity support him, or fail to support him, is going to be a teaching moment for all other Catholic priests thinking about whether or not to stand up to the demands of LGBT bullies and their allies.

UPDATE: Here’s a public letter Judge Smolenski, and two colleagues, sent in October. A “Red Mass” is a traditional Catholic liturgy designed to celebrate the beginning of a legal term in the fall. Catholic judges typically attend. According to this letter, Smolenski acknowledges the right of a priest to deny communion to “those who are not in conformity with the teaching of the Church.” But now, she’s fighting tears on local TV to protest an exercise of the right she publicly acknowledged Father Nolan has. What changed since October 11?

UPDATE: Terrific! The Bishop of Grand Rapids stands by the parish priest. Statement:

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.

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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