The sad story of a priest, a partial-penitent and the press

At this point, it is no longer unusual to read a news story about an issue linked to homosexuality that yanks the pope’s famous “Who am I to judge?” quote out of context. Alas, this is now business as usual in the mainstream press. Click here for a refresher course — video and transcript — about what Pope Francis actually said.

So let’s move on.

Gentle readers, what is the key word that is missing from this opening passage from a recent Washington Post story? This ran under the headline, “Gay patient says Catholic chaplain refused him last rites.”

A Catholic chaplain at MedStar Washington Hospital Center stopped delivering a 63-year-old heart attack patient Communion prayers and last rites after the man said he was gay, the patient said Wednesday, describing a dramatic bedside scene starting with him citing Pope Francis and ending with him swearing at the cleric.

Details of the exchange this month between the Rev. Brian Coelho and retired travel agent Ronald Plishka couldn’t be confirmed with the priest, who did not respond to a direct e-mail or to requests left with the hospital and the archdiocese. The Archdiocese of Washington, for which he works, declined to comment and said Coelho “is not doing interviews.” The bedside discussion was first reported Monday in the Washington Blade.

The key word that is missing, of course, is “Confession.”

Why are the priest’s hands tied when it comes to responding to the charges made in this story? A priest who discusses what happens during a penitent’s Confession violates Catholic canon law and his vows. Priests go to jail rather than divulge what penitents say during Confession.

The Sacrament of Confession, of course, is a crucial element of the Last Rites, when a priest is dealing with a patient who has the ability to communicate. The whole point is for the penitent — there’s that word again — to confess his or her sins, receive absolution and then receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and, if possible, Holy Communion.

Thus, one livid Catholic reader of this blog — a nationally known scholar on First Amendment issues — noted, concerning this Post story:

One man’s word v. no one, since he priest did not respond to the reporter’s request. There’s nothing in it about the nature of the sacrament, that it requires confessions of sins if the patient is aware. Perhaps the gay man in this article refused to confess his sins? But we’ll never know. Apparently, you can just call up the Washington Post, tell them a priest refused to give you a sacrament, and they will run a story. This is blatant anti-Catholicism.

Actually, the Post story does get around to discussing the Confession angle. However, the headline and lede frames this as a dying man being refused Last Rites. It appears that what happened was that the priest began hearing Plishka’s Confession and then hit an obstacle, which was that this penitent appears to have voiced fierce disagreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church on what is and what is not a sin.

So back to the report:

According to Plishka, he asked Coelho for Communion and last rites, more commonly called the Anointing of the Sick. Coelho asked whether he would like to say confession first, and Plishka said he began to talk about his history, including his lifelong struggle with his sexuality. Plishka didn’t come out as gay until he was in his 50s.

“Then we started talking about the pope, and I said I was so excited about him, because of what he said about gays. I said, ‘Does that bother you, that I’m gay?’ And he said ‘no,’?” Plishka said.

The conversation was interrupted by someone coming into the room, which he shared with another patient, Plishka recalled. After that, Coelho “would not continue” with the specific prayers and acts of Communion and anointing, Plishka said. “He said, ‘I will pray with you,’ but that’s all he’d do. That was it.

“I just saw red. I cursed at a priest. I called him a hypocrite. As he was leaving — I can’t repeat what I said, but it was bad. … I’m thinking I’m going to rot in hell now,” he said. “But after that, I became scared — fear settled in. I don’t have the rites, I didn’t get Communion. I believed in the sacraments; this is something we’re taught we need before we die.

“I’ve tried to be a decent person all my life. I’m not perfect, believe me. And I wouldn’t wish [being gay] on anyone. But you can’t be somebody you’re not. Otherwise you’ll end up 63 and alone,” he said.

Several points should be made at this point.

It is possible that the priest — who cannot discuss the details — felt he could not continue the rite with another person in the room hearing the details of a Confession. At the same time, it’s appears that Plishka did not want, after saying he is gay, to discuss homosexual activity in the context of a confession of sins. Thus, the priest could not continue with a rite that is supposed to follow a free confession of sexual activity that the church clearly believes is sinful (as opposed to sexual orientation alone, without acts of gay sex).

Why do we know this? Because the Post story later noted the following:

A few days after the incident, Plishka said, he called the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he has attended Sunday noon Mass for at least a decade. He didn’t know any priests but asked for one on duty to call him back, Plishka said. The priest agreed with the chaplain, Plishka said.

“He said he can’t give you [Communion] if you continue that lifestyle, if you’re an active participant,” he said.

What are the crucial questions that must be asked, after reading that passage?

Plishka has been attending Mass at the basilica for a decade, but does not know a priest? The implication is that he has not been going to Confession and, certainly, that he does not have a spiritual father of consistent confessor. Also, has Plishka been attending, but not receiving the Sacraments?

Thus, it appears that the priest wanted the penitent to be, in the church’s eyes, a penitent. In this case, the Post is spotlighting a battle over the teachings of the Catholic Church, while publishing a story in which it is impossible for the priest to defend his own actions.

So what happened in this clash between priest and partial-penitent? It is impossible to know for sure. What happened was supposed to be between the priest, the penitent and God — with the press left out of the Sacrament. Journalists do not have to agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church, of course. However, it is know enough about them to make a professional attempt to represent viewpoints on both sides with fairness and accuracy.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Matt

    Why is it that you are highlighting the impossibility of church comment on what took place during a confession, Terry? Why don’t Catholic archdioceses have boilerplate language explaining that issue ready to go for all cases of this type? Why didn’t they respond to the reporter’s request with language of that kind?

    • tmatt

      I said the priest could not comment. The archdiocese cannot speculate on what did or didn’t happen.

      BUT THERE ARE PLENTY of other Catholic experts and authorities outside the canon law zone that could explain the role of Confession in this scene. Plenty.

      • David M Paggi

        Precisely, in which case the journalism in question was either
        grossly negligent or worse, deliberately misleading.

        If I drive too fast on a particular street and am invited by a patrolman to visit the local court, I can’t plead that “I didn’t know that was a school zone!” Ignorance of the law is no excuse, goes the old saying. That’s the standard for an ordinary citizen.

        A professional journalist owes a greater duty to his readers. The purpose of a newspaper is to deliver information to people who presumably have no independent means of acquiring that information themselves. Journalism succeeds because news organizations earn the trust of their readers or viewers. That trust is a news organization’s most precious asset, which they preserve and protect only by unrelenting vigilance.

        For the writer to assume that a refusal to respond to questions by one party is a tacit admission that there is no valid explanation or defense is at least as negligent as relying on an interview of the other as the sole source of the facts. The journalist betrays both ignorance and indifference with regard to what occurs in the course of a Sacrament, and what conditions must prevail in order for it to be validly administered.

        No journalist is expected to know everything about anything, so it is his duty to know when he doesn’t know, and seek out the information he lacks. Nothing could be easier, particularly with all the resources of the Washington Post. Therefore, nothing could be more inexcusable.

        So far, so bad. However, this writer was not flying solo. If I, who know next to nothing about journalism, can offer this scathing criticism, where were the editors whose duty it is to make sure he did his homework? Somebody in the chain of command should have had enough background and/or experience to smell something wrong here.

        Or did, and deliberately let the piece stand as is. Or worse, gutted a good piece to achieve this result. It’s hardly my place to speculate in an area in which I have no expertise, but neither is it incumbent for me to do so. Regardless of why or how it happened, in negligence or malice, it seems to me the average reader (including way too many Catholics), would likely arrive at a grossly distorted conclusion of what occurred in this hospital room.

        I’ve never had occasion to read a journalism textbook, but
        it seems this case could find its way into a chapter titled “Failure.”

        So much for WaPo. What about the Archdiocese? This is their home-town paper, hardly an unknown quantity. Therefore anytime they call, a response should be offered, at least to explain why a comment on an individual case is not possible. Anytime you can educate (even evangelize?) a reporter is a good time.

        Conversely, at no time is it safe to assume that what seems obvious to people of faith is anything less than opaque to anyone else, particularly those in the media whom the polls show are overwhelmingly not so inclined. Moreover, what is actually a judicial reticence from comment can easily be mistaken for fear, or worse, guilt.

        So the Archdiocese has no one to blame but themselves if they did not do their utmost to lead the paper to overcome ignorance, bias, malice, or whatever impediment may lie between the paper and the truth. At the very least, such communication lays the foundation for a competent defense later in the court of public opinion. Leaving a hostile press to arrive at its conclusions unaided by competent information is a recipe for an entirely unnecessary disaster.

      • Matt

        Terry, I think you’ve missed my point. The bare fact that the sacrament of confession took place is not confidential, is it? Why didn’t the archdiocese say, “Father Coelho is not doing interviews because what took place was in a sacramental context”? Instead, they appear to have said “Father Coelho is not doing interviews,” full stop.

        To my mind, the possibility still exists that Terry’s explanation is mistaken and that the archdiocese is simply stonewalling. And even if Terry’s explanation is correct, my point is that the archdiocese should have said so.

        • David M Paggi

          I don’t believe that even the fact that a particular individual received the Sacrament can be disclosed. That said, you will see I agreed with you that the Archdiocese had the opportunity to do SOMETHING, which I remain convinced was much more likely to have made a better contribution to the narrative than NOTHING, in which case the press is left free to infer the worst.

        • Jacob Suggs

          I’m fairly nearly certain that the mere fact of a confession taking place is actually confidential.

          The priest, of course, won’t say anything about the event at all, and I’m not sure the archdiocese would be likely to say anything that would hint at what a particular person may have done in a confession. Even general answers in this context could end up revealing specific details, which ought not be revealed. Of course, the fact that the “penitent” went around partially revealing things complicates things, but I’m not surprised by the no comment attitude at all.

        • Cha5678

          Can we be certain they didn’t say “because what took place was in a sacramental context”? After all, this article invokes “who am i to judge them” while cutting off “if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith.”

          • Matt

            Terry probably knows more, but it would seem like a pretty egregious breach of journalistic ethics (more serious than simply interpreting words to say what you want them to say) to report a “no comment” as if no reason were given, if there was actually a reason given for the “no comment.” I wouldn’t accuse the Post of that without evidence.

        • fredx2

          The problem is that if you say that a confession was involved, it would essentially be telling what this man was confessing about, since anyone could figure it out. So the only althernative is total silence. But there must be some what for teh archdiocese to handle this better.

    • gwythe

      The Archdiocese has extremely competent (& high-powered in the secular world) communications people. They also have PLENTY of experience with this particular reporter. They made a smart decision in refraining from comment.
      As for the reporter, while not Catholic, she knows lots of priests she could have asked for information/comments. Either she didn’t bother, or they also declined to participate suspecting where this thing was headed. I suspect she was much more interested in the story she was working on re: Clinton’s former spokesman now teaching at a Protestant seminary and just dashed off this sloppy piece with what she got from the Blade & a few phone calls.

  • fredx2

    “Journalists do not have to agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church, ” No, but they do have to try to report facts, and get both sides. At least that is what journalism used to be. I am not sure what it is now. So many in the media see themselves as our moral superiors and think their job is to steer us their way.

    As for this particular reporter: since the priest was not talking, it would have been more than easy for her to call a professor at a Catholic university. or a seminary, or even another priest. Actually, anyone with a good knowledge of Catholicism would have been able to inform them of the confession angle. Why didn’t they do so? The answer is that they want very much to print stories such as this one, and make the church appear to be cruel. The church is the new Richard Jewel.

    The media’s new “narrative” is that the Catholic church is unbelievably cruel, and must be changed so that it meets the medias liking. So we are going to see stories that further that line. Whether they are true or not. Since this is the current campaign, this story fit nicely,and his story was never going to be questioned.

    As for facts, she misreports the Pope Francis comment: “…he pope made worldwide news soon after taking office when he told reporters asking about gay people: “Who am I to judge?” But reporters were not “asking about gay people” in general, they were asking about (supposedly gay)Monsignor RIcca, who was just appointed to the Vatican bank. And the Pope said “who was he to judge” Monsignor Ricca, if Ricca had repented and was seeking the lord. The Pope never made any wide ranging comments about gays in general, or about homosexual acts or their sinfulness in general.

    As for the archdiocese, they should have instructed someone with knowledge of the facts of Catholicism to talk to the reporter. Sure, keep the priest in question away from the media, but give them an expert on the matter who can convey some idea why the priest acted as he did.

    But even then, it probably would not matter. We are in for a period of Anti-Catholic bigotry. The funny thing is that the media, who sees themselves as morally correct in this matter, are using the old methods of persecution and even propaganda to get at their perceived enemies. Spreading hate is spreading hate, whether done towards one side or the other.

  • cestusdei

    I see several issues.

    1. Was it in confession? Did he state that he refused to confess homosexual acts if he had committed them?
    2. Someone came into the room and interrupted them. If so then confession could not be continued.
    3. The hospital demands that we follow THEIR values even if they violate our faith. Who gave them that power?
    4. If he refused to repent and said he was going to continue to commit homosexual acts then the priest had no choice to do what he did.
    5. We have only incomplete knowledge and therefore it is hard to tell what exactly happened.

    • newark

      it also the fact that the person did not die? Was this simply a “set up” and trap by the Washington Post to flail the Church?

      • radiofreerome

        How do you think he arranged the heart attack? Foxglove or oleander tea?

  • Tom

    It is excuse-making and basically wrong to maintain that the Pope words were taken out of context. Such words immediately transcended any initial context.

    • David L Alexander

      Terry Mattingly refers the reader to the interview, thus to the context. There is no basis for your claim.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      That’s rather an incredible statement, Tom. By that standard, we can take any words we want out of any context and no one can say that that’s wrong, e.g. “The fools says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Ps. 14:1) “Hey, look everyone — the Bible says there is no God!” “Oh, but you’re reading that out of context.” “But such words immediately transcend any initial context.”

      The fact is that there was a context to his words and that quote has to be taken in the context in which it was spoken.

  • ForChristAlone

    #1. This man did not violate behavior that is against Church teachings. He violated the natural law which the Church upholds. The natural law applies to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. It is against the natural law that two men engage in sodomy.
    #2 It seems to me that a man so seriously ill that he made it sound like he was on his death bed was remarkably rejuvenated to so that he could hold interviews with the Washington Post and then to call the Basilica. No, this is Satan at work. Recognize Satan’s hand in all this.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Given that they use the terms “delivering Communion prayers and last rites” and “say confession”, it’s very painfully obvious they have no idea what was going on. I’m not surprised they just took on face value what the patient said.

    I wonder if the diocese did attempt to give the “boilerplate” about what the Sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick involve, and the paper didn’t bother with them because who cares about all that boring technical dogma?

    Did the paper ask to speak specifically with the priest, or want details that could not be given? If the diocese didn’t bother explaining, that was a lost opportunity, but could it just as easily have been that the reporter didn’t bother with the explanation, they wanted the juicy personal details?

  • James Patton

    “So what happened in this clash between priest and partial-penitent? It is impossible to know for sure. ”

    “However, it is know enough about them to make a professional attempt to represent viewpoints on both sides with fairness and accuracy.”

    Do you really want a “professional attempt” to explain something that you claim is “impossible to know for sure”?

  • Cha5678

    “Apparently, you can just call up the Washington Post, tell them a priest refused to give you a sacrament, and they will run a story. ”

    They’ve shown that. The same reporter wrote last year of the lesbian daughter who introduced her lover to the priest shortly before the Mass of Christian Burial for her mother, and then was shocked she was denied communion.

  • Meg

    I’m not sure that anyone should be holding up the fact that the man doesn’t know a priest personally as some kind of judgment on how Catholic he is (and I’m not entirely clear on how it relates to the journalism angle, unless you are saying that the reporter should have demanded that he explain himself).

    I attended Mass at the same Basilica every week for years and did not know any of the priests personally; I knew them by name and by sight but none of them would have known my name and probably not my face either, seeing as it is a truly enormous space. It is not a parish church, so it does not necessarily invite the same developing relationships that a parish does. At my current parish, the pastor is the only priest who knows me by name, and that is only because he did my marriage prep. I have confessed to our other priest, but, as confession is allowed to be anonymous, that does not mean that he knows my name.

    • FW Ken

      My thought was more to judge the basilica, not the man. He clearly had a lifelong connection with Catholicism, but not to any Catholics. That’s sad.

      As to the journalism, there are so many holes. First, it wasn’t clear to me that a sacramental confession was going on. The guy was babbling on about being gay (which is not something you confess as a sin) and then the whole thing leaps into lifestyle and intentions without ever touching on actions. It sounds like the priest was flustered and bungled what should have been an evangelical moment. But we don’t know, do we? Because the Post went for outrage rather than examining what was clearly a failed interaction.

      • gwythe

        You mention “judge the basilica, not the man” re: his lack of connection…
        If you’re not familiar with it, it might help to know that it is not a parish…it’s more a ceremonial/pilgrimage site that hosts over a million people a year. It’s also the largest church building in the Western Hemisphere, the eighth largest in the world. Not exactly a setting to connect with others unless you volunteer there.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Actually, I got kind of a kick out of the headline: “Gay patient says Catholic chaplain refused him last rites.” I immediately thought, “Wow, this guy is doing pretty well for not having received last rites that he can talk to the Post about it.”

    A distinction has to be made between the Anointing of the Sick and Last Rites. Last Rites includes Confession (if the person can confess, otherwise a priest can pronounce the words of absolution) and, if it can be taken, Viaticum, or last Communion (Viaticum meaning “to go with you on the way”). But it is always given in cases where there is danger of death.

    After the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, the Anointing of the Sick was made into a stand-alone sacrament, if you will, that can be used for anyone who might be sick and in need of prayer, such as those with cancer or some chronic condition, but not necessarily in danger of death. It can be given en masse, such as at a special Mass, or it can be given individually, in the home or the hospital. If the latter, then the priest can also hear the person’s confession and give Communion, but neither is a necessary part of the Sacrament.

    If this complainer wasn’t in danger of death, which it sounds to me like he wasn’t, then he most likely was being given the Anointing of the Sick along with Confession and Communion — or at least, that was the plan until the apparent disruption.


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