Gay Marriage, Communion, Catholicism: When Mercy and Dogma Meet

Gay Marriage, Communion, Catholicism: When Mercy and Dogma Meet November 27, 2019

Gay Marriage and Communion

A few days ago, Fr. Scott Nolan, pastor of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church,  picked up his phone knowing he had to make a difficult phone call.  Any priest would recognize the dilemma.  Fr. Nolan had to tell a prominent, Mass-going, practicing Catholic Judge, Sara Smolenski, that she could no longer receive Communion at Mass.  Why?  Because she was “married” to another woman.  Apparently, the week before, Judge Smolenski and some of her friends had appeared at Mass wearing Pride Pins–pins that supported Gay themes, particularly Gay Marriage. Her situation became public in a way it had not happened before.

The Priest and the Judge

Fr. Nolan made the difficult phone call.  He acted in his pastoral duty as parish priest and pastor, and he did so in a private one on one phone call.  The judge decided to make the priest’s decision public.  And all hell broke loose.  The priest was vilified, chastised, and pilloried as a retrograde, hopelessly conservative, unmerciful priest out of step with the times.  The judge was lauded as a member of a very prominent family who had and continued to be stalwart supporters of the parish church.  It seemed like a slam dunk for the media particularly when issues like Gay Marriage are litmus tests for a gentle, sensitive and tolerant Christianity.

The Bishop Steps In

Then the Bishop of the Grand Rapids Diocese stepped in.  Bishop David Walkowiak sent a letter this afternoon to all the people of his diocese expressing support for Fr. Nolan and his actions.  It is remarkable to get a Bishop to act so swiftly on such a matter and in such a direct and easily understandable way.  He commended Judge Smolenski for her community service and quoted Pope Francis 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).  The Bishop went on to pen this clear and unambiguous statement of Catholic theology and pastoral practice:

Inclusion and acceptance have been a hallmark of Catholic Churches…They remain so.  They presume, however, a respect on the part of individuals for the teaching 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…Noting that Fr. Nolan acted in a fair and just manner in dealing with the matter privately, the bishop called his actions appropriate” which the diocese supports completely.”

A Practical Merging of Mercy and Church Teaching

So what is one to do when mercy and dogma meet head on?  Why, exactly what Fr. Nolan did.  He showed eminent pastoral care (mercy) in trying to deal with the problem in a private phone call with Judge Smolenski.  She forced his hand by publicly stating through her actions that she could be a practicing Catholic while violating one of the Church’s central tenets of the faith. Had he capitulated, he would have betrayed his own priestly and pastoral duties.  He didn’t shout at her; he didn’t hold her up to public derision; he did not shame her.  Her own actions brought about the barrier to the Eucharist she now faces.

The Myth of Tolerance

Unfortunately, we live in a world where tolerance is the chief virtue of life.  But it is not a virtue, for it flattens the face of morality like a stroke wipes all expression from the face of its victim.  In a world where tolerance rules, all views are equal and all actions appropriate for any person doing them.  Religion does not work like that.  It has an objective truth it follows.  The world looks at Fr. Nolan and the Church he represents and sees an intractable, prejudiced person and an institution that is a hate group, intolerant and vastly out of step with the times.  The world hates Fr. Nolan and Catholicism.

However, neither he nor the Church can escape one fact that looms over this situation.  Marriage is marriage, is marriage and that means it is between a man and a woman.  The world may try to redefine it, just like it tries to redefine sexuality by saying humans have more than two genders, but attempting to fit another definition into marriage merely seeks to relieve marriage of any real content.

In the future, if the Church ever does recognize unions between homosexuals (and that is unlikely) it still would not go so far as to call them marriages.  From time immemorial marriage has been between a man and a woman.  The Church will never recognize anything else.  Mercy also means clarity.  It means letting Judge Smolenski still attend Mass.  It means welcoming her with love and compassion.  It means treating her with a Christlike acceptance just like everyone else.  But it will never mean allowing her to live the lifestyle she chooses in public disregard to Catholic dogma and permitting her to receive Communion.  Otherwise, the Church stands for nothing.

Hard Choices, Precious Beliefs

All people recognize that sometimes things don’t work out.  Judge Smolenski will have to weigh whether she can remain a Catholic, but she cannot expect the Catholic Church to change its teaching so that she can feel included and accepted.  Inclusion and acceptance does not mean giving up objective truth.

I have a feeling that the Church will take it on the chin from many people for Fr. Nolan’s decision and the Bishop’s support of the same decision.  In fact, many Catholics may be quite critical.  But Fr. Nolan did the right thing, and he did it well with mercy as his first approach and the private application of truth to spare Judge Smolenski from any embarrassment.  This could have been a moment of new growth for her, her partner and her relationship with the Church.  Instead, she made it a public scandal wherein both she and the Church will have to suffer through.



About Monsignor Eric R. Barr, STL
Monsignor Barr is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. In his 35 years of priesthood, he has been pastor, principal, teacher, university professor, Vicar for Clergy and Vicar General. He is a former associate editor of a newspaper and a novelist. He speaks on Celtic Theology and Current Catholic Issues. You can read more about the author here.

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  • Tom O.

    Living here in Grand Rapids, it’s all some people want to talk about. Your column goes to the core of it. Being a Catholic is more than a community, but a community of faith and following the teachings of that faith.

  • Linda Daily

    I wonder if all public sinners should be denied communion? William Barr comes to mind.

  • Eric Barr

    Only public sinners who publicly show contempt for an essential teaching of the Church.

  • Linda Daily

    I find these denials selective and often dependent on the politics of the priest. In a neighboring parish, a well known local politician, whose wife has dementia, is having an affair with a woman in town. They are seen out publicly and everybody in our small towns knows about it. Yet he is a lector, on the parish council, and the bishop celebrated his daughter’s funeral mass a few years ago. As expected, he is a Republican and big donor.

    I’m not suggesting that he be denied communion. I don’t advocate withholding communion from anybody. We can NEVER know that state of another person’s soul. But public sinners who show contempt for essential church teaching receive communion all the time. In my opinion, that is exactly why Jesus left us the sacrament.

  • Andy

    So Rudy Giuliani should not receive communion? How about Ken Cuccinelli now acting director of DHS? Lest anyone think I am “picking on ‘“conservatives”” only what about Andrew Cuomo? My concern is not with what Father Nolan did, but with the selectivity of the imposition of denying Communion. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

  • Linda Daily

    And to you and your family, Andy!

  • Naters

    Reinstating the death penalty is publicly showing contempt for an essential teaching of the Church.

  • Eric Barr

    This was more of an in your face challenge. She deliberately set him up to deny Communion to her in front of her friends. He gave her Communion and then called her privately to tell her not to present herself for Communion again. Pretty sensitive on his part. The others you mention don’t set up conflict situations like that. She was trying to get him dismissed and forced his hand. There was nothing else he could realistically do. Take time to learn the full story.

  • Naters

    Now you’re just making her out to be a dirty rotten scoundrel, which she is likely not. Via Amoria Laetitia: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

    Can you show me anywhere where she was trying to get him dismissed? Cause just announcing you’re marrying your same-sex spouse is not in itself an act of trying to do such a thing to a priest.

  • Eric Barr

    Please check Columnist Rod Dreher comments yesterday. Also her situation is not “irregular” like the divorced and remarried. Theirs is a matter of Church law, hers is a matter of dogma. Big difference.

  • Linda Daily
  • Linda Daily

    There is nothing in the Dreher piece that substantiates this claim, only his usual dismissive conjecture. The fact remains that only certain public sinners who publicly show contempt for church teaching are denied communion. It seems at best arbitrary.

  • Eric Barr

    Let’s cut to the chase, then. Do you really think it ok for a practicing Catholic to publicly proclaim a dogmatic difference with the Church and then insist on Communion and expect the Church to acquiesce?

  • Linda Daily

    I’ll let Pope Francis answer: “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

    The Church you feel is acquiesing includes the person desiring communion. The Eucharist is not the private property of clerics to give or withhold at will, certainly not arbitrarily. If communion is to be denied to public sinners, then is should be denied to all public sinners.

    A priest can choose to, and in many circumstances should, counsel a person against receiving the Eucharist for this or that public sin, but should never presume to know that state of that person’s soul if they approach to receive.

  • Andy

    With respect Monsignor- I did learn the full story and as I said above I had no concern with what Father Nolan did. As for the others not not setting up the same issue Cuomo very openly supports abortion; Giuliani supports only reasonable restrictions on abortion and us divorced and now remarried; Cuccineli though opposed to abortion supports the policies decried by the USSCB in terms of immigration. You may ignore Cuccinelli, but it is hard not to see that Cuomo and Giuliani flout publicly what the church teaches. If ?Biden was denied Holy Communion, why not them?

  • That is what the Code of Canon Law says, yes.

  • come to that, MY situation is irregular, and likely to remain so for some time to come. I firmly believe my marriage is valid, but illicit. In deference to our parish priest, neither I nor my wife present ourselves for communion, nor will we until our marriage is convalidated.. If Judge Smolenski intends to be Catholic, she needs to understand that the Church belongs to God, and we belong to her, not the other way around.

  • alwayspuzzled

    It would appear then that her offense was not against God but that she sought to publicly embarrass the Church. This seems a little worldly on the part of the priest and the bishop.

  • Because of the actions of this judge, and many others who show contempt for essential teachings of the church, I no longer believe that tolerance is a virtue. At all.

  • Who created mathematical heteronormativity in human sexuality?

  • She is a homosexual abuser. That makes her a “dirty rotten scoundrel”. Tolerance is a vice, not a virtue.

  • she isn’t the weak. She is a homosexual abuser, no different than Theodore McCarrick or James Martin.

  • Some priests are spiritual abusers. That well known local politician should be denied the Eucharist, and exit politics to become the primary caregiver for his wife. There is no need for somebody that age to be in politics at all, give the next generation a chance.

  • Naters

    You might believe your relationship is illicit, but that judge does not.

  • Eric Barr

    I don’t know enough about Giuliani but I do agree with you about Cuomo.

  • alwayspuzzled

    Personally, I think a more pressing question is “How many random fluctuations can stand on the head of a pin?”.

  • Yes it is, and such should be denied yhe Eucharist as well

  • Tom O.

    Living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I have heard it all. I hear a lot of people questioning the “intolerance” of the Church toward the LGBT community, which I believe is less than they claim. I haven’t heard too many people who say that they hate people in the LGBT community. They just disagree with them as to how marriage should be defined. I haven’t heard about the intolerance of the LGBT community towards the teachings of Christ with regard to marriage. I think you will find a lot of intolerance and hatred flowing in that direction

  • HematitePersuasion

    The Roman Catholic Church has every right to withhold its sacraments.

    Those who see the RCC as an active agent of evil should leave it.

  • Chris C.

    You’ve presented no reason to assume the Pope Francis would have disapproved of the actions of either this priest, or of his bishop who came to his defense. The statement you quoted applies to all faithful Catholics in a state of grace; none are perfect, but they are in common with the Church and the teachings of Christ our Lord. Those who defy those teachings are not in a state of grace and must not present themselves for Holy Communion. You have no reason whatsoever to assume that the Pope would disagree.

  • Chris C.

    You know nothing of the politics of this particular priest. And IF politics enters into these judgements they are overwhelmingly the politics of the left in that Catholic politicians are routinely allowed to partake of Holy Communion while remaining in open defiance of clear Church moral teachings on matters of of intrinsic evil such as abortion and gay/lesbian “marriage”. One could be as apolitical as possible and see clearly their way to denying an open and manifest sinner on matters of grave magnitude, the most Blessed Sacrament.

    It is not about “knowing the state of a person’s soul”. It’s about living a life in very public denial of the teachings of the Church founded by Christ our Lord. Nothing else

  • andrew123456789

    I had no idea that Patheos provided publication space to homophobes. Pretty depressing.

  • Linda Daily

    If you need more information on Giulani, pre-Trump so not as emboldened, here you go:

    But as a Republican he’s held to a different standard.

  • Naters

    But they aren’t.

  • Does not matter. They are in mortal sin, and should be. Just like all those genocidal maniacs who vote for the death penalty against the unborn for the crime of being conceived without permission.

  • Tsaile

    Jesus taught love and acceptance for ALL. HE WAS RADICAL, his teachings were radical and full of conscious unwavering acceptance and wisdom. What I continue to see in Catholicism is an adamant disregard for the truth of his message, twisting of biblical passages through centuries of misinterpretation, patriarchical systemic oppression, and straight up homophobic/sexist/racist prejudice. Jesus is light and love and to act as if you are “living the light of God” is complete and utter twisted nonsense. You all should be deeply disappointed with your perspective, the teachings that have been indoctrinated into you, and closely examining the systems you exist within. I stand with Judge Smolinski and all of the GBLTQA+ community that deserves full love and acceptance and support and especially visibility in times when unconscious spiritual leaders choose unconscious behaviors. We will keep showing up at your doorstep reminding you of the truth when you forget what it truly means to be awake in the world, just like Judge Smolinski did. She shouldn’t be the one carrying the burden though of demanding equity. Your systems are deeply flawed and exist in a broken and disconnected system. You have all forgotten what love and truth and deep connection to spirit truly is. Your rigidness and prejudice wrapped in “religious truth” is so far away from the love and reality of what it truly means to be connected to God. You are so far from the truth. Every. Single. One of you. There is a depth of full love and compassion for all beings available to you that your perspectives are shutting you off from. And I don’t mean a “merciful love because of Jesus.” I mean an unwavering connection to all living things, a deep respect for everything on this planet, a desire to speak up for ALL in the face of injustice because your soul is full of the truth that we are all connected to God, no exceptions, no rules. The light and pain and horrors all exist together, and nothing can save or take any of the beauty or pain away except for this truth of our being, the deep knowing. This isn’t the problem with morality; your refusal to see the truth clearly is.

    This isn’t the way. Not one bit. There’s room at our table if you’ll join us.

  • P Adams

    Unless Fr. Nolan is denying the Eucharist to the racists, to the spouse abusers, the child abusers, the couples taking birth control in his parish, business owners who don’t pay workers a living wage, etc I say that he is picking and choosing which Church law he upholds.

    How many.of those folks had he told not to receive communion?

  • P Adams

    God did not createheteronoermativity in human sexuality.

    Sexuality, both in human and the natural world is fluid and on a spectrum.

    Humans decided that heterosexuality was the norm because the majority of folks are that AND the powerful needed to keep control.

  • P Adams

    If it doesn’t.mayyer, as you suggest, then why deny the Eucharist to anyone? If their actions has already separated them, then why deny her and not the person who supports public hangings?

  • By illicit, I mean contrary to canon law. (My wife’s first husband is still alive.) By valid, I mean that God has blessed us with the sacramental graces of matrimony.

  • St JD George

    So when Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Uncle Ted as his nuncio to the U.S. telling him to advise the bishops not to disgrace Him by offering His body and blood to public officials who are catholic in name only who flout Christ’s teachings, was he an anti pope for doing so? Christ called sinners to repent and rebuked those who would not obey, He did not come to affirm them in their sin. How can it be Linda that we had a dozen popes condemn in the most stern terms the cancer of communism and atheistic Marxist Liberation Theology which exalts man over God and magically now be asked to embrace that which is of the devil? Was Christ bipolar or schizophrenic, or just vicars? Lord deliver us another St Paul to rebuke Peter to his face, and lead us not to excommunicate another alive or posthumously.

  • St JD George

    Jesus shared His body and blood with Judas at the Last Supper in an unholy and unrepentant state and it cost him his life. I hate to be the first to inform you but the spirit and society of Judas has not gone away, they still have a role to play in the passion of His Parousia.


    The “chase” is you facilitating speaking out both sides of one’s mouth via this ill conceived blog. Your previous columns do nothing but encourage the unhinging of the faith from the rock of truth–from reality. Yet this is “your” personal red line. (Shall we invent a new heresy–the Tepid Trad Heresy?)

    Bully for you.

    And congratulations for receiving some of the fruit of your contentious pot-stirring. Shall we encourage you to put on your “big boy pants” and engage in full on Francis mode? Like an adult instead of wallowing in shock.

    Ms. Daily has you bested here — bested when it comes to engaging the kind of “logic” you have personally demonstrated. That being guess work and presumption.

  • St JD George

    St Adalbert intercede for us.
    Go Griffins.

  • St JD George

    We waited patiently too, and when ours was finally convalidated it was a very joyous day. Being in full communion with He and His Bride is a feeling like no other. I’m excited for you and others to experience that too.

  • St JD George

    While not every priest or certainly lay ministers can know interior disposition, anybody who publicly and knowingly mocks Christ AND after being privately counseled to cease refuses to should absolutely be denied His Body and Blood until reconciled. There is no politics in being worthy to receive Him.

  • american

    Good to read such a positive article in Patheos. For a change.

  • american

    God ordained marriage as the union between one man and one woman. That’s what the Catholic Church teaches.

  • american

    It’s funny how for some people the real story is the conjectured sins of omission of priests. But that’s not judgmental, oh no….

  • Lib Tardfighter

    Yes, all should be denied communion. The fact that certain priests and bishops are more concerned about popularity and public opinion does not change the state of sin. Truth is truth, and those that go with popular opinion will have to answer for that.

  • What doesn’t matter is that the Eucharist *will bring punishment on those who seek it without being worthy of it*. Thus denying such people the Eucharist is an undeserved mercy.

  • The biology disagrees with your opinion.

  • Kevin Morgan

    The Church of Rome is an active agent of evil, it always has been and always will be. This pope, his predecessors and successors are anti Christ. On I/5/20 it will be 45 years since I left the Beast and I thank God for that grace.

  • St JD George

    Boy are you ever in for a big surprise. No doubt if we were to dig deep enough we’d uncover the scars from somebody who didn’t behave as they ought. How many times did Christ plead with His disciples for unity in His Bride the Church, do you know? So which one of the thirty thousand or so sects do you go to know for your source of truth, or do you just do your own thing and follow your own conscience into the wilderness without a map or compass? I’m sorry for whatever caused you your past pain, but your words convey a person who has never yet had an encounter with the Holy Spirit and does not know what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. I pray for that for you Kevin.

  • veritasetcaritas


  • Maggie Sullivan

    William Barr? Do you mean our truly great Attorney General? A great Christian and a truly great man.

  • Julie Hickey

    Your humility and respect to the sacraments is commendable. I pray that convalidation happens quickly and that you are able to receive Eucharist soon. Bless you.

  • Deacon John Berstecher

    Andy, there is difference. Big difference. Giving her communion would be a public scandal. I have given Holy Communion to many I know are pro-Abortion, or remarried without annulment. But they do not publicly declare their actions. We do not know otherwise what is in someone’s heart at the time.

  • Deacon John Berstecher

    But do you know what is in their heart at the time? Have they Confessed? I don’t disagree we need to do this more often, AND we need to catechize the faithful.

  • Andy

    I have no way if knowing what is in someone else’s heart; I can only react to or “judge” if you will,their words. I have seen nothing that is reported that says they have changed; I pray they have. Teaching us is what the church should/must do. And the church must make Confession both more important and accessible in terms of when it is available.

  • Diane Fiore

    good choice. my RCIA priest told us we could be ‘right with God, wrong with the Church and wrong with God right with the Church’ took years for us to get straightened out. Praise God

  • Diane Fiore

    the importance is proper catechism. receiving our Blessed Lord in the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin damages the soul. There are requirements for this sacrament which are valid and necessary to receive the graces.

  • Diane Fiore

    study the catechism.

  • No there isn’t. You have made it painfully clear that you hate heterosexuals and heteronormative families, and detest the basic biology of the species. There is no room for me at your table, and I suspect, no room for anybody who understands the difference between truth and sexually abusive fantasy.