Catholic priest was ‘assisting’ in a gay wedding?

Catholic priest was ‘assisting’ in a gay wedding? August 21, 2012

What we have here, in this short New York Times wedding announcement, is a dangerously vague and terribly loaded word — “assisting” — being used in a liturgical context of some kind. It’s crucial that the word “assisting” is being used in a way that directly connects it with another controversial word in this day and age — “married.”

Here is the bulk of this short society-news item:

Roger Thomas Danforth and Richard James Termine were married Friday evening in New York. The Rev. David C. Parsons, a Lutheran minister, officiated aboard the Lexington, a chartered yacht, on the East River, with the Rev. Michael DeVito, a Roman Catholic priest and a cousin of Mr. Termine, assisting.

Mr. Danforth (left), 63, is the artistic director of the Directors Project, a career development program for theater directors run by the Drama League, a New York organization dedicated to professional theater. He is also a freelance director. …

Mr. Termine, 59, is a freelance photographer in New York. He has done work for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall and the 92nd Street Y. He is also the on-set photographer for “Sesame Street,” and is on the board of the Jim Henson Foundation in New York. …

The couple’s wedding took place on the 30th anniversary of their meeting at a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Pretty ordinary wedding stuff in the Gray Lady, other than, of course, that reference to the Roman Catholic priest. So let’s walk through this logically, trying to find out what may or may not have happened here.

For starters, it seems that we have a generic Lutheran wedding, which one can only assume is a rite linked to the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, an oldline Protestant body that is steadily moving to the doctrinal left on issues of moral theology.

But here’s the key journalistic question: What does it mean to say that a Catholic priest was “assisting” in an ELCA wedding?

The bottom line: I do not think that it is safe to assume that the Times is accurate in it use of the word “assisting.” The liturgical implication is that this priest actually took part in the prayers and blessings during the service, that he was, in effect, vested and participating as a clergyman. What if he was simply sporting a clerical collar and merely said a few words on behalf of the Termine family? What if he read a poem?

Yes, Catholic readers need to know where the priest was standing and what he was wearing. For Catholics, the Devil is truly in the details of this case.

There are ways that this Father DeVito could have taken part in the event that would not represent a Catholic priest “assisting” in a same-sex marriage, in a true liturgical sense of the word. The rite did not take place in a church, after all.

In other words, did the Times get the facts straight?

Without question, the priest’s participation in any way will scandalize many traditional Catholics. One website has already noted that a priest of this name is, in fact, active in the Archdiocese of Hartford (Conn.). Others have, with appropriate caution, stressed that it is not safe to assume that this is the same man. Here’s hoping that someone from the diocese speaks out to clarify matters.

Stay tuned.

(Hat tip to Deacon Kandra at The Deacon’s Bench)

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  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    If you drop by the Times’ wedding page, you can see the form used to fill out these announcements. A lot of this is a matter of trust (or, if you will, a leap of faith.) For much of it, they take you at your word. While they ask the person filling out the form to give a contact number for the clergy involved, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they follow up to confirm the information.

    As for the identity of Michael DeVito: at least two priests contacted me to say they think it just might be a man they know from New York who left the priesthood some years back—and NOT the pastor with the same name serving in Connecticut. You can’t be too careful with this stuff. (N.B. The announcement doesn’t say where the priest involved is stationed, or where he comes from.)

    Dcn. G.

  • The Old Bill

    Who wrote the announcement? Pure speculation, perhaps, but do you think it was because the author misunderstood the liturgical meaning of “assisted,” or was it done to make it appear that Catholic priests do this routinely?

  • ceemac

    It’s a wedding announcement not a news article. Read only by family and friends. Don’t know the Times policy but in my neck of the woods the space for the announcement would have been purchased like an obit. Probably written by the participants not a newspaper employee.

    • ceemac, wedding announcements in the New York Times are staff written news pieces, not paid advertisements. Frequently they are also newsworthy… the marriages of politicians etc.

  • northcoast

    A small correction. The ELCA has old roots in America, but the denomination was formed in 1988 in a merger that completed a consolidation process that had taken a couple of decades, I think. Through World War 2 my little town had the Norwegian church and the Swedish church, both Lutheran.

    • Mark C.

      The process of mergers amongst American Lutherans goes back more than a century, with the first merger of groups in the family tree leading to the current ELCA taking place amongst Lutherans of Norwegian descent in 1890. The successive rounds of mergers have moved from primarily regional bodies often with a specific ethnic heritage (although not universal) toward national bodies to the coming together of Norwegian, Swedish, Finish, and German heritage groups. The ELCA was indeed formed in 1988, but it is indeed the successor of Lutheran history dating back to and before Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s arrival to serve and organize Lutherans in 1742. Henry Muhlenberg was the father of Fredrick Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

  • deiseach

    Okay, this is complicated, because from a Catholic point of view, no valid marriage can be contracted between two same-gender persons. So it doesn’t matter if the cousin was asked to give a blessing in conjunction with the Lutheran minister who was the celebrant, conducted a wedding ceremony himself, or merely did a reading from Scripture or recited a poem as a family member (well, it matters for giving scandal, etc. but it has no effect in making this valid).

    It’s complicated because if we were talking about a mixed marriage (from the article, one of the grooms is from a Catholic family, whatever about the other), then there would need to be a dispensation from the local bishop to have a marriage in a non-Catholic church. This story is also complicated by the language used, because yes, “assist” is the language used in the Code of Canon Law referring to the celebrant of the Nuptial Mass, because the couple are the ministers in the sacrament of matrimony: Canon 1108:2. The person who assists at a marriage is understood to be only that person who is present, asks for the manifestation of the consent of the contracting parties, and receives it in the name of the Church”.

    So to talk of a priest “assisting” at a marriage would be understood by Catholics to mean a priest witnessing on behalf of the Church a valid marriage and being the minister at the ceremony.

    “Canon 1127: 3 It is forbidden to have another religious celebration of the same marriage to give or renew matrimonial consent before or after the canonical celebration according to the norm of §1. Likewise, there is not to be a religious celebration in which the Catholic who is assisting and a non-Catholic minister together, using their own rites, ask for the consent of the parties.”

    But yes, if I read about a Catholic priest assisting at a marriage, I would assume that he was fully vested and concelebrating, if not the main celebrant, and not just a family member performing a part of the ceremony.

  • chris nugent

    Yes, “assist” has specific meaning in Canon Law, but I doubt most Catholics are so well versed in the discipline they’d be confused. Especially since the celebrant was Lutheran, I think the average reader would take the word in its most common meaning of “help out.” Of course, the NYT should watch its technical vocabulary. There are certainly other issues raised, but a wedding announcement is not the place to sort them out as the focus properly belongs on the happy couple.

    • deiseach

      Chris, if we’re talking about “helping out” at a religious ceremony, what exactly are we expecting the priest to be doing? Arranging the altar flowers? Acting as an usher?

      Granted, I’m from the old days when the technical vocabulary of Catholicism was something ordinary Catholics were expected to know (e.g. what is a pious ejaculation, for instance), but I really don’t see any way around the meaning of the word in this particular instance. If Cousin Jane or Uncle Philip had done one of the readings or sang the entrance anthem or what have you, I don’t think it would be said that “The cousin of the groom assisted during the ceremony with the music”.

      I also think it’s too specific a term to be used by a secular newspaper (why not use “aided”, “participated” or “was present also”?) if Fr. deVito was just there in a general capacity as a family member involved in the ceremony like a groomsman.

    • Mark C.

      Perhaps we should be looking to usage in the Lutheran (at least ELCA) world here. The presiding minister is the pastor who is the primary leader and celebrant of a worship service. Here he or she would preside over the exchange of vows and probably make the pronouncement of marriage. In the terms of a Sunday morning celebration of Holy Communion, the presiding minister prays the collect/prayer of the day, presides over the sacrament, and gives the benediction, amongst other things. An assisting minister (either a lay person or another member of the clergy) may say other prayers or lead other exchanges. When I read the line about Fr. DeVito assisting, that is the usage that immediately comes to mind. At least as someone who is a member of the ELCA, it doesn’t really raise any significant and meaningful questions as to what role he was playing in the ceremony. What questions it does raise are related to status and consequences. Is Fr. DeVito an active Roman Catholic priest, a former priest, or misidentified (i.e. he is affiliated with some other group that makes claims of being Catholic, but not a part of the church in communion with Rome’s bishop); what kind of risk is he under and how much trouble might he be getting into with church authorities?

  • JWB

    The NYT asks for the name of the person who will from a civil-law perspective be solemnizing the wedding (i.e. signing a particular line on the form that comes with the marriage license that needs to be returned to the gov’t to get the marriage certificate), and further asks “For an interfaith event, include the names and affiliations of any other officiants who will participant.” Anyone who is interested could work through the archives to see what sorts of forms of words they use (and with how much variation) when there is more than one officiant (e.g. do they have one form of words that suggests A and B are roughly co-equal participants and another form that suggests that A is primary and B secondary?). I think they use the verb “officiate” a lot perhaps in part because it seems vague and non-sectarian (and also applicable to secular officiants like judges and mayors) and doesn’t require them to figure out which wording a particular religious group’s internal jargon would most typically use to describe the clergyperson’s role at a wedding. It would not surprise me if they thought of “assist” as a similarly helpfully vague verb, which could cover any of a number of roles that might be performed by someone who was not the primary officiant. If there is some specific religious group out there for whom “assist” is a technical term with a very specific meaning (but even in RC circles it can’t just have one meaning because there’s an old turn of phrase that a layperson “assists” at Mass just by attending, or least by attending with the properly reverential attitude) . . . that’s perhaps unfortunate. Now, there’s obviously a separate issue which is whether someone should have noticed that the involvement in any degree of an RC priest in any same-sex ceremony might be sufficiently novel/controversial/newsworthy to ask more specific questions than are typically asked before writing up this genre of story.

  • JWB

    Oops. “who will participant” is a typo for “who will participate.”

  • Meggan

    The priest is no longer a Roman Catholic priest. He left the RC and is now active in something called The United American Catholic Church. He performs and “assists” in weddings for a group called “Progressive Catholic and Interfaith Weddings.”

    • The Old Bill

      Thanks, Meggan. This line from their website made me chuckle:

      “Maybe you’re looking for a personalized interfaith or spiritual ceremony uniquely designed to express your current values and beliefs.”

      Yup, that captures the meaning of Catholic. Kinda like getting hitched in front of an Elvis impersonator.

    • Deacon Greg Kandra

      Meggan…where did you find that Michael DeVito is affiliated with the Progressive Catholic group? No one else has been able to track him down.

  • Scott

    Maybe the priest was driving the boat.

    • Stephan

      Best comment so far!

  • northcoast

    Some of the comments above neglect the function of a Priest cooperating in the marriage service for a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic. (Neglecting the obvious complications here.) In my former denomination there was an arrangement for con-celebration so that both denominations would recognize the legitimacy of the marriage and the attendees would receive the sacrament of the eucharist from the hand of the appropriate celebrant. I can stretch that to fit this case, but it is a stretch.

  • Karl

    Well, “current values and beliefs” pretty much defines Roman Catholicism in the US. You can believe whatever you want, as long as it’s not historic Christianity and it doesn’t condemn homosexual acts or abortion!

  • northcoast

    I should have written “both denominations would bless the marriage.”

  • The priest is Father Michael Devito of Suffield, Connectict, Archdiocese of Hartford, and he has been formerly rebuked by his bishop. The priest has promised never to assist at any other same sex weddings. That’s the end of the story, but certainly not the end of the scandal.