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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy