Every now and then, a longtime reader sends your GetReligionistas a note that, in addition to the URL to a mainstream news story, includes their own commentary that almost writes a post for us.
That was the case with a note about a recent report from The Billings Gazette about yet another clash between a Catholic priest who is attempting to defend the doctrines of the church and one or more progressive Catholics who see themselves as loyal, practicing Catholics, even though they openly reject one or more specific teachings of the faith.
At first glance, this story looks like a classic "Kellerism" case of advocacy journalism, with a team of journalists doing everything they can to stack a story with materials that back the brave, faithful Catholics who want to see doctrines changed or ignored, while turning the orthodox side of things into a small circle of grim canon lawyers and literalists.
Thus, the opening of the story:
LEWISTOWN -- The first thing you need to know about Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff is both are lifelong Catholics.
The second is that the Lewistown couple, who are now at the center of a controversy over their decision to marry, never intended to stir up a storm. But now that it has happened, they don’t intend to back down.
“We didn’t start this fight, but we’re not going to cave in and back out of it,” Huff said Wednesday, sitting in the breakfast nook next to Wojtowick, his partner of 30 years, in their house on a 52-acre ranch north of town.
Huff, 73, is the taller, older one who admits he tends to be the more emotional of the two. Wojtowick, 66, is the bespectacled, mustached one who is more likely to grab a book on church law to make a point.
In August, the pair was dismissed from their volunteer posts at St. Leo’s and prohibited from participating in the sacraments. The priest who made the pronouncement was the Rev. Samuel Spiering, the church’s administrator, who was installed Aug. 1. At issue was the couple’s May 2013 marriage, which the Catholic Church opposes.
The Gazette report then introduces the young priest as a total outsider -- sort of. He went to a conservative school in Florida, but he is from nearby Wyoming. He began his journey into the priesthood at age 12.
The reader parsed the whole report and noted several key wordings:
Notice what the reporter is doing: "Spiering, 27, is also a lifelong Catholic who felt an early call to ministry. ...
"During his senior year at Ave Maria University, a private Catholic college in southwest Florida, he knew for certain he was headed for the priesthood, but he wasn’t sure where...
"Wojtowick also was a priest, for nine years. His Catholic roots go back seven generations in Lewistown.
“'My great-great-great-grandparents came here in 1907,' he said. ...
"Huff walked out of the rectory and decided he better tell choir director Janie Shupe that neither he or Wojtowick would be able to help out that Saturday night. Shupe was distraught.
"She had moved to Lewistown 23 years before. For 20 of those years at St. Leo’s, she has served as director of music liturgy and choir director..."
In other words, "What the hell is this interloper doing ruining the lives of these people who have been here for so many years?"
That is pretty much how the story unfolds.
However, reading through it a second time, something hit me. It appears that the priest may have tried to handle this case at the level of confession. However, it would be hard for Huff and Wojtowick to confess their sins, since they do not consider their rejection of church teachings on marriage and sex to be sinful.
Thus, the key statement in the story is the part where it is reported that the priest has "prohibited" them from "from participating in the sacraments," when it appears that he has set a requirement that they put the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation back in front of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
If this is the case, it would make it very hard for the priest (and the bishop) to discuss the particulars of the case without violating the seal of confession. Thus, the story offers about five or six quotes sympathetic to those who oppose the church's teachings for every one paragraph of content from those that defend them. This is also why, as is often the case, conservative material comes from pieces of paper, rather than real people.
Why do I make this observation? Read carefully the following passage from the story, which comes as the priest seeks to find a way forward within the teachings of the church. Huff and Wojtowick agreed to affirm the words of church teaching. And then:
... Spiering said they would also have to develop a timeline for the couple to separate and divorce. At that point, the meeting came to an end, Wojtowick said.
Spiering has declined to comment publicly on the events, citing confidentiality. He compared it to doctors and lawyers, who won’t discuss their clients’ cases, even if the clients share the contents of their private conversations.
“Similarly, with priests as professionals working for the salvation of souls, we must respect confidentiality, regardless of how much attention in the media a situation may get,” Spiering read from a typed statement during an interview. He said he plans to “strive to continue to love all persons with the love of Christ, and particularly the people of Lewistown who have been entrusted to my care.”
“And I just ask that all consider the teachings of the Holy Scripture and to pray for all the people of Lewistown that we may grow closer to Jesus Christ each and every day,” he read.
In other words, the priest wanted them to confess their sins and then prepare for a way to, from the viewpoint of church teachings, stop living in a state of mortal sin. Thus, the priest declines to discuss the specifics -- because he is forbidden by church law from discussing matters that are linked to confession.
Plausible? I think that's part of what is going on here. Of course, it would help if the Gazette team was willing to include one other theme in this report: That the Catholic church is a voluntary association and that its leaders are in charge of enforcing the doctrines that define that faith community. That's a blunt fact, but that has been the case for 2,000 years or so. That is part of the debate that is taking place in this story.
At least, that's the debate that the Gazette should have been covering, if the editors were interested in understanding what is going on in this sad, but familiar, clash between the warring armies inside the American Catholic church.
IMAGE: An altar prepared for a pro-gay-rights service in a Catholic parish in Los Angeles.