QUEER VOICES

Queer Catholics In Wisconsin May Be Denied Religious Funerals To Avoid 'Public Scandal'

Newly leaked guidelines also instruct priests to ban the surviving partner from even being mentioned during the service.

10/24/2017 13:13 EDT | Updated 10/25/2017 09:40 EDT
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Directives from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison instruct priests to consider banning the surviving same-sex partner from loved ones' religious funerals. 

A leaked set of directives attributed to a Roman Catholic diocese in Madison, Wisconsin, is reminding queer Catholics that, in both life and in death, they can be shunned by their church.

The Vicar General of the Diocese of Madison, the Rev. Msgr. James R. Bartylla, reportedly sent an email to priests in the diocese that included guidelines on how to handle the funeral services of queer Catholics. 

According to a copy of the email, first published on the Catholic blog Pray Tell on Oct. 22, Bartylla encouraged priests to focus on minimizing “the risk of scandal and confusion” when asked to conduct the funeral service of a person in a “notorious homosexual relationship.” The email then reportedly listed several factors the priest should take into account when considering whether or not to conduct the religious rite. 

“Was the deceased or the ‘partner’ a promoter of the ‘gay’ lifestyle?” the leaked email asked priests to consider. “Did the deceased give some signs of repentance before death?”

Bartylla also reportedly advised that the deceased’s surviving partner “should not have any public or prominent role at any ecclesiastical funeral rite or service” ― going so far as to say that the grieving partner and the same-sex marriage shouldn’t even be referenced in “any liturgical booklet, prayer card, homily, sermon, talk by the priest, deacon.”

“If the situation warrants ... ecclesiastical funeral rites may be denied for manifest sinners in which public scandal of the faithful can’t be avoided,” the guidelines state, according to Pray Tell. 

In a statement, the diocese’s communications director Brent King told HuffPost that the communication published on the Pray Tell blog is “not an official diocesan policy.” However, he said “it does conform with the mind of the bishop and meet his approval.”

While the email is not official church policy, Bishop Robert C. Morlino’s approval is a reflection of the hardened stance that some U.S. bishops are taking against American Catholics’ growing acceptance of queer love and relationships.  

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Queer Catholics are expressing their outrage over the directives. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the Catholic LGBTQ advocacy group DignityUSA, said that the guidelines were “outrageous and shameful.” 

“This document is the very antithesis of pastoral care,” Duddy-Burke said in a statement. “It shows that this bishop believes that lesbian and gay people who have lived a deep commitment to a spouse or partner should be demeaned even in death. Our families could be refused the sacraments of our faith at the moment of their greatest grief. This is heartless. It is cruel. It is unchristian in the extreme.”

Similar directives have been issued in the past. In June, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, instructed priests to deny Communion and funeral rites to people in same-sex unions who haven’t shown “repentance.”

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Sixty-seven percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June.

Critics of these kinds of directives have argued that the bishops are unfairly focused on queer Catholics, while paying less attention to other relationships not approved by church doctrine ― such as getting divorced and remarried without an annulment, or having sex before marriage.

The Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, has worked to build a bridge between queer Catholics and the church. In response to Paprocki’s decree, Martin argued at the time that bishops who focus on banning queer Catholics from religious funerals are discriminating unfairly.

“Moreover, they must ban anyone who does not care for the poor, or care for the environment, and anyone who supports torture, for those are church teachings too,” Martin wrote in June. “More basically, they must ban people who are not loving, not forgiving and not merciful, for these represent the teachings of Jesus Christ, the most fundamental of all church teachings.”

When pushed by a Catholic periodical, Paprocki later agreed that, objectively speaking, all those in sexual relations outside of a traditional Catholic marriage should not receive Holy Communion unless they “repent.” 

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Young Catholics (aged 18-29) are particularly likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

Martin had a similar response this week to the guidelines for priests in the Madison diocese. While agreeing that Catholic bishops have the authority to decide who receives a Catholic funeral, Martin said the problem is that church doctrine seems to be focused on queer relationships. 

“The problem ... is that these teachings are almost always applied selectively,” he wrote on Monday. “That is, there is no equivalent focus on the sexual morality of straight Catholics at the time of their funerals.”

“The focus solely on LGBT people and their sexual morality, without an equivalent focus on the sexual morality (or morality in general) of straight Catholics, constitutes what the Catechism [principles of the Catholic church] calls ‘unjust discrimination.’”

King told HuffPost that Bartylla’s directive on gay funerals was issued in response to questions asked by priests in the diocese. It was part of a weekly communication sent by the Vicar General to the priests, and as a result, not meant to be taken as official policy.

“No such policy could adequately cover every case, and it has always been the ‘policy’ of the Diocese of Madison, on the matter of public funerals in general, that pastors are charged with addressing the particular situations of their people – whom they ideally know well and whom they have accompanied, even until their death,” King said in the statement. “Without a policy, and as the communication itself states, the priests are asked to ‘think through the issue thoroughly and prudently,’ and this was a response to those who asked for assistance in their task – as well as other priests who might have similar situations and questions.”

The guidelines were also meant to be kept confidential, King said, accusing whomever leaked the email of doing “grave harm” to the church and participating in “a work of darkness.”

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Catholics who attend Mass weekly tend to fall more in line with traditional church teaching. But even among these Catholics, majorities say it is at least acceptable for children to be raised by divorced, same-sex, or cohabiting parents.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the queer Catholic group, New Ways Ministry, said he believed these guidelines harm Catholic families who are grieving.

“Funerals are times that families will remember for a long time. If they are turned away at that point, it is very likely they will never return,” DeBernardo wrote in a statement. “For the sake of the Catholic Church and for LGBT Catholics and their families, the Diocese of Madison should rescind this decision immediately and offer a public apology.”

Despite the efforts of bishops to reinforce church teaching on same-sex relationships, American Catholics are becoming increasingly supportive of queer love. Sixty-seven percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage, according to Pew Research Center polling conducted in June.

Duddy-Burke said that it seemed to her that some Catholic bishops in the U.S. are intent on penalizing the queer community as harshly as possible. 

Church officials see they have lost in the civic arena, on the issues of marriage equality, military service, and adoption, so they are lashing out again,” she said. “But we and the vast majority of Catholics now know there is no conflict between loving someone of the same gender and loving our faith. Masking attempts to separate LGBTQI Catholics form the rest of the Church under the guise of pastoral instructions breaks the Body of Christ. It shows that these bishops are unwilling to do the real work of pastoral leadership, which is to engage their flocks in honest dialogue.”

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