Saturday, April 06, 2013

Shame and Scandal in the Family: Letter to a Bishop

I just sent the following email to Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre on Long Island (NY) after a lay minister in one of his diocesan parishes was dismissed from his duties because he's gay and had married his longtime partner. I'll let you know if I get a response.

Subject: Sad and confused over dismissal of gay lay leader
To: bishopsoffice (AT)
Most Reverend William Murphy
Bishop of Rockville Centre
5 April 2013

Dear Bishop Murphy,

Greetings and Easter blessings from Bolivia. I'm originally from Long Island, but I work here in Cochabamba with Maryknoll. I'm writing because of a news story I read today that has upset and confused me. It is regarding the dismissal of Nicholas Coppola from duties at St. Anthony's Church in your diocese.

I fully understand the Church's position on homosexuality, and the opposition of the hierarchy to same-sex marriage, even in the case of civil marriage. But my questions arise more from pastoral concerns. I sincerely trust that you are doing what you think is best for the faithful in your diocese, and that you harbor no personal ill will toward Mr. Coppola or homosexuals in general. I'm not writing to accuse you of hate or question your good motives. But I am troubled, and would like clarification.

You are no doubt familiar with Cardinal Dolan's recent statements regarding the Church's need to improve outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics, and ensure that we are "not anti-anybody." In the same spirit, it seems to me we should err on the side of charity and understanding, rather than rejection and punishment, in handling cases like Mr. Coppola's.

Also, Cardinal Dolan's comments echoed the position of the USCCB, which has, at least in its pastoral letter "Always Our Children," been clear in distinguishing between moral teachings on homosexuality, and anti-gay discrimination. But it seems to me that this case could easily be construed as one of discrimination. While it is about upholding Church teachings on its surface, it points to a certain double standard that I believe is all too common in our Church.

From what I've read, the decision to remove Mr. Coppola from his parish duties was prompted by an anonymous letter - one that accused the Church of "endorsing" Mr. Coppola's decision to marry his longtime partner. Having worked with liturgy teams before, I am aware that you must receive countless letters from angry lay people - the self-appointed orthodoxy police who have cropped up in parishes throughout the country - accusing you, the priests in your diocese, and other pastoral agents of failing to hold up the teachings of the Church. I am frankly surprised that such a letter resulted in any action at all. But what bothers me most is that it resulted in a conviction and a sentence, rather than a conversation. Was there no attempt at dialog with Mr. Coppola, who has devoted so much of his life to his church?

Also, and this is a sincere question: how often have you ever received a letter complaining that a heterosexual lay leader in one of your parishes is cohabiting with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or remarried, or openly buying contraceptives at a local drugstore? We all know that, right or wrong, a lot - a majority, if most studies are to be believed - of lay Catholics dissent from official Church teachings on sexual morality in both belief and action. But I rarely ever hear about straight dissenters being removed from important ministries. I don't know if this is because nobody complains or because bishops choose not to act on such complaints. Either way, though, it certainly seems that homosexual Catholics are held to a double-standard. That is a form of discrimination, and it would seem to me to be in violation of the spirit of both "Always Our Children" and the Gospel.

Church leaders often point out, in defending their stance against same-sex marriage, that Church teaching is not subject to the shifting sands of popular opinion. But I have to think that Mr. Coppola was singled out because sensitivity to issues of dissenting behavior involving same-sex relationships is much higher, due to those same shifting sands, than sensitivity to the dissenting behavior of so many heterosexual couples. Shouldn't Church officials be prohibiting, rather than enforcing, such discrimination?

Lack of dialog, double-standards, and a preoccupation with enforcement that trumps a spirit of welcome: these are the kinds of things that cause heartache, confusion, and even scandal to so many of us who have committed our lives to God's Reign and God's Church. I hope you can explain to me why this case was handled the way it was.

I realize, as someone who myself works in the Church, I may be putting my neck out by signing a letter in defense of someone who violated Church teachings - surely more than was the person who sent an anonymous letter condemning him. But I know that you are a good man and pastor, concerned with the faith of all the faithful, and I simply want you to understand how hurtful these decisions are, not just to those directly involved, but to people around the world who read about them and are reminded of countless other similar experiences we and our loved ones have suffered. It seems that too often, Church leaders explain decisions like this in terms of fear for Catholics who will be confused and scandalized should the hierarchy not clearly enforce Church teachings. But there is more than one teaching at play here, and I want you to know that excluding a man like Nicholas Coppola from church ministries is also confusing. And it is scandalous inasmuch as it suggests an attitude contrary to that of Jesus, who was always first to sit down and talk with those others called sinners, and to invite them into the work of announcing his Kingdom.

I hope you will accept this note as a sincere expression of pain and a cry for clarification, and not simply as an angry political statement. I offer it as a brother in Christ, confident that you will read it with a pastoral eye and an open heart. Thank you.


Dan Moriarty
Cochabamba, Bolivia

UPDATE: One thing I'd edit, although it's minor: I wish I'd said, "I fully understand what the Church's position is on homosexuality," rather than "I fully understand the Church's position." I know what it is, but saying I understand it kind of implies I agree with it, which I don't. I don't understand it inasmuch as the arguments underlying it don't seem sound to me. But I know what it is.

UPPERDATE: I've written more on the diocese's impersonal response to my letter, their downright weird response to a petition asking to reinstate Coppola, and a new letter I've sent to the bishop, in a new post here.  

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