On Denying the Eucharist to Gay Couples
The trouble began, according to a leftist political website, when Lew Pryeor and Pierre Leveillee offered Sistare what they believe to have been some fraternal correction. Pryeor “went to Sacred Heart on Monday to talk to Sistare about his politically conservative sermons,” the website reported. “After suggesting that Sistare not alienate parishioners with the priest’s personal politics, Pryeor said Sistare informed him that he would not give him communion anymore because his marriage to Leveillee is not recognized by the church.”
Granted Sistare has refused comment, and so we hear only one side of the story. But that really doesn’t make much difference. He seems to be standing on firm ground, as would any priest who advised someone living in sin not to present himself for Holy Communion. Indeed, Sistare privately remonstrated with Pryeor, who claims he and his “husband” (or is it wife?) have been members of many parishes and were always “accepted.” On Aug. 5, the day of the meeting, Pryeor attacked Sistare on Facebook, receiving the predictable accolades and encouragement from assorted friends and fellow travelers, who trashed the priest and Holy Mother Church. Pryeor, not the priest, publicized the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Pryeor has been out of sorts about the priest for sometime. His Facebook page shows that he has been most displeased with Sistare’s sermons. You don’t have to wonder what Pryeor was upset about, given his Facebook page and a letter Sistare wrote to the state’s legislators when the governor signed a bill legalizing same-sex unions in may. Sistare hit hard, calling upon the politicians to repent of the grave sin they committed.
Is the Priest Right?
This case is similar to but not identical to another that hit the news last year, when a priest denied communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral. Canon lawyer Ed Peters said the priest may have erred (an assessment with which others disagree), and the diocese ducked for cover and fell over itself to apologize to the offended party, who had, apparently, more than a passing familiarity with Buddhism. In that case, by the way, the apology from the diocese contained a line that demonstrated how poorly formed the modern priest can be. He called the funeral a “celebration of your mother’s life.” No, it wasn’t. The late Joe Sobran lamented the offensive practice of permitting friends or relatives to offer eulogies during a funeral Mass, explaining a simple truth: Funeral Masses are like any other Mass. They are meant to honor God, not the deceased. This is why the liturgical rubrics expressly forbid eulogies during funeral Masses.
Anyway, at issue in both cases is the enforcement of Canon 915, which reads thusly: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion” [links in the original].
Now, as canonist Peters will explain, enforcing Canon 915 properly requires more than reading it. Other codicils in the Catholic canon are in play as well, and a priest can err even when the facts appear to favor his decision to deny Holy Communion. In other cases, the decision has been more clear cut, as it was when Bishop David Ricken, then in Cheyenne, Wyo., denied Holy Communion to a pair of lesbians who went public about their gravely disordered and sinful lives.
This case in Woonsocket seems akin to the latter. Before this controversy, Pryeor ran for Rhode Island’s senate, backed by the homosexual lobby, against an incumbent who has voted against same-sex marriage. In July, he claimed on Facebook to have been “married in mass,” clearly explaining his living situation. His Facebook page says he is “married.” He publicly attacked Sistare on Facebook for defending Church teaching from the pulpit, clearly expecting the priest to accept his inappropriate remonstration and stop his preaching. Then, of course, he met with Sistare to tell the priest to mend his ways, also inappropriate given that the priest is not only within his rights to offer fraternal correction to public figures but also obliged to do so. That is when the priest told Pryeor he should not present himself for Holy Communion.
Which Pryeor well knew if he is, as he claims, a life-long Catholic. If what this fellow claims about his faith is true, then he knows he is in a state of mortal sin, he knows there is no such thing as homosexual marriage, and he knows he may not receive Holy Communion. Then again, if what he claims about being accepted at other parishes is true, then perhaps other priests have led him to believe a falsehood: that Church teaching on the matter has changed. Or that even if it hasn’t, that sex outside marriage isn’t really a sin, that loving another man can’t be a sin because “love,” no matter how expressed, cannot be a sin, and in any event “God understands.”
In other words, Pryeor may well be a victim of bad catechesis and bad preaching.
Beyond that, Pryeor is dissembling. He is fiddling with the truth. The priest has not “forbidden” him from receiving Holy Communion, as Pryeor claims on his Facebook page. For one thing, Church law, not Sistare, forbids Pryeor from receiving Holy Communion. For another, Pryeor invited the prohibition himself. Just as you and I are responsible for our places in Heaven or Hell after we depart this vale of tears, Pryeor and his mate are responsible for Sistare’s ruling. He and his wife (or is it husband?) can receive Holy Communion tomorrow if they stop living in sin, renounce their phony marriage, go to Confession and offer a sincere promise to amend their lives. On that note, Pryeor must not have understood Sistare when he said Pryeor must “end” the marriage, as the website reporting the news described it. There is no “marriage” to end. To receive Holy Communion, Pryeor must stop the charade, stop scandalizing the faithful and stop living in sin. That, of course, requires him to stop living in sin, and stop the public proclamations that justify it.
The same truth applies to heterosexuals shacked up in concubinage, and as well to pro-abortion politicians who commit a mortal sin each and every time they receive Holy Communion while bishops look the other way. Mr. Peters has been very clear on the matter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Far from having a “hardened heart,” as Pryeor described Sistare, this good pastor is treating Pryeor and his mate with charity by warning them that their moral souls are in peril. Indeed, he has stopped them from committing a further sin, at least in his parish, by sacrilegiously receiving Holy Communion. If Pryeor doesn’t believe or understand this, there isn’t much one can say.
In this case, the most important thing to remember is not that Sistare “chose” to refuse Holy Communion to a pair of homosexuals in the sense of doing something unjust. He only chose in the sense of deciding whether to intervene. Rather, the important point is this: Canon 915 requires a priest to withhold Holy Communion when necessary. Sistare had no choice.
Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.
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R. Cort Kirkwood is a journalist who has been writing about politics and culture for 25 years. He is a graduate of Boston University and Loyola College in Baltimore and the author of Real Men: Ten Courageous Americans To Know And Admire.