June may be LGBTQ pride month. But for Thomas Paprocki, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, it’s a time to double-down on his diocese’s approach to same-sex couples, and what he sees as the problem of public, unrepentant sinners engaging in particular sacraments.
Paprocki privately circulated a planned decree (later republished by the Washington Post) to clergy in his diocese laying out what he saw as necessary guidelines about the role of partnered LGBTQ people in the Catholic Church. First, he proposed, they should not seek or receive Holy Communion, one of the seven sacraments central to Catholic practice. Most jarringly, he says they should be denied Catholic funeral rites — something generally granted to Catholics without question except under very specific circumstances (more on that later) — unless they expressed repentance.
The decree didn’t come from the Vatican, only from Paprocki, so the directives would only be bound to his diocese. Still, for many LGBTQ Catholics and their allies, his words reflect a Vatican culture hostile to their very identity. LGBTQ Catholic advocacy group Dignity USA condemned the move. “Bishop Paprocki’s decree makes it very clear why so many LGBTQI people and their families feel unwelcome in the Catholic Church and why so many leave it,” the organization’s president Christopher Pett said in a statement.
The bishop’s decree not only represents the Vatican as a whole, but the fault lines present in a religious organization whose relationship to the wider culture has, in recent years, been rendered ever more complex. For many outside the church, Pope Francis’s perceived shift in approach to LGBTQ issues, if not Catholic doctrine, has been a welcome one.
In 2013 Pope Francis famously posed, “Who am I to judge?” over the question of people dealing with same-sex desire in the church. A year later, leaked document-in-progress noted that "homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” Pope Francis’s 2016 encyclical Amoris Laetitia (“The Love of Joy”) contained a key footnote considering the idea that, “Because forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin — which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such — a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” Conservative Catholics took this to mean a soft stance on, say, giving communion to remarried divorcees or unmarried couples (and, perhaps, even same-sex couples).
More broadly, any change in the Catholic church’s formal stance on homosexuality would be enormously difficult to enact. Official Catholic catechism says that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” even as sympathy for “objectively disordered” homosexual desire, which is understood to be “deep-seated” and not necessarily a choice, is allowable. So Francis’s words, though not formally binding, were nevertheless seen as a conciliatory gesture in the face of the intensely bureaucratic structure of the Vatican when it comes to making any statement on doctrine whatsoever.
However, neither of these incidents passed without controversy, particularly among traditionalists within the Catholic Church who see these softer stances as conceding to the prevailing winds of cultural change at the expense of traditional sexual morality. (After backlash, the gay-affirming line was struck from the 2014 final document, and the encyclical prompted a group of 45 Catholic bishops and scholars to send a list of doubts, or dubia, to the pope demanding reply.)
Within this traditionalist mindset, the act of placating one’s own desires and the act of placing a cultural “norm” over divine will are considered to be both selfish and sinful — essentially, placing one’s self in God’s shoes.
Paprocki’s public stances have often placed him firmly within that latter camp; in 2013, he performed an exorcism in protest against the legalization of gay marriage in Illinois. Earlier this month, he gave a speech at the Northwest Regional Canon Law Convention reminding his peers not to interpret Francis’s words about couples in a state of sin in Amoris too charitably when it comes to administering sacraments.
Paprocki’s decree, in this context, represents not just divisions over the question of LGBTQ members of the church, but also, more generally, an interpretation of both doctrine and canon law: Should Catholics err on the side of inclusivity (and risk what hardline Catholics see as laxity), or on rigor (and risk alienating members of their faith who do not adhere to narrowly construed guidelines on sexual morality).
It’s telling that major right-wing sites praising Paprocki’s decision favorably highlight Paprocki’s strict adherence to canon law, and his very narrow interpretation of the mandate that a “manifest sinner” (i.e., someone whose sins are understood to be sufficiently public to cause “scandal” in the community) not be given a Catholic burial.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Paprocki’s stance is the best one for his flock. As Brian Flanagan, associate professor of theology at Marymount University, told Vox,
"Bishop Paprocki is entirely qualified to make the judgment that people in same-sex relations who die without ‘some signs of repentance’ before their death, fall under the Code of Canon Law's definition of ‘manifest sinners,” said Flanagan. At the same time, he points out, other canon laws suggest that Paprocki’s narrow interpretation is itself problematic: He notes that, generally speaking, when there’s room for interpretation, the governing principle of canon law is that a law should be interpreted “to the benefit of the baptized Catholic.”
Likewise, Flanagan questions the overall benefit of Paprocki’s actions: “Legally, Paprocki can do this, but theologically should he? If his aim was to prevent scandal, he's essentially failed — this decree's mean-spiritedness deeply undermines respect for Catholic bishops and their teaching authority. Coming just after Pope Francis's Year of Mercy, denying funerals to the departed and their grieving families seems jarringly unmerciful, and un-nuanced in its blanket application to married gay people as compared to other Catholics who fall short of perfection.” Flanagan added, “the denial of a funeral to a married gay person is more scandalous to most Catholics than that funeral’s occurrence.”
Likewise, Father James Martin — a Jesuit priest and author of Building a Bridge, a new book on LGBTQ Catholics — shared Flanagan’s wariness of Paprocki’s hardline approach.
"All of us are sinners, and all of us are called to repentance — that's basic Christian doctrine,” he told Vox. "The problem comes when the moral behavior of only one group of people — in this case, LGBT Catholics — is put under a microscope. To focus exclusively on the morality of only one person, or only one group, is what the Catechism calls ‘unjust discrimination.’”
So where does that leave LGBTQ Catholics? Dan Walden, an openly gay Catholic currently in grad school at the University of Michigan, told Vox that, despite approaches like Paprocki’s, he sees the Catholic Church as a valuable spiritual home.
For Walden, seeing the attitudes of the current pope toward LGBTQ people has helped reinforce a faith that, he says, has not always been unchallenged. "Pope Francis has been a great blessing to the Church,” he told Vox. “No sensible gay Catholic expects radical changes in doctrine from him or from any other pope, but his extremely Jesuit emphasis on encounter and discernment of individual cases has brought so many people back to the faith and has given many LGBT+ Catholics the ability to believe that he really wants us to be part of the life of the Church. I've lost count of the number of times that I've thanked God for his ministry.”
Far from seeing his faith and his sexuality at odds, Walden finds that “my Catholicism has been deeply shaped by my gay identity and vice versa. … I've got a very Catholic way of being gay and a very gay way of being Catholic.”
He points to examples within the Catholic mystical tradition of people crossing lines of gender normatively: “Mystics and ascetics have been crossing or transcending gender since the earliest monastics. Tradition is a big place, and there's a lot more there than most people think."