Diocese of Grand Rapids stands by priest accused of being “discriminatory”

Just before Thanksgiving, a Michigan state judge was denied Holy Communion by a priest. The controversy over this action has only grown in recent weeks, especially because it is part of a trend. Over the past few months, there has been a particular focus on the Catholic Church’s policy of denying Holy Communion to those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin.” The most high-profile case in this category was a South Carolina parish’s denial of Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. However, this incident occurred not far from Notre Dame, around two hours north in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

On November 26, WOOD-TV News reported that Sara Smolenski, the Chief Judge of the Kent County District Court, was contacted the Saturday before by Fr. Scott Nolan, the pastor of Saint Stephen Parish (at which she was a longtime parishioner), and told that she should not present herself for Holy Communion. Smolenski has been civilly married since 2016 to another woman. In Smolenski’s words, Fr. Nolan told her that “because you’re married to Linda in the state of Michigan, you cannot accept communion.” It appears that after the call, Smolenski contacted local reporters regarding the matter, which they later described in the article as a “devastating revelation for the lifelong Catholic.” There is no indication that Fr. Nolan intended for it to be anything but a private matter between himself and Smolenski, though the latter claims it amounted to a “public shunning.”

A day after WOOD-TV’s report, the Diocese of Grand Rapids issued a statement on behalf of Bishop David J. Walkowiak that unequivocally supported Fr. Nolan’s decision. The statement stated, “No community of faith can sustain the public contradiction of its beliefs by its own members…especially so on matters as central to Catholic life as marriage, which the Church has always held, and continues to hold, as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.” Additionally, the statement quoted Pope Francis’ 2016 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which declared: “those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members.”

Negative reactions were swift and biting. One supporter of Smolenski’s in the parish said that Fr. Nolan “has made it clear that gay people are not welcome” at Saint Stephen. A few days later, when CNN picked up the story, it began to garner national attention. The prominent Jesuit Fr. James Martin said on Twitter of the matter: “Investigation and prying seem to be acceptable when it comes to the lives of LGBT Catholics” despite the fact that Smolenski was living publicly as a married lesbian woman. Fr. Martin also decried the seemingly unequal application of the denial of communion, saying, “Why are only married LGBT people being singled out? Is Communion denied to all parishioners who are not following church teachings?” If it is not, Fr. Martin said, “it is no longer ‘church teaching.’ It is merely discrimination.” 

Another disgruntled parishioner, Joshua Marko, attacked Fr. Nolan in an open letter to Bishop Walkowiak, saying that Fr. Nolan “is placing his personal interpretation of pastoral wisdom ahead of the established values and precedence of the St. Stephen community,” despite Fr. Nolan’s decision being perfectly congruent with established Church teaching on the topic of marriage and public sin. Marko later said, “There are other Catholic communities where [Fr. Nolan’s] brand of clericalism may be welcomed,” and requested that the priest be transferred to another parish.

This was not a decision Fr. Nolan took lightly, however. In an interview with WOOD-TV news, he said, “This is also a cause of great sadness in my own life as a priest.” Despite great opposition within his parish and in the media, Fr. Nolan and Bishop Walkowiak have received support as well. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher reported a message from a local reader that the November 27 daily Mass at Saint Stephen was standing-room only in support of Fr. Nolan and his actions, a fact which I can personally corroborate. Joshua Marko, one of the parishioners who wrote to Bishop Walkowiak asking for Fr. Nolan’s removal, lamented the response, saying that the diocese’s statement had “emboldened a hateful response from ultra conservative Catholics” who “invaded the Mass at my church to celebrate the pain of my community with theatrical genuflections to receive the Eucharist.” Needless to say, it appears that this division in the Saint Stephen parish will endure for some time. Luckily for Fr. Nolan, he has Church teaching and a community of faithful Catholics behind him.

In September, I wrote regarding Bishop Paprocki of Springfield’s talk here at Notre Dame regarding the denial of Holy Communion in the cases of pro-abortion Catholic politicians. In the talk, Bishop Paprocki cited Canons 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law which governs Church affairs. Canon 915 states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” This, Bishop Paprocki said, means that the burden is on the priest to refuse to admit such a person to Holy Communion. Canon 916 calls upon those who are conscious of mortal sin to “not…receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession.” 

Since it was clear to Fr. Nolan that Smolenski was not going to refrain herself from receiving the Eucharist, he exercised the Canon 915 option. Besides the solid canonical ground on which Fr. Nolan stands, the matter is indeed grave enough to warrant such action. The Church’s unchanging definition of marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman is firmly rooted in Scripture and Tradition (Section 1605 of the Catechism “affirms that man and woman were created for one another). Additionally, the Second Vatican Council’s Apostolic Constitution Gaudium et Spes states that “by their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown.” Thus, any union which attempts to masquerade as an institution so important to the well-being of humanity cannot and should not be approved.  

On December 1, Smolenski attended an “inclusive Communion service” hosted by the local First United Methodist Church, where WOOD-TV reported that she “took Communion at the church altar while being surrounded by friends, neighbors and other believers she’d never met before.” Smolenski later said that “I speak my truth because God made me who I am…it’s not about me and it’s not about the priest at my church. It’s really about saying Jesus wants everybody welcome at the table.” This last part is correct. However, Christ also says, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” The Church’s rules regarding the reception of the Eucharist not only protect the Blessed Sacrament from being profaned, but also protect the person who would receive Our Lord unworthily from condemning themselves. This allows them to live genuine lives in communion with Christ and His Church.

Luke Koenigsknecht is a freshman electrical engineering major from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He enjoys a cold glass of water (or whole milk) with any meal. He can be reached at lkoenigs@nd.edu.