Catholic controversy

Paul Huff, left, and his partner, Tom Wojtowick, discuss their dismissal from ministry at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown.

Tom Wojtowick can’t quite bring himself to break his ties with St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown.

Three months ago, Wojtowick and his partner, Paul Huff, were dismissed from their volunteer posts at St. Leo’s and prohibited from receiving the Eucharist. They had been active members of the parish for 11 years.

The action came after the Rev. Samuel Spiering, newly arrived administrator at the parish, learned the pair had married in a civil ceremony in Seattle in 2013. The action is opposed by the Catholic Church, which holds that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Wojtowick and Huff, both active in the community, own a small ranch together outside of Lewistown. Spiering called for the two men, who had been together for more than 30 years, to separate and divorce.

Wojtowick and Huff were willing to write a restoration statement that, in part, would support the concept of marriage in the Catholic faith as between a man and a woman. But they refused the more drastic action of permanent separation.

Huff has left St. Leo and attends St. James Episcopal Church. A number of other former parishioners departed St. Leo’s for the Episcopal church, Wojtowick said.

Wojtowick attends half the Mass at St. Leo’s on Saturday nights, leaving after the homily, before the Eucharist is served. On Sundays, he often joins Huff at St. James, where he is frequently asked to play piano.

Huff has said that he won’t return to St. Leo’s unless the ban is reversed. Others wonder why Wojtowick hasn’t taken that step.

“A lot of people said why don’t you just give up on it?” he said in a telephone interview. “Boy, it’s hard. I invested so much time there, worked with hundreds of people.”

His family also has been part of the parish for seven generations, dating back to the early 1900s. Both Wojtowick and Huff are lifelong Catholics.

Not everyone at St. Leo’s disagreed with Spiering’s actions. Wojtowick admits that there is some tension tied to his presence at the parish, with all of the conflict that sprang from the priest’s decision.

“I obviously feel excluded by some folks, but I also feel included by others,” Wojtowick said. “So there is a dynamic there.”

But he calls what happened a huge loss for him and for Huff.

“It’s been three months since all this hit, and it almost feels as bad today as it did then,” Wojtowick said, his voice growing quiet on the phone. “It’s such a shock.”

No further action has been taken by Bishop Michael Warfel, of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, since he met with the members of the parish in September to discuss the matter. In a previous interview, Warfel said he felt compelled to uphold Catholic teachings and doctrine, or he’d be repudiating what he swore to uphold at his ordination.

In mid-October, Wojtowick, himself a former priest, wrote a lengthy, in-depth piece he titled “The Warfel Solution — A Failure to Dialogue.” He submitted the paper to Warfel.

In it, Wojtowick maintains that the action Spiering took against the couple regarding divorce and separation, and which Warfel apparently upheld, is unprecedented anywhere else in the United States.

Wojtowick got a letter from the bishop, who said he perused what Wojtowick had written, and plans to read it. The bishop also offered for the two to sit down for coffee the next time he comes through Lewistown, Wojtowick said.

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“What’s odd to me is the censure comes from Father Spiering at St. Leo’s, but the bishop hasn’t acted on it, he hasn’t changed it,” he said. “I never heard anything formal.”

Wojtowick kept a close eye in October on the two-week Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican. Pope Francis convened the assembly to consider how best to care for the family in modern society.

The gathering was a prelude to the Ordinary Synod of Bishops that will take place next October.

A midterm report sparked a huge reaction around the world as it addressed issues such as couples living together outside of marriage, divorced and civilly remarried people and Communion, and welcoming gay people into the church.

By the time the final document was released, the contents were much more conservative in tone, after the assembly couldn’t reach consensus on the more controversial issues. But the conversation will continue between now and next October.

And Wojtowick was encouraged by comments made by two of the prelates who attended the assembly, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, and Monsignor Georges Pontier, president of the French Bishops’ Conference.

Wojtowick cited an Oct. 17 article by Joshua J. McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter, who described a briefing that the two men attended.

In that article, Marx said that nobody is excluded from the church, and that “exclusion is not in the language of the church.”

“We cannot divide Christians into first class or second class or third class,” Marx was quoted in the article. All Christians are “parts of the body of Christ. We all participate.”

The Vatican Insider quoted Pontier as saying that, “Although the Catholic Church sees sacramental marriage between a man and a woman as the ideal union, ‘we cannot see everything in black and white, in terms of all or nothing and this is also where the pastoral care comes in.’ ”

Remarkably, the French prelate also was quoted in the Vatican Insider as saying something that almost directly describes Wojtowick and Huff: “If a same-sex couple has been in relationship for 30 years, I can’t call that nothing.”

“So that was kind of interesting,” Wojtowick said. “We’ve got some friends in Europe who asked if we’d heard that.”

Closer to home, he heard from a priest in Montana who told him that if the couple had been in his parish, he would not have subjected them to censure.

Wojtowick and Huff have gotten about 30 letters from people who have gay children or grandchildren and wonder what to tell them.

“I basically say, don’t let them be public in any kind of way,” Wojtowick said.

They still deal with some kinds of fallout. Wojtowick said his conservative Catholic sister hasn’t talked to him or Huff in three months. But they also receive support from other family members and friends.

Wojtowick will likely continue to keep a tenuous link to St. Leo’s, while also joining Huff at St. James. Beyond that, all the couple can do is wait in limbo and see what the future, and next year’s assembly, will bring.

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