A Catholic bishop has instructed priests in his central Illinois diocese to deny communion, last rites and funeral rites to people in same-sex marriages – unless they repent.
In the decree he sent to priests, deacons, seminarians and staff in his Springfield diocese last week, Bishop Thomas Paprocki sets forth a set of norms on same-sex marriage and related pastoral issues that he says are the policy of the diocese.
Paprocki's decree bans priests and parish staff from performing same-sex marriages or allowing same-sex weddings or receptions at any Catholic facilities. People in same-sex marriages "should not present themselves for Holy Communion, nor should they be admitted to Holy Communion." A person in a same-sex marriage who is facing death may only receive communion after expressing "repentance for his or her sins."
Finally, Paprocki writes that "unless they have given some signs of repentance before their death," people in same-sex marriages may not receive a Catholic funeral.
The decree drew strong reactions from LGBT Catholic groups, including DignityUSA. "[T]his document is mean-spirited and hurtful in the extreme," the group's incoming president, Christopher Pett, said in a statement. "It systematically and disdainfully disparages us and our relationships."
"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," Pett wrote.
"It is simply cruel and shameful to refuse burial or Communion to those who seek the grace and comfort that our Church offers at some of the most difficult moments of life," added the organization's executive director, Marianne Duddy-Burke. "This is reminiscent of the appalling practice of denying Communion, funerals, and burial to people dying of AIDS at the height of the epidemic."
The Springfield Diocese defends the decree as necessary "in light of changes in the law and in our culture regarding these issues."
A 2015 Supreme Court ruling made gay marriage legal across the United States, and Paprocki has made headlines with his opposition to gay marriage before. In 2013, he held an exorcism in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois.
"[T]he Church has not only the authority, but the serious obligation, to affirm its authentic teaching on marriage and to preserve and foster the sacred value of the married state," it said in a statement to NPR. "Regarding the specific issue of funeral rites, people who had lived openly in same-sex marriage, like other manifest sinners that give public scandal, can receive ecclesiastical funeral rites if they have given some signs of repentance before their death."
Observers note that Paprocki's decree contradicts the more welcoming direction that Pope Francis has set for the Catholic Church. "I can't imagine a cruder thing more at cross purposes with what the Holy Father is trying to do," says Michael Sean Winters, a columnist at National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper.
Particularly galling, says Winters, is denying funeral rites to people in same-sex marriages. "The only time I can remember someone being denied a funeral were mafia bosses, when they were shooting at each other," he says.
Winters says Paprocki's decree is at odds with the message and tone of Francis' document on family life, titled Amoris Laetitia, or "The Joy of Love." In that 2016 paper, Francis rejected same-sex marriage, but also instructed priests to be inclusive: "I would also point out that the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.'"
The Archdiocese of Chicago told NPR that the policies decreed by Paprocki are not its own, but otherwise would not comment. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops directed a request for comment back to the Springfield diocese.
Winters notes that "it's considered brutta figora – an ugly figure – to speak ill of other bishops on the record." But he predicts that "privately, 95 percent of other bishops in the U.S. are reading [the decree] and are horrified. Even the ones who are pretty arch on same-sex marriage think this is too far."
Despite Paprocki's decree, support for same-sex marriage is growing in the United States, especially among young people. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of millennials supported gay marriage, as did 58 percent of U.S. Catholics.
"With young people, I think they're wrong to think God is fine with gay relationships," says Winters. "The Church doesn't teach that. But [Paprocki]'s wrong to say this is the most important issue. I don't think it's a fair reading of gospels, church teachings or our culture today."
Christopher Hale, who co-edits an online journal for young Catholics called Millennial, says the decree is out of touch with the church's leadership and its teachings.
"Let's be clear: Francis would give a funeral to someone in a same-sex relationship," Hale says. "A church that excludes the LGBT community is a church without a future."
And burying the dead is a rite as old as the faith itself, says Hale.
"No one goes to the grave without sin," he says. "The notion that a murderer could receive a Catholic funeral and someone in a same-sex union could not is absurd. ... Every Catholic deserves a Catholic funeral."