The Washington Post continues to go after priests who uphold Catholic sexual teaching. Last week, it was the smear of Fr. John DeCelles for not renewing his contract with the Boy Scouts of America following their decision to allow openly gay scouts into their membership. Now it’s an attack on Fr. Brian Coelho, a chaplain at MedStar Washington Hospital in DC.
The story begins with Ronald Plishka, a 63-year-old man who was undergoing treatment for an undisclosed condition this month at the hospital in question. According to Plishka, after being in the hospital for 24 hours, he “became concerned that he might not make it.” And that’s when the trouble started.
An altar boy until he was 18 and a weekly attendee at Mass, Plishka asked to see a priest.
According to Plishka, he asked Coelho for Communion and last rites, more commonly called the anointing of the sick. Coelho asked whether he would like to say confession first and Plishka said he began to talk about his history, including his lifelong struggle with his sexuality. Plishka didn’t come out as gay until he was in his 50s.
“Then we started talking about the pope, and I said I was so excited about him, because of what he said about gays. I said: ‘Does that bother you, that I’m gay?’ And he said ‘no,’ ” Plishka said.
The conversation was interrupted by someone coming into the room, which he shared with another patient, Plishka recalled. After that, Coelho“would not continue” with the specific prayers and acts of Communion and anointing, he said. “He said, ‘I will pray with you,’ but that’s all he’d do. That was it.”
“I just saw red. I cursed at a priest. I called him a hypocrite. As he was leaving — I can’t repeat what I said, but it was bad. . . . I’m thinking I’m going to rot in hell now,” he said. “But after that, I became scared — fear settled in. I don’t have the rites, I didn’t get Communion. I believed in the sacraments; this is something we’re taught we need before we die.”
“I’ve tried to be a decent person all my life. I’m not perfect, believe me. And I wouldn’t wish [being gay] on anyone. But you can’t be somebody you’re not. Otherwise you’ll end up 63 and alone,” he said.
Plishka said that a few days after the incident he called the Basilica of the National Shrine, where he has attended Sunday noon Mass for at least a decade. He didn’t know any priests but asked for one on duty to call him back, Plishka said. The priest agreed with the chaplain, Plishka said.
“He said, he can’t give you [Communion] if you continue that lifestyle, if you’re an active participant,” he said.
This story avoids the issue of Plishka’s own involvement in the gay culture, which forces us to read between the lines. It’s one of the problems with the usage of the term “gay”, which to some indicates merely a same-sex attraction, and to others, an active homosexual lifestyle. Plishka’s admission that he was gay did not, if his story is to be believed, “bother” Fr. Coelho.
But something else did. And this something, it appears to me, was Plishka’s unwillingness to see that he was doing anything wrong.
You’ll note that when he was asked to confess his sins, he chose instead to talk about his history. Instead of a spirit of penance, he talked about his excitement at his perception that the pope was embracing gays. Instead of saying that he condemned the homosexual lifestyle, he said that “you can’t be somebody you’re not…otherwise you’ll end up 63 and alone.” The implication is that Plishka chose the opposite – not to be alone.
Finally, Fr. Coelho’s decision to deny communion to Plishka was reinforced by the priest at the Basilica, who also warned that he could not give the sacrament to someone who is an “active participant” in the lifestyle.
Clearly, there is a fine line here. A person who struggles with same-sex attraction but remains chaste is not living in sin. In such a circumstance, there would be no grounds to deny sacraments. We can’t know for sure, but it certainly sounds like Plishka was more involved than that.
If so, it appears that Fr. Coelho’s actions were justified. A person who is living in sin and refuses to repent is not eligible to receive certain sacraments. They cannot be forgiven through confession, because they lack contrition. A priest has the right to withhold absolution to anyone he believes is not making a sincere confession.
And of course a priest is obligated not to provide a person he knows to be in grave sin with the Most Holy Eucharist.
The one oddity in this story is the alleged refusal to provide the Anointing of the Sick. This sacrament is not a “sacrament of the living” — one which requires that the recipient be in a state of grace to receive it — and can, in circumstances where a person is unable to confess their sins due to some physical or psychological impediment, effect the remission of sins. In the case of Plishka, who appears to have been fully conscious and capable of making a confession if he so chose, the sacrament would not have had this effect, but may have offered some of its other salutary benefits.
Still, nothing about Plishka’s account indicates that Fr. Coelho was in any way uncharitable toward him, only that he refused to offer sacraments which (with the possible exception of Anointing of the Sick) should have been refused by any Catholic priest in his situation. In that regard, it looks to the outside observer as though he made precisely the right call.
For his part, Fr. Coelho’s reticence to be interviewed is understandable. This is a minefield for any Catholic priest. Just two years ago, the case of another DC-area priest, Fr. Marcel Guarnizo, gained national attention when he was placed on administrative leave and had his faculties withdrawn after refusing to give communion to a woman who had revealed to him that she was living in a same-sex relationship. It was later claimed that he was placed on leave not for denying communion, but for intimidating behavior – a claim that Fr. Guarnizo has flatly denied.
As the story of Fr. Coelho’s actions continues to make waves, I hope he will respond to the accusations with his own side of the story. It’s not going to go away, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the media will capitalize on every story like this to further their agenda. Sadly, this likely means that fewer priests will be willing to protect Our Eucharistic Lord from sacrilege, for fear of the fallout.