Lifelong Catholic Ronald Plishka wasn’t sure that he that he would survive when an ambulance brought him to the emergency room of Washington, D.C.’s Washington Hospital Center to treat his heart attack, so he requested a priest to give him Communion and administer the Last Rites[i].
Father Brian Coelho, a priest assigned to the hospital’s Department of Spiritual Care, arrived at his bedside to perform the sacrament of anointing of the sick, but stopped preparing for Communion once he found out that Plishka was gay. . . Plishka told The Blade that Coelho offered to take his confession before proceeding with Communion and sacramental last rites. “We started talking, and I told him I was so happy with this new pope because of his comments about the gays and his accepting the gays,” Plishka said. “And I mentioned that I was gay. I said it and then I asked him does that bother you? And he said, ‘Oh, no, that does not bother me.’“
Plishka said that after his revelation, Coelho simply “would not continue” with the anointing of the sick sacrament or administration of Communion, offering Plishka no explanation.
“He said, ‘I will pray with you,’ but that’s all he’d do. That was it.” Plishka was shocked and angered by Coelho’s reaction. He told The Blade, “He wanted to pray. That’s what he wanted to do. He said well I could pray with you. And I just told him to get the f*** out of here — excuse me. But that’s what I told him.”
A spokesperson for the hospital, So Young Pak, released a statement to the Huffington Post that said, “MedStar Washington Hospital Center has taken our patient’s concerns very seriously. While the priest is not an employee but rather is assigned by the Archdiocese of Washington to provide spiritual care at our hospital, it is our expectation that all who support our patients adhere to our values. This includes offering pastoral and spiritual support to all patients, regardless of their faith traditions.”
Pak continued, “Our hospital was recognized last year as a ‘Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality’ by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. We want to hold true to this important commitment to the LGBTQ community and to all of our patients. Our Department of Spiritual Care has reinforced our expectations with this particular priest and his superiors.”
After Plishka told Coelho to leave, “The doctors came in and told me to calm down or I’m going to have another heart attack,” he said.
The hospital sent a Methodist pastor to Plishka’s room, who prayed with him and gave him Communion. However, Plishka noted that “it’s not the same. It’s not my religion, you know? I’ve been a Catholic all my life and for them to refuse me a sacrament and to refuse me Communion? It destroyed me.”
Plishka chose to speak out about the experience in the hopes of making a difference. He said, “I think there comes a time when as a gay man you have to take a stand, you know? It’s just intolerable to be treated like you’re nothing. And I could have died. And all I did was ask for the rites of the church that are due to me. But because I’m gay I’m denied that.”[ii]
This is the tragic legacy of the Ratzinger Doctrine in action. This priest and many others like him lose all sense of good pastoral judgment. Instead of allowing the rite for the Anointing of the Sick to bring the one suffering into the presence of a God in their time of anguish[iii], it would appear that, the stroke victim was effectively denied this sacrament because he is an unrepentant homosexual. This is not the true faith of the Catholic Church; it is the recent fanaticism of the few imposing themselves upon the whole.
Fr. Coelho should have done what Fr. McMonigle, my former parish priest, would have done. If Ronald Plishka was lucid, he would have asked him if he was aware of having on his conscience any serious sin that he never confessed. If so, he would have heard his confession.[iv] If Ronald Plishka, on the other hand, understood himself as ready to meet his Creator and his Final Judge with a clean conscience, then that would signal that any reservations that the priest had with regards to what he imagined was “the gay lifestyle” of Plishka needed to be set aside. These reservations were his problem; they were NOT the problem of this dying believer.
For there to be a mortal sin one must be aware that a particular action is a grave offensive to God and to go ahead and to do it anyway.[v] If Ronald Plishka accepted his gay lifestyle as a gift of God, then Fr. Coelho’s would have to say, “Who am I to judge?” and to proceed with the Anointing of the Sick. But Fr. Coelho was infected by the disease of fundamentalism and he was unable to do this. This is an offense against our merciful God and against the primacy of conscience. The fact that the Archdiocese defended Fr. Coelho is a sign of just how far the Ratzinger Doctrine has gone to blind and confuse members of my Church. As Jesus aptly observed, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides [of the blind]. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matt. 15:4).
[i] The “last rites” is the older phrase because it refers to the sacrament of Extreme Unction (Latin, “Last Anointing”) prior to death. After Vatican II, this practice was altered and this sacrament was renamed “Anointing of the Sick” and the faithful were encouraged to make use of this sacrament in the case of any severe illness and not just when the patient was dying. Confession (a separate sacrament) can be administered prior to the Anointing of the Sick if the sick person requests it. If the person is alert, s/he can request receiving Communion after the Anointing.
[ii] Ronald Plishka, “Gay Heart Attack Patient, Says Catholic Priest Refused Him Last Rites,” HuffPost 20 Feb 2014 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/20/ronald-plishka-gay-heart-attack_n_4823914.html).
[iii] The Catechism of the Catholic Church details the benefits of this Anointing as follows:
The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will. Furthermore, “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (§1520)
[iv] One reader endeavors to completely exonerate Fr. Coelho on the assumption that he did hear the confession of Ronald Plishka and, in order to preserve the seal of the confessional, he was not able to explain his strange conduct to outsiders because, to do so, he would have had to reveal what Ronald said to him during his confession. This assumption seems unwarranted and goes against the reported stream of events. For more details and interesting commentary by readers, see: “The sad story of a priest, a partial-penitent and the press,” PATHEOS
[v] Here are the relevant texts that Fr. Coehlo should have been using to direct his pastoral care:
For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1857
Pastoral care does not consist simply in the rigid and automatic application of objective moral norms. It considers the individual in his (or her) actual situation, with all his (or her) strengths and weaknesses. The decision of conscience . . . can only be made after prudent consideration of the real situation as well as the moral norm. . . the pastoral counseling of homophile persons cannot ignore the objective morality of homosexual genital acts, but it is important to interpret them, to understand the pattern of life in which they take place, to appreciate the personal meaning which these acts have for different people . . . Catholic Bishops of England and Wales Catholic Social Welfare Commission, An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People, 1979
When one is dealing with people who are so predominately homosexual that they will be in serious personal and perhaps social trouble unless they attain a steady partnership within their homosexual lives, one can recommend them to seek such a partnership and one accepts this relationship as the best they can do in their present situation. Fr. Jan Visser, coauthor of the 1975 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, quoted by Sean O’Riordan, C.Ss.R., in The ‘Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics’: A Discussion, James McManus, C.Ss.R., Sean O’Riordan, CSs.R., and Henry Stratton, The Clergy Review, London, June 1976, v. 61, no. 6, p. 233.
The pastor may distinguish between irresponsible, indiscriminate sexual activity and the permanent association between two homosexual persons, who feel incapable of enduring a solitary life devoid of sexual expression. This distinction may be borne in mind when offering pastoral advice and establishing the degree of responsibility. . . . [Catholic Bishops of England and Wales Catholic Social Welfare Commission, An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People, 1979].
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were to deliberately act against it, he would condemn himself. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1790.
If a man [sic] is admonished by his own conscience—even an erroneous conscience, but one whose voice appears to him as unquestionable—he must always listen to it. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 1994, p. 191.