Religion & Spirituality

Politics divide local Catholics

Churches change. Members come and go, as do church leaders, and the arrival of a new pastor or priest can cause some longtime members to leave and at the same time attract new parishioners. So it’s not surprising that there have been changes at St. Paul Catholic Church in Yellow Springs since the arrival four years ago of Father Anthony Geraci.

Yet the changes that are taking place at St. Paul appear to be more profound than those that generally surround a new church leader, according to some longtime members. Recently, some have made public their distress at what they perceive as a church that has become more politically conservative and at the same time less welcoming to Yellow Springs residents. Some have left the church, and are either trying to find a new spiritual home or have stopped attending church altogether.

Dissatisfaction came to a head in late February when Father Geraci delivered in his homily what some perceived as a comparison between the Obama administration and Nazi Germany, around the issue of a recent federal proposal that would require religious businesses to include contraceptives in their health insurance coverage for employees.

After Father Geraci invoked Nazi Germany in his homily, several parishioners called out from the pews in distress. And one, Mike Triplett, yelled in protest to Father Geraci from the choir loft at the rear of the sanctuary, his voice booming, according to several present. In the weeks after the service, Triplett — a 21-year member of the church who served for seven years on its lay advisory board, the Parish Pastoral Council — requested that Father Geraci meet with disgruntled members in the presence of a mediator.

Triplett has stopped going to St. Paul, and he is grieving for the loss of his church home.

“I feel like my home has been invaded,” Triplett said in an interview. “I feel that my home has been taken away from me.”

Jon Paul Rion, the current head of the Parish Pastoral Council, believes that Father Geraci’s words from the pulpit were misinterpreted. Rather than making a direct comparison between the current U.S. government and Nazi Germany, Father Geraci was attempting to warn people about the seriousness of preserving religious freedom in general, Rion believes.

“I think everyone would agree with the point he was trying to make,” Rion said. “If you look at the broader context of the homily, it leads to a less drastic interpretation.

Most of all, Rion wants to see those of all perspectives at St. Paul come together to work out their differences.

“With any change or growth in the church, it’s like a family. We need to come together and voice our opinions at the kitchen table,” he said.

However, last week, Father Geraci declined Triplett’s request for mediation. But in response to several questions from the News (see page 5) he stated that he is “always open to dialogue and discussion” and that the church is the appropriate mediator.

Another longtime local parishioner, who asked to speak anonymously, has begun to feel unwelcome at St. Paul after more than 50 years in the church and now attends only rarely. Like Triplett, the parishioner is grieving the loss of her church home. “I feel lost. I feel sad,” the church member said. “I feel my church is gone and there’s no hope of getting it back.”

Local face of national issue

The February sermon that sparked protest at St. Paul is the local face of a national controversy. In January the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops came out strongly against a Department of Health and Human Services proposal that would mandate religious businesses, such as hospitals, to include contraceptives in their health insurance coverage for employees. (The bishops state that abortion-causing drugs are also included, which is disputed by the HHS.) At the time Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, who oversees Catholic churches in 19 counties, wrote to area parishes that the HHS proposal “strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith.” Further on, he described the proposal as “a severe assault on religious liberty.”

The Obama administration made a revised proposal several weeks later to accomodate the bishops’ distress, stating that the religious businesses themselves would not be mandated to cover contraceptives, but that their insurance companies would. However, the bishops saw the compromise as vague and inadequate, and in a Feb. 13 letter to area parishes, Archbishop Schnurr again called on Catholics to “stand up for religious liberty” and oppose the HHS proposal.

According to Triplett, his distress with the Feb. 26 homily was not its opposition to the HHS proposal. Rather, it was Father Geraci’s comparing the Obama administration to the Hitler regime.

“In no way does this compare to what the Nazis did, when six million people died,” Triplett said. “It’s such extreme language.”

Another who spoke out in the pews that day was Pat Brown, who’s been a member of the St. Paul parish for the four years since she moved to the village.

“I was horrified,” Brown said in an interview. “I felt he had crossed the line.”

Especially, Brown felt troubled that the perceived comparision between the Obama and Hitler administrations had recently been used by Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

“You don’t come to church to hear right-wing people maligning the government,” said Brown, a lifelong Catholic who was a nun for 25 years. The February homily, she believes, was only the last straw in a series of increasingly politicized statements from the pulpit. When she expressed her distress to church leaders, she was asked to stop teaching a scripture class she’d been asked to teach several years ago, since she didn’t agree with church leaders. Brown gave up her class, and hasn’t gone back to St. Paul. She would attempt to meet and talk about her differences with Father Geraci, she said, but she doesn’t believe he’s open to dialogue.

Among those in the congregation on Feb. 26 who didn’t take issue with the homily was Delores Sizemore, who is currently serving on the Parish Council.

“I understood the point he was trying to make,” Sizemore said. “He was giving examples of places where religious freedoms had been taken away because the people didn’t protect them. We are trying to protect our religious rights.”

In the written version of the homily, Geraci stated “… Also, with Christ, our consciences take on a clear dimension as what is good and what is bad.

Today the bureaucrats in Washington wish to impose the conscience of the Federal government on our consciences… .

Things like this, like the imposition of government rules onto ordinary citizens happened before. They happened in Germany, under Adoph Hilter. A Person’s right of conscience was substituted by the conscience of government and its dictates in most all things.

The imposition of government rules onto ordinary citizens happened under Stalin, in Soviet Russia.

The imposition of government rules can occur anywhere. Those rules are often formed by the subjectivity of a few people. The great Catholic church is, right now, in the United States, calling for freedom of conscience and calling for an objective review of our health care systems and the recent mandate…”

Asked if the comparison between the Obama administration and Hitler would be considered by Archbishop Schnurr to be appropriate, a spokesperson, Dan Andriacco, declined to comment on its appropriateness. However, he said it’s a comparison that the Archbishop has not made.

Bishop Joseph Binzer of the Cincinnati Archdiocese stated that he could not comment on the appropriateness of the comparison, as he had not seen the exact words spoken. However, he said, different people interpret things very differently, and it’s likely some could have misinterpreted Father Geraci’s talk.

His main concern, Bishop Binzer said, is for the St. Paul parishioners to work through their differences so that they can move forward in their spiritual quests.

“My goal is for everyone to get to heaven,” he said.

Father Geraci declined to be interviewed for this article, although he agreed to answer questions in writing. However, this week he declined to allow his answers to be used in this article unless they were printed in their entirety as a single document. (See advertisement on page 5 of print edition).

Decline in members

Another longtime St. Paul member who requested anonymity because he continues to attend the church agreed with those who were troubled by the February homily. However, his larger concern is what he perceives as a significant decline in membership in the past four years, since the arrival of Father Geraci. Attendance on any given Sunday is down by about 30 percent compared with several years ago, he said.

“I’m concerned that so many people are walking away and don’t feel welcome,” he said. “They feel that nothing can be done.”

While St. Paul remains a robust church compared with several struggling local churches, its attendance numbers reflect a change. The church’s October count, which is its annual attendance tally, counted 328 attending Saturday or Sunday mass over an October weekend in 2007, compared with 271 the next year, 257 in 2009, 234 in 2010 and 218 in October 2011. The number of children in attendance in recent years has also significantly declined, the longtime member said.

While some church leaders say the decline is a national trend, he believes that many other Catholic churches remain robust.

While many have left the church, a fair number of new members have begun attending. However, the longtime member said he is especially concerned that many people he worshipped with over the years who live in Yellow Springs no longer come. “I seem to know so few of the people there,” he said of the current congregation. “I wonder, where did everyone go?”

To this St. Paul member, some have left because the church seems now to be more rigid in its interpretation of God, and some, including himself, aren’t comfortable with that rigidity.

“You can’t put a box around God or the divine,” he said. “But we keep getting definitions of what God is like, and defining God is not even possible.”

Some of those who left may have been dissatisfied with the changes Father Geraci made in the worship service, according to Delores Sizemore, who approves of the changes. Previously, she said, rituals had become so loose at St. Paul that some felt the rituals had lost their meaning.

“He was changing some things and it displeased the local people,” Sizemore said. “He made it more formal.”

To Jon Paul Rion, the charge that the church now attracts a more conservative group of attenders lacks credibility. When new people come, no one asks them their political views, so there is no way to determine whether they’re more or less conservative, he said.

More disturbing to Pat Brown than the controversial homily is that the Catholic church as a whole seems to be moving away from its heritage of social justice concerns. She has always been part of the more liberal edge of the church, she said, and was proud of the church’s historic commitment to the poor and underprivileged. Now, she sees church leaders more concerned about preserving their power than administering to human needs. For instance, while she personally opposes abortion, she believes there are certain circumstances in which it may be the best choice. And she has no doubt that contraceptives meet the health needs of many women.

“It seems that now church leaders no longer consider the individuals involved,” she said. “The church should have a choice in this, but not individual people?”

To Jon Paul Rion, the church continues to be a meaningful place where people come together to worship and find answers to life’s challenges. He describes Father Geraci as “a man of deep faith. It’s clear that over the years he’s tried very hard to express his faith through St. Paul Church.”

He also worries about people leaving the church over this conflict, or for any reason.

“It would be very sad if we lost even one member,” he said.

Overall, he hopes the current controversy serves to bring people together.

“There would be nothing better than for all to come together and speak through this,” Rion said. “It would be a wonderful display of brotherly love.”

 

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