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Priest removes gay couple from volunteer posts in Lewistown Catholic church

Priest removes gay couple from volunteer posts in Lewistown Catholic church

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On Aug. 6, four days after the Rev. Samuel Spiering arrived as the new administrator of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown, he met with parishioner Paul Huff to ask him if he and his partner, Tom Wojtowick, had gotten married.

After Huff confirmed the fact, the priest asked to meet with the two men the next day. At that second meeting, Spiering dismissed the pair from their volunteer posts in the church and told them they could no longer receive Communion, a sacrament at the core of a believer’s faith.

Wojtowick and Huff were stunned and stung by the action. It sprang from the Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and its belief that homosexual behavior is a sin.

The issue has caused some people to leave the parish and stirred up controversy in the small central Montana town. To address all that has happened, Bishop Michael Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings plans to meet with parishioners at the church Saturday night.

Wojtowick, 66, and Huff, 73, lifelong Catholics, have been partners for more than 30 years. The two men, both members and active at St. Leo’s and the community, married in Seattle in May 2013 to have the legal rights of spouses in their later years.

Lewistown is Wojtowick’s hometown. The two men lived in Seattle for nearly 20 years before they moved to Lewistown in 2003 and started attending St. Leo’s.

Wojtowick, who recently retired as executive director of the Fergus County Council on Aging, is chairman of the Lewistown Public Library Board of Trustees and involved in a number of other organizations.

Huff is chairman of the Fergus County Fair Board, a member of the board for Cowboy Poetry and a retired board member of the Lewistown Art Center.

At the church, Wojtowick is an organist, an accompanist and sings in the choir. Huff sings in the choir and is a cantor.

In a timeline provided by Wojtowick, the same day the couple met with Spierling, Wojtowick spoke with Warfel by phone. The bishop asked a number of questions and said he would call again.

Wojtowick and Huff talked with Spiering and Warfel and other diocesan officials in a conference call on Aug. 25. Out of that, Wojtowick said, came an agreement that Wojtowick and Spiering would write a restoration statement, that in part, would support the concept of marriage between a man and a woman, which Wojtowick and Huff were willing to do.

“It was not our intent to challenge that (concept), but to have the rights of civic protections in our old age,” Wojtowick wrote.

When Spiering and Wojtowick met to write the statement, Wojtowick said the priest told him they would also have to set up a timeline for the two men to separate and divorce, which Wojtowick said he and Huff did not agree to.

Though they provided the timeline of events, Wojtowick and Huff are refraining from further comment on the issue until they have heard the bishop speak on Saturday night.

In a telephone interview from Great Falls on Thursday afternoon, Warfel said he knows Wojtowick and Huff “to be good people.”

“This is not animus against someone who happens to be a homosexual; this issue is the same-sex marriage,” he said. “A lot of people put those two together, and obviously there’s a connection, but it’s not the same thing.”

Warfel called same-sex marriage “the issue of our era,” acknowledging that in the U.S., polls show that support for it has edged higher than those who oppose it. But the fact remains that stands in conflict with Catholic teachings.

“As a Catholic bishop I have a responsibility to uphold our teaching of marriage between one man and one woman,” Warfel said. “And I think there’s very solid scriptural teaching on it and our sacred tradition is very strong on it.”

Those teachings leave him little choice, he added.

“Either I uphold what Catholic teachings are or, by ignoring it or permitting it, I’m saying I disagree with what I’m ordained to uphold,” Warfel said.

He has gotten a number of letters on the issue. Some people said that a song sung in Catholic churches titled “All are Welcome” needs to be changed to “Some are Welcome.”

“Everyone is welcome to the journey of conversion,” Warfel said. “But there are certain convictions, beliefs or behaviors that are in direct contradiction to what we believe and teach, and this would be one of them.”

He said his understanding is that Wojtowick and Huff did not publicize their marriage in the community. But once it became publicly known, it had to be dealt with publicly.

Warfel, who sees the Saturday evening meeting as a private one with parishioners, said he’s hoping to find a solution to Wojtowick’s and Huff’s situation. But, saying it is a pastoral matter, he declined to speak further about it.

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