The Madison Catholic Diocese doesn’t have to be worried whether withholding funeral rites for people in same-sex unions offends public opinion, because it’s not inherently wrong to be out of step with contemporary sensibilities on matters of sacred theology, its leaders said Monday.

In other words, Monsignor James Bartylla said Monday, just because it’s modern — or legal under civil law, as the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be in 2015 — doesn’t make it right in the church’s eyes.

“We have to be careful not to engage in chronological fallacy,” Bartylla said. “This (issue) could easily fall into the cultural milieu where anything that is new is seen as a (positive) development and therefore correct.”

Also, he added, “civil law is not the arbiter of what is morally licit or illicit. It is not the arbiter, as we know from failed nations who allowed things or did things that were terribly immoral under the guise of the law.”

Bartylla, who as vicar general is second-in-command to Bishop Robert Morlino, issued a controversial, confidential email to priests with Morlino’s backing on Oct. 21 that, in part, spelled out a series of “considerations” that priests should use in deciding whether to provide funeral rites for Catholic parishioners in same-sex unions.

The email angered gay-rights advocates and others, who viewed it as backward and discriminatory when it became public a day later and included guidelines for priests such as not mentioning the name of the surviving partner and not making reference to “the unnatural union” if funeral rites are provided for someone in a same-sex union.

In addition, when priests are asked to provide funeral rites by the deceased’s family or same-sex partner, Bartylla’s email said “general considerations” priests should keep in mind include the “attitude” of the family toward the church, whether the deceased or surviving partner was a “promoter of the gay lifestyle,” and whether the deceased person had shown “signs of repentance before death.”

While not without recent precedent — Bishop Thomas Paprocki in Springfield, Illinois, issued a similar directive this summer restricting funerals and the sacrament of communion for LGBT Catholics in same-sex marriages — publication of Bartylla’s email sent shock waves through the LGBT community and its supporters in Madison.

Steve Starkey, executive director of Madison-based LGBT OutReach, sounded both saddened and flabbergasted when asked for his reaction to the Bartylla email.

“I grew up in a Christian family and we were a really active Christian family,” Starkey said. “All of the teachings of Jesus and the Christian message are about faith, hope, charity and treating everyone with kindness. The thing that is so difficult for us to hear is that (being in a gay marriage) is a sin and there’s nothing you can do about it and you’re going to hell. How do you argue with that?”

Bartylla met Monday with the Wisconsin State Journal to try to clarify the email and correct what the church views as misconceptions it produced as a result of misunderstandings of terminology that Bartylla described as similar to shoptalk of different tradespeople.

“When priests talk to priests, with the benefit of having studied for years and years, we often speak in a kind of shorthand,” Bartylla said. “So the leakage of that email, either intentionally or by negligence, was wrong.”

About the basic doctrine, Bartylla said it’s been true for “centuries upon centuries, (over) 2,000 years of pastoral wisdom,” that the church has held that any “manifest sinners who are unrepentant should be denied funeral rites if public scandal cannot be mitigated.”

He said “manifest sinner” referred to anyone whose sins are “very public,” or not just known to family and friends. And he said the term “public scandal” has a specific technical meaning in Catholic theology.

“It doesn’t mean surprise or shock or gossip,” he said. “It’s the duty not to lead others into sin. So at a funeral, we have a duty — with all the living souls there — that we as a church not lead them into sin. We take that very seriously because we are there both for the living and the deceased, to pray for the deceased but also to bring the truth and good to all those who are there and faithful.”

The repentance required of the manifest sinner includes “even the slightest shred of repentance,” Bartylla said, with every effort made to provide rites if possible.

“These are case-by-case situations and I provided some guidelines,” Bartylla said.

However, in what remains the main deal breaker for many, the church will never change its view that the homosexual act itself is a sin, Bartylla said, which it holds under “natural law” and church teachings tied to the sacred texts of canon law, catechism and the Bible.

To those who disagree, Bartylla said he would not “vilify” them and they should give him the same courtesy.

“I find the (position that), ‘Either you condone my or someone’s activity, or you’re a hater or a bigot,’ as being fallacious,” Bartylla said, though he stressed that rejecting homosexual acts did not mean gay people weren’t welcome in the Catholic Church, if they were open to changing.

“I want to make sure … it’s clear to people that the church welcomes those who have same-sex attraction,” Bartylla said. “One of the gravest problems that would come from the leak is the perception that we do not care.”


Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.