Nicholas Coppola has gained a lot of attention since he was forced out of his volunteer parish ministries because someone anonymously tipped off the bishop that Coppola is gay and is civilly married in New York state to his same-sex partner. He's also received the support of plenty of people who think he should be allowed to continue volunteering in parish ministry–an online petition created by the group Faithful America has to date received more than 19,000 signatures from people who support Coppola.
But the petition isn't enough to sway the opinion of Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Center, New York. With more than 18,000 signatures at the time, the petition was delivered earlier this month to the bishop's office, but Religion News Service reports that it was returned with a simple one-line cover letter: "From your faithful Roman Catholic bishop."
Pressed for an explanation, a spokesman for the diocese said the petition simply didn't deserve a real reply from the bishop. According to diocesan communications director Sean Dolan: “All legitimate correspondence sent to the Office of the Bishop either by email or regular U.S. Mail is responded to. Online petitions of this nature lack legitimacy (and) are not considered correspondence and therefore do not warrant a response.”
Whether or not Coppola should have been removed from ministry, and whether Catholics who enter into a civil union or same-sex marriage with their partner should be allowed to participate in the life of a parish, are questions that will surely get a lot of arguments on both sides. But the fact that many Catholics were upset with the way Coppola was treated isn't something that should just be ignored–a good bishop should at least engage with his flock and, if not to debate the decisions he's made, should at the very least be open to explaining his reasoning in a pastoral manner. If nothing else, the bishop should see it as a teachable moment rather than something to turn away from and refuse to acknowledge.
Yes, perhaps an online petition may not be the best way for the faithful to express their position on church affairs. But luckily, even though Bishop Murphy doesn't believe in online petitions, we now know he does respond to all emails and letters. If 18,000 people were willing to sign an online petition, surely at least a few thousand could send polite, thoughtful letters to the bishop explaining why they disagree with a member of the church being told they are no longer welcome to participate in parish ministry. And since those letters or emails would be more "legitimate" than a petition, the bishop will of course be obliged to respond to them, right?
As Bryan Cones writes this month in U.S. Catholic: "While the Second Vatican Council insists in Lumen Gentium that the baptized 'by reason of the knowledge, competence, or outstanding ability which they may enjoy' should express their opinions on the needs of the church 'through the organs erected by the church for this purpose,' there simply are too few official structures of listening to the movement of the Spirit among God’s people." Apparently, we can add online petitions to the list of methods the church isn't willing to use as a means of giving the faithful a voice to speak about their conscience. But hopefully bishops will find other ways to listen to their people and enter into dialogue with them.
The next time something happens in the church that upsets you, maybe you should write a letter to your bishop. The response you receive, if any, could be very telling.