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VOL. 39 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 4, 2015

Breen remains defiant on gay marriage

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Breen

Father Joseph Breen always makes an entrance, whether he wants to or not, a beloved Nashville figure who inevitably collects handshakes and hugs wherever he goes, unmistakable when he rolls up in his white Chrysler 300 and clerical collar.

Spend a half-century as a Tennessee parish priest and social justice activist, and you make a lot of friends. And, to be fair, probably several enemies.

He’s beloved for many things, but one is the quietly aggressive way he lays down doctrine the way he sees it, regardless of what his Catholic superiors think. And Breen knows exactly what they think of him – he earned three formal reprimands before the diocese insisted he retire last year at age 79.

That was just after he distributed a survey asking his flock at St. Edward Catholic Church in Nashville whether it was a sin to be gay or use birth control, or OK for women to be priests. (No, no and yes, according to the majority of 201 who responded.)

Then he shared those on the church website – the link is broken now, replaced by a “Dear St. Anthony, please come around. This page is lost, and it can’t be found” error message – and spoke about the results with multiple reporters.

Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming same-sex marriage in all 50 states, Breen is breaking ranks again, this time with a video where he says the church should recognize those unions. You can watch all six minutes of it at https://youtu.be/Ac2FV72cxHE.

It starts with a couple of warm-up sentences about the importance of finding love, but within the first minute and a-half, he’s disputing an official church stance once again.

“I really hope and pray that our official church and our bishops will work as Pope Francis strongly encourages us to do together with our priests and our laity, to learn from one another, and to establish a very spiritual, meaningful celebration of same-sex marriage,” he says.

And later: “It will be a beautiful day when the church offers a sincere apology to the treatment that has been inflicted on gay and divorced Catholics.”

To be clear, Pope Francis last year reaffirmed the church’s stance against same-sex marriage, but said it could consider some types of civil unions on a case-by-case basis. In June, he said heterosexual parents are best for children.

It’s unclear what, if anything, the Diocese of Nashville would do about Breen’s video. Its spokesman, Rick Musacchio, says any opinions Breen expresses are his own, and it was irresponsible for Breen to represent Pope Francis’ comments as he did.

Breen lives in Mary Queen of Angels – a Catholic retirement home – and still can lead Mass and perform weddings, funerals and baptisms in churches that allow him to.

My fleeting thought on both his survey and video was that Breen would be a better fit as an Episcopalian, a denomination in which birth control, women priests and same-sex marriage are all cool. (Although, on that last one, not in the diocese that includes Middle Tennessee. Bishop John C. Bauerschmidt is a holdout against church policy that gives permission for priests to perform same-sex marriages.)

But talking to Breen, it quickly becomes clear how dearly he loves the Catholic Church and thinks that his stances have its backing. He cites the Second Vatican Council – or Vatican II – of the early 1960s and its support of sensus fidelium. Basically, that’s a belief in the ability of individual Catholics and the church to come together on doctrinal truths.

He also says he sincerely believes that he’s got the backing of Pope Francis, and that same-sex marriage would be a big step toward bringing back millions of lapsed Catholics. Breen is pumped about being Congressman Jim Cooper’s guest to see the pope in Washington, D.C., in September and eager to hear what the pontiff has to say.

For now, Breen is unconcerned about any fallout from the video.

“I think there are teachings that are no longer relevant, no longer accepted by the laity, and the church needs to acknowledge that,” he explains. “Every day, hopefully we have a better understanding of what is truth.

“I am doing what I think the Lord wants me to do. We call that following your conscience. I am hoping and praying that (the bishops) really understand the spirit of Vatican II and the wishes of Pope Francis. I am fulfilling Pope Francis’ example and what he’s been teaching.”

In the meantime, Breen is keeping himself busy as a community activist. With no parish and school to oversee, he said, his time is his own. And he has a suggestion for rank-and-file Catholics as they wait for church guidance on the marriage issue.

Stop being un-Christian to gay people. Apologize and ask forgiveness. Get to know them and what they believe.

To Breen, that’s the essence of what Catholic faith is all about.

Heidi Hall is a freelance writer and former religion editor for The Tennessean.

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