There are a number of ways to go viral in the online Catholic community, and not all of them make you popular. St. Joan of Arc could tell you as much.
Two weeks ago, a Catholic website called Complicit Clergy set its sights on the Minneapolis parish. The blog, which was originally formed last summer, began as a small group of laypeople committed to exposing bishops who “knew (or should have known)” about the sexual abuse of young men by clergy members -- and in so doing, “cleanse” the church.
Joan of Arc was accused of a different sort of scandal, which took place at the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord in mid-January. That’s when a gay couple came to the front of the church before mass to have their toddler baptized.
There was some soft piano music. One of the men made a joke about how baptizing his son in the Catholic faith “kind of made sense,” because like Jesus, the boy (who was conceived via in vitro fertilization, or IVF), “also has two dads.” There was some boisterous laughter from the pews.
The dads explained that choosing to baptize their son as Catholic was a journey, peppered with the worry that their family might not be accepted. But they “saw themselves” at St. Joan, and grew to feel like they belonged there. There was more applause and soft piano music at the end.
This was the shocking display that eventually prompted Complicity Clergy to ask its readers to have St. Joan shut down.
IVF, a Complicit Clergy post explains, is “gravely immoral,” and “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered.” It called the pre-baptism address “but one example of a long and sordid history of dissent” at St. Joan, which also included allowing an interfaith nonprofit called ISAIAH to speak to parishioners, holding an annual gay pride prayer service (until the Archdiocese of St. Paul made them stop), and hosting a religious puppet show by celebrated Minneapolis theater group In the Heart of the Beast.
“TAKE ACTION,” the post concluded. Call Archbishop Hebda and “ask him to close St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis.” Complicit Clergy’s coverage of the “pro-gay scandal” got picked up by Church Militant, another Catholic website, which boasts tens of thousands of followers -- plenty of whom were officially giving St. Joan an uncomfortable amount of attention.
Hebda sent a statement saying he had indeed received “hundreds of calls and emails from all over the country” asking that he shutter the church and punish the priests who allowed “speakers who give witness to positions contrary to the Catholic church” to address the congregation.
“I am always grateful when anyone takes the time to contact us regarding issues facing the church,” he said. He said nothing about closing it – only that he and members of the Archdiocesan staff are “continuing to work” with St. Joan leadership to make sure parishioners get “solid church teaching on important issues.”
The staff at St. Joan declined to comment on the issue, but in the wake of the uproar about the baptism, St. Joan’s pastor, Jim DeBruycker wrote a brief response in the church’s bulletin. He explained Hebda had stopped by that Tuesday to have a “frank and honest discussion” about what happened, and that he had accepted an apology from the church for the hullabaloo, if not the baptism itself. DeBruycker agreed to be more “proactive” with people who address his parishioners when it comes to controversial topics, and “educate” the congregation about where the church stands on issues like homosexuality and IVF.
“Last week we had a wakeup call as we celebrated with a couple over their child’s baptism and how important it is to them to have a faith community,” he wrote. “What was to us a simple celebration was parsed into a credal statement about every aspect of their life at the St. Joan community.”
DeBruycker apologized if the baptism “offended” anyone, but "just because the couple is gay does not mean we are promoting a ‘gay agenda,’ -- whatever that means -- any more than we promote every part of our straight parishioners’ ‘agenda.’”
DeBruycker seems to know the way St. Joan does things is controversial. It has been said of the church, he wrote, that it is “the last place you are a Catholic before you leave the church and the first place you come back to when you rejoin.”
But it’s also a place where “many” of the parishioners and staff, who have “been hurt by the church for many reasons,” can feel good about calling themselves Catholic. It’s a place where those people who may not be accepted elsewhere can dare to feel safe, even welcome – no matter what the rest of the world says.
“We want to hear your story and not judge; we want to experience who you are,” he wrote.