PORTLAND, Ore. – As a lay liturgical minister and a cantor, Wilma Hens was a leader for years at her Roman Catholic parish in the central Oregon city of Bend.
But then Bishop Robert F. Vasa (search) issued a two-page "affirmation of faith." It tells lay ministers and cantors that, if they want to continue in their roles on the altar, they must accept the church's teachings opposing abortion, contraception, gay relationships and other issues.
Hens couldn't agree, so she quit — publicly. She stood at a microphone at St. Francis of Assisi Church last month and told the congregation she was stepping down because she could not accept the bishop's requirement.
"I could no longer pretend that I could assent to some of those articles of faith any more than others can," she said Thursday in a telephone interview.
The affirmation singled out issues that many American Catholics have struggled with, such as the sinfulness of contraception and "the church's teaching that any extramarital sexual relationships are gravely evil and that these include premarital relations, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations."
"I happen to believe that many of the teachings on human sexuality are just plain faulty," said Hens, one of at least six lay ministers to quit because of the affirmation in the Diocese of Baker, headquartered in Bend. "I don't want to be held to those teachings. I cannot give my full assent. I don't want to pretend to do so in order to be a lay minister."
The Rev. James Logan (search), spokesman for Vasa, said the bishop was simply making his expectations for lay ministers clear. "What he's asked for is not a public proclamation but an internal checklist they would read through," Logan said.
Before lay ministers and cantors are certified or recertified, they are required to read the document. People already holding the positions, and candidates for the positions, are expected to withdraw if they disagree with the document.
The Baker Diocese is not the only one putting a new emphasis on making sure that lay ministers are following church teachings. In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George (search) sent a letter to Chicago-area pastors reminding them that a policy on fitness for lay ministry established in 1994 is still in effect, Catholic News Service reported this week.
James Dwyer, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Chicago, wasn't surprised by the Baker Diocese's new policy. "I don't understand why the secular press is so surprised the leader of a church would expect a lay minister to support church teachings," he said.
However Tom Dolezal, a Catholic from Bend, said the issue is not about supporting church teachings but blind adherence to dogma.
"If he (the bishop) is going to exclude anyone who has any doubt about a church teaching, he's going to exclude 100 percent of the membership of the church, including himself. He has to be a human being, the same as me, and I have doubts about some of the church teachings," Dolezal said.
Dolezal, a communion minister and lector, has not resigned from his positions. He plans to confront Vasa and see if the bishop forces him out of his job.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said it was normal to expect lay ministers to follow church teachings. But he said the affirmation was unusual.
"Typically what occurs is it's general policy that people involved in ministry to the church are to be loyal and faithful members of the church. If they find someone who's a communion minister who's leader of Planned Parenthood and running an abortion clinic, they tend to get fired," he said. "But this is unusual."