Nashville, Tennessee Bishop J. Mark Spalding inherited a problem when arriving as the new diocesan bishop in February 2018 — his predecessor, Bishop David Choby (who died in 2017), had not batted an eye when Nashville diocese priest Stephen Wolf, pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Clarksville, Tennessee, revealed to him that he was "gay." Choby left Wolf alone as pastor, and eventually, Wolf made it public that he was "gay" but also "celibate."
As problematic as this was, it wasn't until Wolf began to foment dissent regarding homosexuality publicly in his own parish and beyond (via his vanity press book Gay Respect in the Good News) that his own parishioners started taking notice and valiantly attempted to address the matter with their new bishop.
In the course of the last year, these faithful souls were merely ignored or redirected to other curia members who in turn did nothing to address Wolf's dissent. Wolf openly rejects the Church's teaching that the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered.
As a result, the parishioners went public via an article published just a few weeks ago in Crisis Magazine, detailing their witnessing Wolf's dissent personally, their being effectively shunned by their pastor and their diocese, and their grave concerns about the erosion of the faith in their own parish, caused by Wolf himself.
Since that article, Bishop Spalding has spared a few words to those who made direct inquiries with the diocese but has taken no decisive public action. Wolf has been directed to decline interview requests. Immaculate Conception parishioners don't believe their concerns are being addressed in a timely or clear manner. Spalding continues to support Wolf as pastor and says he's met with Wolf and is looking into Wolf's involvement in ministries to "LGBT" persons.
Yet, Spalding continues to refuse to meet personally with any concerned parishioners while Wolf proceeds as parish pastor as though nothing alarming did happen or is happening.
As to Wolf's erroneous book, built squarely upon his personal dissent against the Church's true teaching on the homosexual inclination, Bishop Spalding, via a spokesperson, will only say that Wolf's book "does not have an imprimatur from any ecclesiastical authority and, as such, cannot be considered an authentic expression of Catholic Faith or morals." However, the book remains available for sale from Fr. Wolf and in his own parish's book store.
"I am deeply disappointed in Bishop Spalding's inaction up to this point," said concerned parishioner Scott Audet. He added:
He is supposed to be our shepherd. It is his responsibility to protect, teach and guide us. Since the last article was published, many parishioners have approached me to state their dismay and disappointment. Some have decided to attend Mass elsewhere, and others have told me that they are considering leaving. There is an air of distress among many. I was recently contacted by a very solid young family. They are not happy with having a pastor that subscribes to moral relativism. They want to take action so that their children and other vulnerable parishioners will not be adversely affected by Fr. Wolf's erroneous relativistic teachings and beliefs.
Parishioner Megan Franklin shares Audet's deep concerns:
We were hopeful Bishop Spalding hadn't responded earlier because he really didn't have all the information. We now know that isn't the case. He has read Fr. Steve's book, met and talked with him, yet fails to directly address Fr. Steve's break from the Catechism. His lack of response is in itself a response of silence. By remaining silent and not responding, Bishop Spalding is refusing to defend Catholic teachings and the Church. Silence is compliance. I don't know if Bishop Spalding is complicit or complacent, but either way, he needs to assume the responsibility he has to our parish and stand up for the Catholic faith.
It is absolutely ridiculous that I attend a Catholic Church where my pastor is actively preaching things that are against Catholic teachings and appearing in The New York Times, and nobody can get a meeting with Bishop Spalding. Honestly, I am mad. I have small children and we expect at minimum that our parish will not go against Catholic teachings. If it does, I expect Bishop Spalding to do something immediately.
Megan's husband, Brian Franklin, sees clericalism behind this tolerance of open dissent from a Catholic pastor:
The church is currently undergoing a crisis of confidence in its clerical leadership due to the systemic inaction regarding the sexual abuse committed by clergy. What we are witnessing in Nashville is but another example of this propensity to cover up and not fix a problem. Bishop Spalding's failure to act throws the souls of Immaculate Conception into jeopardy due to the wayward guidance of Fr. Steve, and it undermines the faith of the entire diocese.
Immaculate Conception parishioner Patty Holland also has been concerned by Wolf's dissent and subsequent lack of accountability for a long time:
The lack of leadership is distressing. We have tried for a year to talk to Bishop Spalding about Fr. Wolf and have gotten nowhere, pretty much just the runaround. I tried for months and was passed off to the Vicar for Priests and to the bishop’s secretary, and finally to the chancellor. For a while it looked like Megan Franklin might be successful, but it appears they quit taking her calls to the diocese. This is definitely dividing our parish. Many don't realize the severity of the situation, or choose to ignore it, but we have gained many more enlightened parishioners in the last couple weeks.
Dan Calderon is a parishioner who has a novel suggestion for his bishop, assuming Wolf remains as pastor at Immaculate Conception:
If nothing else is done, my wife Nancy and I would like the Bishop to establish another Catholic parish here in Clarksville and to assign an orthodox-teaching priest as pastor. I can assure him that we have the numbers to support it. Yet my wife and I hold out hope that some definitive action will be taken by Bishop Spalding to put a stop to the erroneous teaching of Fr. Wolf on "gay" issues, properly forming one's conscience, sin and being allowed to receive the Eucharist even if in a "committed, long-term homosexual relationship." We do not believe that Fr. Wolf will change his position, so we feel that the only good solution is for the bishop to assign us a new pastor. We will continue to pray for Fr. Wolf and his struggles with depression and same-sex attractions.
We deserve priests who adhere to authentic Catholic teaching. I intend to write again to Bishop Spalding, although I never got any response to my first letter. I want him to know directly that our tithes to our parish have stopped and are being sent to orthodox Catholic ministries. We will not resume tithing until a satisfactory resolution emerges. A number of other people have made it known that they are no longer giving to Immaculate Conception or to the diocese.
In fact, the parishioners at Immaculate Conception have organized an online petition drive in order to achieve such a resolution as quickly as possible. Originally hoping for just 100 signers, the petition to date has nearly 500 signatures.
The group "Concerned Catholics of Clarksville" is asking Bishop Spalding to remove Fr. Wolf as pastor and reassign him to a "penitential post" until his views once again align with Church teaching; ban Fr. Wolf's book from all Catholic parishes and bookstores in the diocese and release a statement that it is spiritually misleading; and release a letter from Bishop Spalding, to be read at every Mass in every parish in the diocese, publicly acknowledging that Fr. Wolf has taught error and affirm the diocese's commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Signers in the diocese of Nashville plan to withhold all monetary support from their parishes and from the diocese until these results are achieved.
Suddenly in Nashville, the silence and foot-dragging are coming at a concrete cost, spoken in a language every local ordinary understands — time is money.
The faithful in the Nashville diocese are done waiting. It's time for Bishop Spalding to publicly respond with action and not mere words.