Fr. Mark Payne serves in the senior Archdiocese of Milwaukee position of judicial vicar. He has also been pastor of two North Shore parishes since 2022: St. Eugene in Fox Point and St. Monica in Whitefish Bay. In addition, he is chaplain of the national TV Mass produced by Wisconsin-based Heart of the Nation.
Catholic news website “The Pillar” on Thursday, Nov. 30, first reported allegations that Payne was in an apparent relationship with another man, and the priest hired that man to teach at St. Monica School.
A day later, on Friday, the archdiocese announced it had pulled the pastor from the parishes and placed him on administrative leave.
City of Milwaukee property records, reviewed by FOX6 News, showed the priest and the other man co-owned a duplex near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It showed they bought the two-bedroom, two-bathroom home in 2003 for $245,000.
Courtesy: Heart of the Nation
As “The Pillar” also first reported, the other man was arrested in 2018 for an OWI and a second charge that was dismissed: possessing cocaine.
The criminal complaint, obtained by FOX6 News, noted that police alleged finding in the man’s pockets and wallet a total of seven baggies with a white substance that tested positive for the presence of cocaine. The complaint also said the man “admitted to using cocaine.” However, a Milwaukee County judge dismissed that charge as part of a plea deal. The complaint noted the man had been convicted of a separate OWI in 2016.
The archdiocese’s letter sent to parishioners on Dec. 1 declared: “Father was told his hiring of the grade school teacher was not appropriate. Father Payne assured us that he is faithful to his priestly vows and that the information painted a misleading picture of the situation.”
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee vicar for clergy, Fr. Nathan Reesman, wrote parishioners that the archdiocese had known about the allegations and was allowing Fr. Payne to “clear up any possible misunderstandings before taking the step of initiating a formal investigation.”
The archdiocese’s communications director, Sandra Peterson, added in an email to FOX that the archdiocese “had already been conducting an inquiry, and on Friday the archbishop called for a formal investigation. That’s the next step after an inquiry, so this was already in the middle of the process.”
In light of the story, the archdiocesan letter reported it moved up the timeline, as Archbishop Jerome Listecki launched a formal investigation to be led by an expert from another diocese “to ensure maximum objectivity.”
The archdiocese asked parishioners to “please pray for the next steps in this situation, for Father Payne, for his parish communities, and for all those impacted by this information.”
After news broke, the parishes wrote an email to parishioners on Saturday. It said the two parishes’ pastoral councils, finance councils and trustees met “to discuss how to move forward in light of the information learned yesterday.”
The email continued, “We ask for your patience as this process unfolds and also ask that we as parish communities pledge to not engage in gossip and speculation regarding the current situation and trust the investigative process undertaken by the archdiocese.”
A Polish bishop whose diocese has been badly tarnished by reports of a gay orgy involving priests and a prostitute resigned on Tuesday, the latest in a long series of sexual and financial scandals in Poland’s Roman Catholic Church.
Grzegorz Kaszak, the bishop of Sosnowiec in southwestern Poland, announced his departure after one of his priests was placed under criminal investigation in connection with reports last month that he had organized a sex party during which a male prostitute lost consciousness from an overdose of erectile dysfunction pills.
Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal daily newspaper, reported in September that one of the priests at the gathering, held in a building belonging to the parish of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Angels in the town of Dabrowa Gornicza, had called an ambulance. Others at the party prevented paramedics from tending to the unconscious man, the paper reported, but the paramedics called the police and the priests relented.
The priest who organized the gathering in his church apartment, identified by the diocese only as Father Tomasz Z., gave a statement last month to Polish media that disputed details of what had happened, quibbling over the number of priests present at the time of the alleged sex party and saying that “it is worth reading what the definition of an orgy is.”
He dismissed the uproar over events in his apartment as “an obvious attack on the church, including the clergy and believers,” and claimed that nobody would have raised a fuss if “something similar had happened” to a person outside the clergy.
The diocese, in its own statement last month, said that the “participation” of Father Tomasz “in what happened on the night of Aug. 30-31 is not in doubt.” It said he had been barred from celebrating Mass, stripped of all other functions and “sent to live outside the parish.”
Announcing that the church had set up a commission to investigate “the scandalous event” reported by the press, the diocese asked media outlets to keep in mind that “almost all” priests in the parish were good and had themselves, by reporting what had taken place, “become victims due to this deplorable crime.”
Bishop Kaszak announced his departure Tuesday in a message posted on his diocese’s website but gave no reason. The Vatican said on Tuesday that it had accepted the bishop’s resignation. It, too, gave no explanation.
The departing bishop has not been accused of taking part in the reported orgy but is held responsible for the behavior of priests in his diocese.
“I ask everyone to forgive my human limitations,” he wrote in his farewell message. “If I have offended anyone or neglected something, I am very sorry.”
“The church’s internal difficulties constitute an excellent breeding ground of accelerating trends of secularization,” the report, Polish Church 2023, said.
Trust in the church, according to experts, has also been damaged by its close alliance with Poland’s nationalist governing party, Law and Justice. In a critical general election on Oct. 15, the party lost its majority in Parliament to centrist and liberal opponents who have often criticized the church for aligning with right-wing political forces in pursuit of its agenda on abortion and other issues.
Law and Justice in 2018 banned Sunday shopping, and in 2020 pushed through a near-total ban on abortion, a move that delighted the church but alienated many young people, who mostly no longer attend Mass and voted overwhelmingly for parties opposed to Law and Justice.
Long seen as a Catholic stronghold that, in contrast to Ireland and Spain, had managed to hold back a tide of secularization that has swept across most of Europe, Poland has over the past decade seen a sharp decline in church attendance, though most still declare themselves Christians. Enrollment in seminaries has also plummeted, forcing several to shut down.
Lamenting that a process previously referred to by experts as “creeping secularization” was now “galloping,” the church report warned that “the church in Poland is entering a rather dangerous ‘twist’ in its history. Much depends on how it will be able to defeat this.”
A Catholic nun has revealed that she secretly blessed a same-sex couple 15 years ago – long before the Pope Francis indicated that same-sex couples could receive blessings – and she’d do it again.
Roman Catholic Sister Anna Koop blessed the couple, one of whom was a personal friend, 15 years ago because they were in love and “Jesus did not say love was confined.”
The 85-year-old told CBS News that she was aware she might face consequences from the Church, but went ahead with with the private blessing anyway. In her own words, she “blessed the love they celebrate”.
Sister Koop, who became a nun in the late 1960s and has spent her career mainly in Denver, focussing on homelessness and poverty, said the Pope’s support of same-sex couple blessings made her feel that her blessing 15 years ago has been supported.
She said she never experienced consequences over the secret blessing and still keeps in touch with the couple. They are still together and have two children.
Sister Koop doesn’t regret her actions.
“I did it once and I would do it again,” she said.
In the Church of England, however, blessing services for same-sex couples may be a considerable way off.
The Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, has said it’s unlikely that such services will take place before 2025.
The delay comes amid what Mullally called a “time of uncertainty” for the Church due to division over the General Synod – the Church of England’s decision-making body – announcing in February it would continue to prevent priests ordaining same-sex marriages, but blessings would be offered instead.
In a move towards increased inclusivity, in January the Church of England formally apologised for its historically “hostile” treatment of LGBTQ+ people.
Conservative Catholics in the United States — home to perhaps the wealthiest and loudest concentration of Pope Francis’s right-wing critics — are watching the major Vatican meeting opening this week with dread and deep mistrust. Concrete organizing against the “Synod on Synodality” or against Francis is rare, but lobbing of the word “schism” is not.
From the most radical traditionalist to the mainstream conservative, many U.S. Catholics are wary about the opening Wednesday of the synod, which has been planned for more than two years. Despite worldwide listening sessions offered at every level of the Catholic Church, many conservatives feel that the long process of gathering opinions and representatives for the synod was stacked against them.
They see the free-flowing synod structure, which involves laypeople and women in equal roles to clergy, as un-Catholic, and they see as dangerous program documents such as those asking for “concrete steps” to better welcome LGBTQ Catholics and people in polygamous marriages. They feel that Jesus’ name was downplayed in synod documents.
“The primary concern is that the pope will authorize things that are not contained in Catholic doctrine or that will contradict it such as women deacons, blessing gay unions” or weakening Catholic teachings against contraception and abortion by emphasizing individual conscience, said the Rev. Gerald Murray, a New York City priest who will be in Rome during the synod doing commentary for several conservative media outlets. “We’re not Protestants.”
Such anxieties may have grown Monday with the Vatican’s release of a letter from Francis suggesting an openness to Catholic blessings for same-sex couples — so long as the ceremonies were not confused with sacramental marriages — and to further study the idea of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
Francis was responding to a letter from five conservative retired cardinals, asking him to reaffirm traditional teachings ahead of the three-week synod. The five asked him to reaffirm that sex outside marriage between man and woman is a grave sin, and to answer whether the synod will have powers that have been understood to belong only to the pope and bishops.
In addition to the involvement of women and laypeople, the synod is different from similar past events in how it has been organized. Instead of being divided into language groups, the makeup of conversation groups will be regularly changed through the weeks. Supporters of this approach see a chance to expand perspectives; conservatives see something more like speed-dating or the chaos of a preschool classroom.
“Why has it gone from a synod of bishops to include others? Bishops have a divine role in the governance of the church. Bishops’ powers are priestly power, governance power, teaching power. It’s by virtue of that power that they have the authority to tell us what to do, what to believe, tell us how to act. Laypeople can give opinions but don’t have an authoritative voice,” Murray said. “It changes the nature of the church.”
Alejandro Bermudez, a longtime journalist covering the Catholic Church in English and Spanish, said conservatives fear “that the whole thing is a bait and switch,” he said. “The synod is on ‘synodality,’ meaning discussion, is supposed to be how the church can function better, how to govern the church. But the questions are related to gay blessings, women priests, married priests. How is that related to synodality?”
Conservatives have also been offended by Francis’s at times scolding his U.S. critics. Last month, the Catholic publication La Civilta Cattolicà quoted him as saying there is a “strong reactionary attitude” among American Catholics. He characterized them as backward-looking, closed.
>“Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies,” Francis was quoted as saying.
Conservatives are conservative by nature, and the prevailing mood could be described by those who are paying attention as an angry wait-and-see. Several close watchers of the ideological span of this group say the vast majority in it are unaware of the synod or are indifferent to it. They are said to be consoling themselves with the knowledge that Francis’s liberalizing talk has not yet resulted in change to doctrine and are looking ahead to the next conclave — the selection of a pope — where they hope Francis’s ethos will be stamped out.
“We’re leading to the next conclave. When Pope Francis dies or resigns, it’ll be a clear choice,” Murray said. “That’s the unstated thing in where this struggle is leading. If there are major changes [at the synod] and they elect someone like Francis [at the next conclave], then there will be a split. But not before that.”
Use of the word “split” or “schism” is not uncommon when the U.S. Catholic right wing is asked what the stakes of the coming years are. What exactly that would look like, however, isn’t clear. It is not new for Catholics to have sprawling disagreements, but recent years have seen more overt challenges to the church’s hierarchy.
Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, an Argentine who is the Vatican’s new chief of doctrine, said in an interview last month that bishops on the right and the left who think “they have a special gift of the Holy Spirit to judge the doctrine of the Holy Father, we will enter into a vicious circle and that would be heresy and result in schism.”
The activism for now among conservative U.S. Catholics is primarily talk online, on huge media channels like EWTN and on popular blogs or YouTube channels including “First Things” and “Return to Tradition,” whose tagline is, in part, “Dealing with Modernism, Vatican 2, and all the rest of the mess that is the present state of the Church.”
“There is no unified action of movement that people will take or follow. A lot depends on the next conclave, which people shouldn’t try to predict the outcome of ahead of time,” Anthony Stine, who runs Return to Tradition, which has about 150,000 followers, wrote to The Washington Post.
“Catholics all want the same Catholic faith as their ancestors,” Stine said. “They don’t want the tough moral teachings of the Church changed to reflect the whims of a secular culture that is increasingly hostile to the faith and increasingly unstable.”
Stine has said in interviews that he doubts the synod will lead to changes such as a full embrace of homosexuality or female deacons. He said his main concern is that it may produce a document that is vague, allowing breakaway liberals to implement changes.
“So, the circus won’t be over,” he told the Catholic YouTuber Joe McClane this summer.
But some are not waiting.
Conservative activists and experts on the Catholic Church say some people are lobbying and advocating to like-minded U.S. clerics who are going to the synod. They include Winona-Rochester Bishop Robert Barron, the founder of the mega-ministry Word on Fire, whose recent chat with the right-wing activist and writer Chris Rufo drew 46,000 views; Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
Stine says some Catholics are preparing to have “independent” traditional priests offer Mass in homes and businesses on Sunday mornings, as happened in the years after Vatican II.
Since Francis took office, there have been other signs of fed-up conservatives taking matters into their own hands — if not breaking away, then taking unprecedented steps.
In 2018, a group of laypeople aimed to raise $1 million and hire dozens of workers to create dossiers on every cardinal, reportedly in an effort to influence the next conclave. This year, The Post reported that a group of wealthy conservatives in Colorado had poured millions into buying mobile app tracking data that identified priests who used gay dating and hookup apps and then shared the data with bishops around the country — feeling that church leaders were not doing enough about the issue of gay priests.
Some high-profile conservative priests have sharpened the rhetoric ahead of the synod. They include the Rev. Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., who in recent weeks tweeted that he “rejects” Francis’s program and that Catholics should “follow Jesus.” In a letter to his diocese, he said people who propose changes to “that which cannot be changed … are indeed the true schismatics.”
Strickland has become a hero to many conservative Catholics.
Last week, a further-right critic, the Rev. James Altman of La Crosse, Wis., posted a video calling for Francis to be killed. Altman’s bishop barred him from saying Mass in 2021 after he criticized coronavirus vaccines and said that victims of lynchings were criminals and that Catholics cannot vote Democratic. Some conservatives took to social media in recent days to ostracize Altman, but others have cheered him on. Altman also drew attention in September with a video saying Francis is not a legitimate pope.
Stine said the reactions to Altman’s declarations show that conservative Catholics “are as fractured as anything else in society.”
“Every traditional Catholic I know, as well as more mainline conservative Catholics who oppose [Francis’s] program for the Church, all pray for him daily. That’s the biggest mark of support you can offer to anyone, honestly,” Stine wrote to The Post. That said, most traditional Catholics with whom he speaks “think we’re in a state of de-facto schism and have been for a long time now,” he said. “If anything, the state of the Church will be made more obvious at the end of the synodal process.”
In the shadow of Cologne’s Gothic cathedral, the St. Stephan’s Youth Choir struck up a chorus of “All You Need Is Love” as couples — men with men, women with women, and women with men — lined up to have their unions blessed by ordained Catholic priests wearing rainbow stoles.
It was an act of love — but also sedition, in direct defiance of the Vatican’s decree that same-sex unions should not be celebrated or recognized.
The German Catholic Church, long known for pushing the boundaries of the faith, has been translating frustrations among progressive Catholics in pockets throughout Europe into a veritable revolt. The question for 1.3 billion Catholics now is whether the German church is in flagrant disobedience — or showing a different path.
In the letter, dated Sept. 25, Francis wrote that there are “situations” that may not be “morally acceptable” but where a priest can assess, on a case-by-case basis, whether blessings may be given — as long as such blessings are kept separate from the sacrament of marriage.
“We cannot be judges who only deny, push back and exclude,” Francis wrote. “As such, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a wrong idea of a matrimony. Because when one seeks a blessing, one is requesting help from God.”
His words appeared to contradict a 2021 Vatican statement that confirmed a ban on blessing same-sex couples. Francis has also notably removed the conservative official said to be the architect of that decision and appointed a fellow Argentine who has seemed to take a different view.
Francis’s letter released Monday appeared to reveal less movement on the question of ordination for women. He wrote that Pope John Paul II had ruled against female priests and that the decision must be respected for now. But he also suggested the topic could be further researched.
Both the role of women in the church and blessings for same-sex couples, as well as the possibility of a married priesthood, are among the divisive topics on the agenda as Catholic leaders gather at the Vatican this week for the most sweeping summit on the direction of the faith since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Francis has already been facing a revolt on the right, with his most bitter conservative critics decrying him as a heretic. They have maligned the arcanely named Synod on Synodality — running from Wednesday through Oct. 29 — as a smokescreen for liberal reform.
Vatican watchers were not expecting big pronouncements, as the synod will convene again next fall and ultimately send recommendations to the pope then. And the Vatican has been playing down any notions of rapid reform.
But Francis has raised the hopes of progressives — and stoked the fears of traditionalists — that the church might, on some issues, begin to move in the direction of Germany.
German churches have been inviting women to say the homily at Mass and to baptize babies. Scores of German priests and monks have come out as celibate gay men, while some Catholic schools and churches have begun flying rainbow flags. A majority of German bishops have backed Catholic blessings of same-sex unions, calls for female deacons and the ordination of older, married men as priests.
“Many progressive Catholics look to the German church for a hopeful sense of where the church might be going,” said the Rev. James Martin, a U.S. delegate at the synod known for his ministry to LGBTQ+ Catholics. “But of course, just as many traditional Catholics look upon the German church with suspicion.”
At the Vatican, conservative fears and progressive hopes
The synod opening Wednesday — on the feast day of St. Francis — is not a political process, Vatican officials contend, but a chance for discussion, to “discern” God’s will for the direction of the church.
It requires that participants attempt to talk to each other — understanding that they represent an institution that encompasses German, Belgian and Swiss bishops who are already allowing blessings of same-sex couples, as well as American, African and Asian bishops who decry them.
The 364 voting delegates, observers say, include a relative balance of centrists, traditionalists and reformers, with some of the most extreme players on both sides left out.
But conservatives, including dozens of bishops from the United States, complain the synod is stacked against them.
They call its structure — which for the first time will allow laymen and women voting rights equal to cardinals and bishops — fundamentally un-Catholic. They see program documents asking for “concrete steps” to better welcome LGBTQ+ Catholics and people in polygamous marriages, among other categories, as dangerous.
Conservatives fear the synod process will open what they see as a Pandora’s box, eventually leading to unprecedented change on priestly celibacy, the acceptance of homosexuality and the elevation of women in a historically patriarchal church. They warn it could bring about a new schism, or split, in the world’s largest Christian faith.
Francis’s letter released Monday was written in response to a challenge, known as a dubia, issued by five conservative cardinals. They called on him to reinforce Catholic doctrine that condemns homosexuality and reserves ordination for “baptized males” only.
“The primary concern is that the pope will authorize things that are not contained in Catholic doctrine or that will contradict it — such as women deacons, blessing gay unions,” or weaken Catholic teachings against contraception and abortion by emphasizing individual conscience, said the Rev. Gerald Murray, a New York City priest who was not invited to the synod but will be in Rome doing commentary for conservative outlets.
“We’re not Protestants,” he said.
Predicting what the pope will do is much like reading tea leaves.
Francis raised the prospect of change early in his papacy, intoning “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay Catholics. But he has been exceedingly cautious about altering doctrine. For instance, he has shied away from allowing married priests in the Amazon region, where extreme clerical shortages seemed to warrant it.
But as the 86-year-old pope looks to cement his legacy, much will depend on where he lands on these issues — whether he decides to urge the church closer to progressive positions. He faces the challenge of how to assuage liberal Europeans, in places where the church is rich but dying, without alienating fast-growing if more traditional churches in the developing world.
Going beyond talk in Germany
The Cologne Cathedral, where relics of the Three Kings are said to rest, is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. The writings of a rogue German priest named Martin Luther were publicly burned in its courtyard in 1520. Late last month, it served as the backdrop for a modern Catholic clash.
The Rev. Wolfgang Rothe, a wiry, openly gay German Catholic priest, organized the group blessing in reaction to a local cardinal, one of the few in Germany still disciplining priests for blessing same-sex couples. Rothe used the service as a rallying cry for the synod.
“I call on you, tell the pope, tell the synod of bishops, tell the world church: The current sexual morality of the Catholic Church is outdated,” he said. “It is unbiblical and immoral … a slap in the face of the loving God. This sexual morality belongs on the trash heap of church history.”
Nearby, a gaggle of conservative opponents prayed the rosary in protest. More radical elements on both sides — far-right Catholics and left-wing activists — jostled amid bullhorns and placards, and police intervened.
The Catholic Church in Germany is facing a crisis.
Measurable through a national church tax, German Catholics have been abandoning the church in record numbers — 522,000 last year alone. In a poll of those who had recently left the faith, the most common reason specified was the church’s handling of sexual abuse; the second its rejection of homosexuality.
Catholic bishops and laypeople in Germany sought to address that disaffection as they formulated their contribution to Francis’s synod, through a body called the Synodal Way.
Francis warned from the outset against a unilateral effort. “Every time the ecclesial community tried to get out of its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its strength or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it was trying to solve,” he wrote in a 2019 letter.
Nonetheless, by March of this year, Germany’s Synodal Way had proposed sweeping changes, including the ordination of female deacons and a reexamination of priestly celibacy in addition to same-sex blessings.
German bishops have mostly backed the proposals, while trying to buy time on some topics. They supported the ordination of female deacons, for instance, while conceding they first needed the permission of the Vatican.
But they have also grown more daring. In a country where the Catholic Church is the second-largest employer — with 800,000 workers, or six times more than Mercedes-Benz — German bishops amended the church’s labor law last year, so people can no longer be fired for being in a same-sex relationship or remarrying after divorce.
And in March, a majority of German bishops voted to allow blessings of same-sex couples — separate and distinct from the sacrament of marriage, but with standardized ceremonies to be drafted by 2026.
Liberal reforms have taken shape in other countries, too, but theologians see what Germany is doing as singular. They attribute it to a society that has emerged as one of the globe’s most socially progressive — and has a taste for rules.
“Some of these things happen in quieter ways in countries like Brazil,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Catholic theologian at Villanova University. “But the Germans are Germans, so they want formal recognition. That’s what’s different. They don’t want just de facto change. They want formal permission to change the books.”
The push within Germany matters all the more because the German Catholic Church ranks among the world’s richest —its dioceses are collectively far richer than the Vatican. And with this wealth, Germany helps to fund seminary schools and parishes across Latin America and Africa.
On a recent Sunday at St. Theodore’s Catholic Church on the edge of Cologne, Marianne Arndt’s white cassock billowed as she approached the pulpit to preach.
Arndt — a spiky-haired 60-year-old who said she had a calling from God as a young woman — has worked as a parish counselor here since 2016. She initially began offering a “final blessing” in lieu of last rites to dying patients at hospitals, using holy water instead of priestly oils. She began preaching during Catholic Masses years ago, but started describing her words as a “homily” in 2020, arguing that the time had come to “call it what it is.”<
Except that Catholic canon law requires an ordained deacon or priest to say the homily at Mass, and women can be neither.
The Rev. Dionysius Jahn, one of two parish priests who typically celebrate Mass alongside her, called her sermon an extension of religious teaching. He acknowledged the arrangement was atypical. “It’s very progressive here,” he said. “There are others that view [a woman in a role like this] very critically. They wouldn’t accept what’s going on here.”
It smarts, Arndt said, that she must metaphorically stand “behind” a male priest to deliver the homily, and she bristles against those who say she should leave the faith if she doesn’t abide by its rules.
“It is also my church, and I don’t run away,” she said.