Oh joy, just what we all want — another thread about homosexuality. Alas, as so often happens, the controversy now in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington involves homosexuality, religion, and changing social mores. Let us dive in, shall we?
Deep in grief, Barbara Johnson stood first in the line for Communion at her mother’s funeral Saturday morning. But the priest in front of her immediately made it clear that she would not receive the sacramental bread and wine.
Johnson, an art-studio owner from the District, had come to St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg with her lesbian partner. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had learned of their relationship just before the service.
“He put his hand over the body of Christ and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin,’ ” she recalled Tuesday.
She reacted with stunned silence. Her anger and outrage have now led her and members of her family to demand that Guarnizo be removed from his ministry.
Family members said the priest left the altar while Johnson, 51, was delivering a eulogy and did not attend the burial or find another priest to be there.
“You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the day of judgment for judging me,” she wrote in a letter to Guarnizo. “I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families.”
Late Tuesday, Johnson received a letter of apology from the Rev. Barry Knestout, one of the archdiocese’s highest-ranking administrators, who said the lack of “kindness” she and her family received “is a cause of great concern and personal regret to me.”
“I am sorry that what should have been a celebration of your mother’s life, in light of her faith in Jesus Christ, was overshadowed by a lack of pastoral sensitivity,” Knestout wrote. “I hope that healing and reconciliation with the Church might be possible for you and any others who were affected by this experience. In the meantime, I will offer Mass for the happy repose of your mother’s soul. May God bring you and your family comfort in your grief and hope in the Resurrection.”
Johnson called the letter “comforting” and said she greatly appreciates the apology. But, she added, “I will not be satisfied” until Guarnizo is removed.
While this story contains a variety of voices representing various flocks of stakeholders, including the archdiocesan leadership, it does not contain any material that attempts to explain the viewpoint of the priest.
In other words, to use Poynter language, it appears that Father Guarnizo is not a stakeholder in a story that centers on his actions and beliefs. This is most strange.
I know that the comments thread here is going to fill up with people saying that Fr. Guarnizo doesn’t deny communion to divorced people who don’t have annulments, or other unrepentant sinners. For one thing, how would you know? Unless you are part of his parish, and know this for a fact, this claim would be groundless. For another, even if Fr. Guarnizo is selective in his application of this pastoral practice, that doesn’t mean he was wrong in principle to have observed it here; it may simply mean that he should be more consistent.
People who say that Barbara Johnson ought to have been given communion that morning have to explain why a priest ought to have knowingly violated canon law to have done so. That’s not nothing for a priest. Personally, I believe that there can be situations in which a priest is justified in violating the law out of a sense of mercy. In my opinion, this probably would have been one of those occasions. Had Fr. Guarnizo given her communion under these circumstances, I believe it would have been uncharitable for orthodox Catholics to insist that he ought to have stood on the letter of the law, instead of showing mercy in this extraordinary situation. Still, I say “probably” because if it is true that Johnson introduced Fr. Guarnizo to her “lover” (her alleged words) in the sacristy before the service, and that Fr. Guarnizo instructed her not to present herself for communion, then the scandal here is entirely on Johnson, who in that case would have chosen this sacred moment to make a point. Let me make this clear: if Father Guarnizo privately told her not to present herself to communion, and she did so defiantly, in public, then Johnson is guilty of exactly what she accused Guarnizo of: politicizing the Eucharist. If, after that, Johnson was bound and determined to defy the priest and receive communion, then she could have presented herself to a Eucharistic minister — as she ended up doing, and receiving communion.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Fr. Guarnizo — who, it must be said, behaved badly by leaving the altar and subsequently refusing to go to the graveside service — did exactly what canon law tells him to do. Barbara Johnson is trying to get him fired from his job as pastor for upholding the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. The demand for his firing is so absurd it’s hard to believe anybody is taking it seriously. The Archdiocese of Washington has already distanced itself from Fr. Guarnizo’s actions, but I find it hard to believe that it hasn’t issued a formal statement of support for Fr. Guarnizo, putting to rest any question that he will be removed from his ministry, as Johnson demands.
Catholics (and Orthodox) these days have such misguided ideas about the Eucharist. Unlike in Protestant churches that practice communion, Catholics and Orthodox are expected to have had a recent confession before receiving the Eucharist, and not to be conscious of any serious sin. The idea is that to receive the Eucharist — which, in Catholic and Orthodox theology, is not a symbol but is actually, and mystically, the Body and Blood of Jesus — while in a state of serious sin is blasphemous. Barbara Johnson may not believe that being an active (= non-chaste) homosexual is sinful, but the Roman Catholic Church believes it is. Does Barbara Johnson’s opinion trump the Church’s teaching? Does she have a right to expect the Eucharist? She apparently thinks she does. So do a lot of Catholics and Orthodox. It is also undoubtedly the case that with certain exceptions, the clergy of both churches have done little or nothing to instruct them otherwise.
A similar controversy erupted at the Orthodox (OCA) cathedral in Washington, DC, last year. A deacon declined to commune an Orthodox lesbian living openly with a female partner. It caused a big row. The deacon was driven out of the parish — which is Metropolitan Jonah’s own parish, note well. As the Archdiocese of Washington appears to be doing with Father Guarnizo, the hierarchy of my church allowed a principled member of the clergy to be thrown under the bus for defending official Church teaching and practice regarding the sanctity of the Eucharist.