Debate about lesbian denied Communion shows dispute about the rite

The story about Barbara Johnson, the lesbian artist denied Communion at her mother’s funeral last weekend, has unsurprisingly drawn a … Continued

The story about Barbara Johnson, the lesbian artist denied Communion at her mother’s funeral last weekend, has unsurprisingly drawn a huge number of readers raising a range of theological points.

Some people believe Catholic teaching either required the Gaithersburgh priest to deny the woman Communion – or at the least gave him the right to – while others believe the opposite. Both sides cite canon
law and high-level teachings and Scripture.

Marvin Joseph

The Post

Valerie Grays receives Holy Communion from Father William Norvel, September 2011.

There are so many phrases that need to be parsed and defined: What is a mortal sin? What does it mean to be alienated from God? What is the pastoral thing to do when a priest is confronted with someone apparently violating a church teaching? What is the right kind of respect a priest should have for a Catholic’s free will and conscience?

First, the nuts and bolts. Catholicism teaches that, during Communion, Catholics receive the literal body and blood of Christ in the form of wafers and wine; the church teaches that in this moment, Catholics become transformed so they can be more Christ-like.

People “in a state of grave sin” are not supposed to take Communion, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. “But how grave does a sin have to be to cut you completely off from God?,” Reese asked. “Some would say any sex (heterosexual or homosexual) outside of a valid marriage is a grave sin. Others would argue it is not so grave as to cut a sinner completely off from God.”

Who decides how a grave sin is defined? The U.S. bishops in 2006, as the country debated whether pro-choice politicians could receive Communion, approved a document that appeared to list situations that violate church teaching and make someone ineligible for Communion. They included everything from “sexual activity outside the bonds of a valid marriage” to harboring hatred of others, missing Mass on Sundays “without serious reason” and stealing.

People in such states shouldn’t present themselves for Communion, the document said, before becoming more broad. A footnote said the document was not intended to be a specific list, and instead was meant to encourage Catholics to set a high bar for their personal conduct.

Catholics, it said, who have “honest doubt and confusion” about some church teachings “are welcome to partake of holy Communion, as long as they are prayerfully and honestly striving to understand the truth of what the church professes and are taking appropriate steps to resolve their confusion and doubt.”

“There is a lot of talk about what is mortal sin. It means to be totally alienated from God. Many theologians say this is hard to do,” Reese said.

Some readers have noted that the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, in the Gaithersburg situation, was left with no choice because Barbara Johnson and her longtime partner were “in his face” by identifying themselves as partners. Indeed some clergy told me that priests typically follow a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy; they don’t ask what goes on in the bedrooms of their gay and lesbian congregants because official church teaching is that sex between two people of the same gender is considered sinful, but the orientation itself is not. Johnson and her brother, Larry Johnson, both told me that the subject came up inadvertently, when arrangements were being discussed before the service (or more accurately, debated, as Guarnizo told the family at the last minute that he would allow only one eulogy, not two, as had been planned between the Johnson family and other church staff who attended pre-funeral meetings) and the Johnson siblings had to attend to something briefly, leaving the priest with Barbara’s partner.

“He asked her if she was in charge, and she said, ‘no,’” Barbara told me. “He then asked: ‘Then who are you?’ and she replied, ‘I’m her partner.’”

Guarnizo and other church staff have not responded to my requests for clarification.

The Rev. Tom Richstatter, a liturgist at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, said the question of who takes Communion is “about your understanding of what God is, and what the Eucharist is,” he said, using the word that means both the Communion rite and the wafer and wine. “For some priests, law and rules are the way to safeguard that, and others feel compassion in Jesus is the ultimate deciding factor.”

The vast majority of American bishops oppose denying Communion. When voting on it in 2004, in the context of pro-choice politicians, three times as many bishops said they opposed it than those who favored it. That year they issued a public position, by a vote of 183-6, saying it should be up to the individual bishop to decide whether to give pro-choice politicians Communion.

The policy in the Archdiocese of Washington, as established by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, is not to withhold Communion and for priests to privately counsel Catholics who they believe to be wrestling with violations of church teaching.

Past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Cardinal Francis George has taken a similar position, as has recent Los Angeles archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony. He said during the so-called “wafer wars” that his “archdiocese will continue to follow church teaching which places the duty on each Catholic to examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive holy Communion .. That is not the role of the person distributing the body and blood of Christ.”

Some prominent bishops favor the withholding of communion, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, a high-ranking Vatican official, who said Communion must be guarded even more in secularized, individualistic America “lest the faithful .. be deceived concerning the supreme good of the Holy Eucharist.”

In reality, theologians and priests told me, gays and lesbians in relationships not only receive Communion regularly but also give it, as lay eucharistic ministers. That is because of different viewpoints at the highest levels of the church, they said.

The difference in views on giving or withholding Communion, I’m told, can often come down to complex questions, including whether a priest feels it is the clergy’s role to judge a Catholic’s relationship with God, and what they feel is the most pastoral way to handle congregants.

This is such a sensitive, controversial subject within the Catholic community that multiple clergy members – even experts – were wary about having their names used. The Archdiocese of Washington declined to even respond to my request for experts to interview or documents to cite (though late Wednesday they did provide the Post with a short piece explaining Communion); the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also said they couldn’t even provide documentation because they don’t comment on “local issues.”

In the statement Wednesday, the archdiocese said “that the prime obligation to determine one’s preparedness to receive Communion falls to the persons who are presenting themselves for Communion. In extreme cases where someone has been formally excommunicated or is trying to use the Eucharist to make a political statement it is appropriate to consider denying Communion.”

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  • Shackfic

    What a sorry excuse of a misanalysis this blog entry was. This shouldn’t have been that difficult of an issue (unless, of course, one is more interested in politics than in accurately explaining the teachings of a religion).

    Catholic teaching is that anyone who is conscious of having committed grave sin and receives Communion in that state is committing an act of sacrilege that places such individuals in even worse state than they were in before. For their own good, they MUST NOT present themselves for Communion until those sins have been confessed and absolved in the sacrament of Reconciliation.

    Any sexual act outside of marriage–and all homosexual acts fall into this category by definition–is a grave sin. There are no shades of gray here. On the woman’s part, barring invincible (and, quite frankly, incredible) ignorance, she should never have gone up to receive Communion in the first place.

    That’s Canon 916, which deals with private actions.

    On the priest’s part, things are a bit more complicated, mainly because things are still unclear with regards to the events in question. Canon 915–which deals with public actions, and scandal in the original religious sense of the term (leading others into sin by poor example)–requires that Communion be denied to, among others, those “obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin.”

    The woman was openly in a lesbian relationship, so “manifest grave sin” was never in question. The “obstinately” part is the trick here. If the priest had the opportunity to admonish and advise the woman to turn aside from her actions, or was aware of someone else having done so, and she ignored this warning, then he had not only the right, but the duty to deny her Communion.

    If not, though–and though there are conflicting accounts, from what I understand the priest barely had the chance to say anything–then the priest overstepped his bounds, and should have given the woman Communion.

  • ccnl1

    Communion / Eucharist and much more:

    JC’s family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.”)

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann’s conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit “touched”. After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today’s world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J’s gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today’s followers of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

  • THX11

    When Christ said “unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man, you will have no life in you.” they almost all walked away, and he did not try to stop them. He knew they understood perfectly what he had said. In like fashion the Church is well aware that if it continues to teach that engaging in homosexual sodomy is sinful, people will walk away, but the Church founded by Christ, like Christ Himself, cannot change truth and thus cannot change her teachings. While it seems the priest may have been able to do things differently, the story does paint a very accurate picture about just how loathsome it is for someone to turn their own mother’s funeral into their personal vendetta against a teaching of the Church that they already knew full well.

  • Robby5

    May God have mercy on you soul in your ignorant arrogance.

  • husseins

    Michelle Boorstein is clearly the “go to” person at the Washington Post if you’re a dissident Catholic and wish to hurl a few bricks over the wall at the Church.

    Barbara Johnson dishonored her Catholic mother by using her funeral as a pretext for some odd “statement”, so that the focus is on Barbara and not her deceased mother, whose name does not even appear in the article.

    The Church’s teaching is crystal clear: sexual relations are only proper between validly married couples. Compassion involves leading people to the truth, not endorsing their errors.

    Shame on Barbara Johnson for engineering this confrontation, and shame on Michelle Boorstein for reporting it as though it were news, and shame on the Washington Post for allowing its news pages to be used for flim flam blatant anti-Catholic propaganda like this by two idiots.

  • usapdx

    The correct way for those that give communion to KNOW that the receiver is in the state of grace is just to have a general confession service as a part of each mass.Why does the Washington D.C. diocese TODAY have ads posted in the Washington D.C. METRO train cars on going to confession? The RCC needs a new honest pope and then Vatican 3 to turn the RCC around.

  • ccnl1

    The truth is not arrogant. Please post your rebuttal with proper references.

  • terencef100

    The priest did the right thing. The person in question basically told him she had been living in a state of mortal sin – by doing so, she self-identified herself as not being ready to receive the Body of Christ. Perhaps her understanding of the sacrament was a weak as most commenters on the original article. It isn’t a wafer, it isn’t a snack, it isn’t a symbol. It is the real presence. Take it seriously.

  • Counterww

    Your consistent repostings of th same nonessential mean nothing and just show how much God is pursuing you as if you rally don’t believe than you would just go on with your life. God is waiting for you, but what will you say when you reach the other side and he says… “I never knew you”?

  • amelia45

    “In the statement Wednesday, the archdiocese said “that the prime obligation to determine one’s preparedness to receive Communion falls to the persons who are presenting themselves for Communion.”

    The priest mishandled this situation, causing others to have to go after him with apologies for the pain he inflicted on a woman already in grief. Cardinal Wuerl has a policy in the diocese – the priest did not follow it.

    Now, what I hope is that Rev Guarnizo has a chance to reflect on the love of Jesus and learns from this episode. I greatly admire how Ms. Johnson has responded to this situation in most ways, except in calling for the resignation or firing of the priest. Our priests are human, too, and err, too.

  • amelia45

    When in comes down to it, no one but God knows what is in the human heart. That is why there is so much back and forth, should/should not, discussion going on. The Church has done the best job she can in drawing lines around the Eucharistic service and who may receive – for now.

    But communion is supposed to be a food that nourishes us and sustains us in this life, not a reward for the good little children who eat all their peas. Jesus included Judas in the meal at the last supper. Was there not a lesson there for us?

  • amelia45

    When in comes down to it, no one but God knows what is in the human heart. That is why there is so much back and forth, should/should not, discussion going on. The Church has done the best job she can in drawing lines around the Eucharistic service and who may receive – for now.

    But communion is supposed to be a food that nourishes us and sustains us in this life, not a reward for the good little children who eat all their peas. Jesus included Judas in the meal at the last supper. Was there not a lesson there for us?

  • amelia45

    I think that is one of the practices that got the Australian Bishop Morris of Toowoomba fired. I understand the people of the diocese loved it, saw it as part of building and expressing a sense of the community.

    Oh, well.

  • amelia45

    Perhaps, Ms. Johnson wasn’t thinking of anything at the time except of her beloved mother, of how much the Church meant to her, and of her own upbringing in the Church.

    If the hierarchy of the diocese felt the need to apologize, I think the Church has clearly indicated whose actions were shameful.

  • ccnl1

    Reiteration is great for the learning process. As is reading and rational thinking followed by conclusions based on all of it.

  • muusk

    The priest violated canon law which protects people who seek commnunion. A brief conversation before Mass certainly does not meet the standards set down by Canon law for withholding communion.

  • ajb1953

    ccnl1
    3/2/2012 8:37 AM EST
    The truth is not arrogant. Please post your rebuttal with proper references.
    ———
    You are correct, the truth is not arrogant. When you finally learn the truth, you will recognize the charity in Robby5’s comment and prayer.

  • shadow_man

    This was taken from another poster that shows why we need to legalize gay marriage. If you don’t feel for this person after reading it, you simply aren’t human.

    “I am not sure what our President thinks of this dicission but coming from a poor family and knowing what discrimination is all about I would assume he would not care if “Gays” have equal rights. The whole reason why they are asking for rights to be considered married is from the same reason why I would be for it. My own life partner commited suicide in our home with a gun to his heart. After a 28 year union I was deprived to even go his funeral. We had two plots next to each other. But because we did not have a marriage cirtificate “(Legal Document)” of our union his mother had him cremated and his ashes taken back to Missouri where we came from. That is only one example how painful it is. His suicide tramatized me so much and her disregard for my feelings only added to my heartach. That happened on March 21 of 2007 and I still cannot type this without crying for the trauma I have to endure each day. Oh did I mention I am in an electric wheelchair for life? Yes I am and it is very diffacult to find another mate when you are 58 and in a wheelchair. “

  • angelofil

    Hmmm, I wonder what Rev. Marcel Guarnizo thinks about the pedophile priests?

  • DCJoe1

    Looks like more great investigative work from Boorstein. It seems she missed an even more important fact. The woman denied Communion was a Buddhist. At this point, it probably doesn’t matter because the Catholic-bashing is already in full swing.

  • lskeens

    You can choose to not engage in homosexual sex. Love the sinner not the sin!

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