Barbara Johnson’s Buddhist Catholicism

The story we’ve been covering in recent days about a Maryland priest who refused to give a lesbian Communion at … Continued

The story we’ve been covering in recent days about a Maryland priest who refused to give a lesbian Communion at her mother’s funeral has set off many sensitive, complicated subjects for Catholics. Who is eligible for Communion? What are the responsibilities of a priest? What’s the spiritual purpose of a funeral Mass?

Marvin Joseph


Barbara Johnson was denied communion and the priest walked out on her mother’s funeral after he found out Johnson was a lesbian. Johnson is photographed outside her home in Washington, D.C. on February 28, 2012.

Now the latest issue: Can you be a Catholic and practice Buddhism at the same time?

The interaction between the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo and Barbara Johnson has exploded on the Web. First with news that Guarnizo told Johnson – with her mother’s casket a few feet away – that he couldn’t give her the sacrament of Communion because she lived with her lesbian partner, then Sunday with the decision of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington to put Guarnizo on leave for some “intimidating behavior toward staff and others.”

Guarnizo has become a negative symbol for those Catholics who feel their clergy have become too doctrinaire and fixated, unpastorally, on abortion and homosexuality. For others Johnson represents a painful assault on orthodoxy.

The latter camp, of conservatives, has in recent days circulated an academic paper Johnson, 51, wrote in graduate school, in which she defined herself as a Buddhist. On her Web site, for an arts education program, she describes herself as “a student of many things, from Buddhist philosophy to nutrition and alternative medicine.” She does not mention Catholicism.

“She is not even a Roman Catholic any longer, yet she presented herself for Communion..” wrote blogger Rod Dreher on The American Conservative.

“Aside from her homosexuality, the woman is a non-Catholic, literally an apostate, and she complains about being denied Holy Communion and wants to get the priest fired,” writes

Johnson’s depiction of her own blending of the faiths, while infuriating to purists, appears to put her in the mainstream of American religion. One recent Pew poll on multiple religious practices shows 88 percent of white Catholics cite at least one non-Christian religion that they believe can lead to eternal life, a higher percentage than the number of black Protestants (81 percent) or white mainline Protestants (85 percent) who said so. The same survey also found that roughly a quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation and a similar number believe in yoga not just as exercise, but as a spiritual practice. Among Catholics, the number expressing these beliefs is 28 percent and 27 percent respectively.

Johnson’s depiction of her faith mirrors that even of some clergy, including famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton who embraced and deeply studied Buddhism before his death in the 1960s. More recently, two Episcopal priests — including a bishop — described themselves as followers of Christianity and other faiths, one of Zen Buddhism and one of Islam.

Johnson also reflects the blending trend that’s called religious pluralism by some, and religious consumerism or apostasy by others. It also reflects the powerful cultural pull affiliated particularly with some faiths, including Judaism and Catholicism, even for those who don’t have a regular religious practice.

In interviews, Johnson, a D.C. arts educator, and her brother, Larry, a Virginia accountant, described growing up in a strongly Catholic home in the Prince George’s neighborhood of Mount Rainier. Dad was a leader in the local parish, Larry was an altar boy, and the parents scraped to pay to send their children to Catholic schools.

When Johnson’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, a family friend priest came to the house to redo their vows. Before Johnson’s father died in May 2008, every week someone from the local parish would come and pray with them and give Communion. When her mother, Loetta Johnson, awoke after a heart attack, a few weeks before her death this February, her first act was to cross herself.

Barbara describes a deep if sometimes conflicted relationship with Catholicism, which she calls a basic, unchangeable part of her identity.

In her 20s, Johnson remembers her growing doubt about Catholic institutions as she wrestled with accepting her sexuality, and later as she watched the clergy sex abuse crisis unfold. She went to services in other Christian churches: Unitarian, Baptist, Episcopalian.

“During that time I found a lot of answers in Buddhist teachings and texts,” she said.

In the last decade Johnson returned to her alma mater, Elizabeth Seton High School, to teach art, a move she said was part of a process of coming back to Catholicism on her own terms. She describes long talks with colleagues about Buddhism and the Gospels. And of watching both her parents get sick and the power of their faith, of rituals like reciting the traditional prayer the Memorare with her dying father, of holding her mother and chanting “Hail Mary” as the elder woman passed away.

“This is so surreal because I was getting closer and closer to my faith,” she said of those who assail her for seeking Communion with her blended faith identities. “I had really integrated my Catholic identity into my larger identity as someone who is very influenced by Buddhist teachings.”

Johnson says she never stopped seeing herself as a Catholic, and never stopped attended Mass or taking Communion – albeit not very regularly.

But no doubt orthodox Catholics would see this approach as a violation of their faith and challenge the idea that she could she seek Communion if she also sees herself as a Buddhist.

“The words in the Mass have been my guidepoint. It says, ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you,’ and these words, before Communion every Mass I’ve said those words with as much conviction in my body and soul as possible, and been guided by the feeling of what was in my body and my conscience. If I felt I wasn’t worthy, I wouldn’t go.”

Today she says that Buddhism and Catholicism are both part of her identity. The two traditions “inform one another in this constant internal conversation,” she told the Post.

Johnson is aware of the criticism she is getting, and wonders: Does it disqualify her from her faith to challenge it?

“Wasn’t the doubting Thomas good because he was in dialogue with his faith? It’s not between me and other Catholics, it’s between me and God.”

  • chrisinwien

    Father Guarnizo has issued a long and detailed statement giving his side of the story. Oh — he didn’t give it to the Post as an exclusive, so I suppose it’s not news, right?

    Won’t make it onto the front page, right?

    Only Lesbain Buddhists need apply?

  • CMWilliamsJr

    the ‘devil is in the details’, we’ve heard that a million times and a million times more even. what percentage of the ‘intelligent life form’ ['_'] has any idea of objectivity being abused itself simply by the existence of a life form, in human form, entertaining itself with the casual display of linguistic technique, i suppose? in addition, the only reason why the rhetorical displays used by common logic and ‘intelligentsia’ (it is a ‘body’, it is alive ya know) becomes so scathing, so violent is because it has to make a statement and render one defenseless without losing its mask of objectivity. the devil does mean harm. the devil does mean to offend. the devil does not mean to improve anything. the devil will always be in the details.

  • Beeg

    you’re out of the loop dude. it’s on the website.

  • IntellectOne

    Obviously, Ms Johnson does not read the Catholic Catechism, nor has she the Grace to know that she has been ‘Deceived’ and is continuously being ‘Deceived’.
    Catholicism is not “just a tradition”, as Ms Johnson, would have us believe. The Roman Catholic Church was Instituted by Jesus Christ.
    For Ms Johnson’s Holy Communion not to be Sacrilegious, she must follow the Holy Church’s Teaching. It would not matter, if 90% of the people think that she has the ‘Right’ to Receive Holy Communion; because she was brought-up Catholic does not make any difference. She is living a LIe, not the Truth of the Faith. For Ms Johnson to refer to The Holy Catholic Church as a ‘”tradition”on the same level as Buddhist, clearly exposes her ignorance and lack of Grace..

  • IntellectOne

    Yes, and the lawyers are getting rich with innuendoes and many imaginary abuses. Just like the imaginary abuse of Ms Johnson!

  • IntellectOne

    There is definitively an apology in order from Ms Johnson. Hopefully, the Washington Post will follow-up with an article with her apology! Ms Johnson did in fact receive Holy Communion and she blatantly ‘lied’.
    Also, I think the Holy See would like to know, why was this priest removed, when he faithfully performed his duty and obligation.

  • ausura

    Conservatives want government out of their health care and away from their firearms, in the name of individual rights and freedom, yet they insist on imposing their own religious and moral values into the bedrooms and personal relationships of others–and the relationships between others and God. What has happened to the precepts of love and tolerance that Jesus preached? Overruled, it seems by fear and prejudice and bumper-sticker mentalities..

  • Benjacomin_Bozart

    There is a Bhuddist monastery not far from St John and a lot of the nuns there are former Catholics. When the Catholic parish was first established there the office was in a duplex with the Bhuddist on the other side so they chatted a lot with the first Pastor there.

    If she had been trained properly she would have known she needed to go to confession prior to Communion. Cohabitation is a sin regardless of gender and being in a state of sin is a bar to communion. Part of confession is resolving to sin no more. This is applicable to all, straight or gay and Priest and Deacons who do marriage prep for couples “living together” face this situation when they show up for Communion. They know technically these people are not in a state of grace. Do you refuse them Communion?

    The applicable Canon Law wasn’t followed in this case so there is bad training all around, especially in Pastoral practice. But regardless of the children, the deceased died in the faith and deserved proper graveside prayers.

  • IntellectOne

    Stay on topic. the word Conservatives or Liberal are not even in the lexicon of The Holy Church. Only in America somebody would use the nonsense of “Conservatives” in the bed room or “Liberalism” (what ever that means) in regards to a very serious matter for the Soul. For some reason there are a lot of Democrats that call themselves Catholic? It is amazing, because they have ‘Women’s Reproductive Healthcare” aka a ‘Euphemism for Abortion on Demand. These so-called- women’s “Rights” have been on their Democrat Plat Form ,( since the Seventies), which they follow like a Bible. The Democrats think ,if they are feeding the poor and clothing the naked and giving the homeless shelter; that they are such great ‘Human Rights” people. when nothing is further from the Truth. The Democrats promote Grave Sin( by promoting abortion world-wide and nothing is a worse abuse than killing a baby in the mother’s womb. . They call themselves Liberal because they want to do as they please. They have convinced themselves that Jesus Christ was a “Liberal:’ ? The ‘Truth’ will set you Free, Jesus will ‘liberate’ you from your Sins.. For those who do not know, ‘Liberated’, does not mean the same thing as” Liberal.” On the contrary ‘Liberalism is a Sin’..

  • IntellectOne

    .An apology is in order from Ms Johnson for her lies. Also the Washington Diocese should apologize profusely to the Lord and His faithful for removing a Holy Priest. This should Published in the Washington Post

    …….__Fr. Marcel Guarnizo’s Response to the Eucharistic Incident………..

    1) “I would like to begin by once again sending my condolences to the ……..Johnson family on the death of Mrs. Loetta Johnson”.
    2) “I also feel obliged to answer questions from my parishioners, as well as …….from the public, about the incident on February 25th”.
    3)..”I wish to clarify that Ms. Barbara Johnson (the woman who has since …….complained to the press), has never been a parishioner of mine. In fact I ……..had never met her or her family until that morning”.
    4)…”A few minutes before the Mass began, Ms. Johnson came into the ………sacristy with another woman whom she announced as her “lover”. Her ………revelation was completely unsolicited. As I attempted to follow ………Ms.Johnson, her lover stood in our narrow sacristy physically blocking ………my pathway to the door. I politely asked her to move and she refused”.
    5)…”Like most priests I am not at all eager to withhold communion. But the ……..ideal cannot always be achieved in life”.
    6)…” If a Quaker, a Lutheran or a Buddhist, desiring communion had ………introduced himself as such, before Mass, a priest would be obligated to ………withhold communion. If someone had shown up in my sacristy drunk, or ……….high on drugs, no communion would have been possible either. If a ……….Catholic, divorced and remarried (without an annulment) would make ………..that known in my sacristy, they too according to Catholic doctrine, ………..would be impeded from receiving communion. This has nothing to do ………..with canon 915. Ms. Johnson’s circumstances are precisely one of ………..those relations which impede her access to communion according to ………..Catholic teaching.

  • IntellectOne

    It is Jesus that has given us an example of True Love. It is the Objectively Disordered that try and tell the Holy Catholic Church how and what they should and should not believe. You better talk to Jesus, because the Priest did exactly as Jesus and His Church Teaches.

  • oldiesfan1

    “The words in the Mass have been my guidepoint. It says, ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you,’ and these words, before Communion every Mass I’ve said those words with as much conviction in my body and soul as possible, and been guided by the feeling of what was in my body and my conscience. If I felt I wasn’t worthy, I wouldn’t go.”

    Lady, if you were a regular Catholic Mass goer, you would know that hasn’t been said since before the beginning of Advent.

    But, anyway, you’ve admitted to creating your own religoius experience, and you were called on it by a representative of the established religion you “modified”. Your fault, not his.

  • oldiesfan1

    Please, if you don’t want us in your bedrooms (we don’t want to be there, either) then don’t drag us into your bedroom to pay for your birth control.

  • sleeni

    Ms. Johnson, like others, primarily followed the religion they were born into. This is how it is with every religion in any part of the world. Some of these either during teens/ young adulthood/middle age or older age due to various reasons desires to change their faith. This happens due to the impact of certain personal experiences they encounter. That is where a doubt about your original faith arises, OR an attraction for a person/position/monetary inducement etc. pulls them away. Whatever the reason, along with the decision to change, an unseen curiosity too to study the new faith too exists. Many accomplish the conversion successfully, while some like Ms. Johnson are unable to get away completely. Its necessary to understand that being 100% faithful to a faith has its pluses as well as its minuses. Pluses include never having a doubting restless mind. Minuses include becoming like a frog in the well with a closed mind. Those who are capable of making comparisons between another one or more faith and find answers to their doubts thereby further strengthen their own faith. Others gets disenchanted and will move away. The fundamental question is: as humans is it wrong to be curious to seek answers to your doubts from outside of your circle? Then, there a few other important questions: Is permission for search of knowledge excludes religion? How is it that a daughter who was born to a “God’s child” considered an “outsider” only because that daughter shows interest in seeking knowledge on other faiths as well? What is the situation of a person who (in line with official duties) plans to conduct a war successfully whereby many opposing Christians would die, faithfully then comes to take communion whereas another who for showing an interest for knowledge outside of his faith is denied communion? Whose is the greater crime? If old testament can be be changed into a new testament to suit a new era, why not accept that the scope of humans too similarly could chang

  • nmlCA

    Johnson acted hypocritically, knowing this priest would be obliged to follow his conscience regarding homosexual lovers. She saw him before mass and introduced her lover and knew his reservations. If she wishes her conscience to pratice Buddhisn and lesbianism n while calliing herself Catholic to be respected, then she must also respect the conscience of the priest to not offer Jesus’ body if he deems the reception unworthy and scandalous. She was wrong for to manipulate him to violate his conscience. Ms. Johnson could have gone to an EME in the fist place, someone who she could assume would not be put in a position to voiolate his/her conscince. Why is one person’s rights of conscinve more valid than another’s? I would never ask my Catholic friends to violate their beleifs, nor my gay friends to submit to opprression., There are ways to work around such confliicts privately beforehand and and resectfully rather than making public scenes designed to put someone in their place.

  • DivineMercy7

    If she considers herself a Catholic, then she should know she cannot take communion 1) because she is fornicating and 2) because she is a lesbian and per the BIBLE, our sacred book, a marriage is very clearly classified as that of a man and woman. So, for her to take the communion when she feels like it violates GOD’S mandates and GOD’S body and blood. Remember, communion is not just a symbol of God’s body and blood, but it IS his body and blood and we need to make sure to respect it. And the rules of the Catholic church and the Bible make those rules clear.

  • DivineMercy7

    If a person cannot meet certain requirements to join a club, that person will be denied to join it and usually the understand and move on. In this case, Barbara knew and knows she does not meet the requirement based on the sacred book to take communion. However, she wanted to make a mockery of God’s body for her personal satisfaction. I, as the priest, would not have allowed her communion as well. It also seems she has personal and psychological issues for her to be worrying about making a point instead of mourning her mother and doing the novena.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

The End of Surveillance for New York Muslims — For Now

How American Muslims modeled the right response to systematic injustice.