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?
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 Catholicism.org
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.”