|Lay Ministers administering Holy Communion in a|
Can. 915 Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.
When speaking of “obstinately persist(ing) in manifest grave sin” Canon 915 is referring to what was once termed “public sinners.” The current code does not use this term, but we can look back at the 1917 Code of Canon Law and see how it was applied. The 1917 code is no longer in effect but it can help us understand the current code and be a guide to its interpretation. The applicable canon would be 855.
Arcendi sunt ab Eucharistia publice indigni, quales sunt excommunicati, interdicti manifestoque infames, nisi de eorum poenitentia et emendatione constet et publico scandalo prius satisfecerint.
Occultos vero peccatores, si occulte petant et eos non emendatos agnoverit, minister repellat; non autem si publice petant et sine scandalo ipsos praeterire nequat.
Can.855 §I . Those whose unworthiness is public are to be excluded from the Eucharist: those who are the excommunicated, those who are interdicted and those of blatant infamy unless their penance and conversion has been ascertained, and who have first atoned for the public scandal.
§2. The minister should also to refuse those whose sin is private if they request privately and he will not have ascertained them to have repented; however, if they publicly request (the Sacrament) and he is not able to pass over them without scandal is not to refuse them.
First then to Barbara Johnson, the woman refused communion because she “lives with a woman and that is a sin according to the Church.” Ms Johnson would not have fallen under article 1. While her sin is known to her family and associates, she is not (or at least was not until Father Guarnizo made her) a public person. Traditionally canon 855 was applied (or could be applied) to public personages—actors, statesmen, members of the nobility, government officials, leading citizens. It was meant for people who would be known by the general public. While Ms Johnson’s “sin” was known to the circle of her family and friends, it would be considered “private” and she would be among those the canon refers to as “occultos peccatores.” Under those circumstances, if she asked Fr Guarnizo if she could receive Communion, he would be entitled to say “no.” However, if she asked publicly, that is if she presented herself for Holy Communion; he could only refuse her if he could do so without scandal. Obviously he was not able to do so without scandal as it has become a huge uproar, pitted the priest against his bishop, resulted in the priest being put on administrative leave, and filled the blogosphere with a huge amount of discussion—most of simply an exchange of ignorance masquerading as knowledge of the faith.
What about those we once would have called “public sinners?” Maybe Ms. Johnson doesn’t fall under this category—or at least didn’t until the Washington Post picked it up and it went viral--whose call is it to refuse such people as once were called “public sinners” Holy Communion? Excommunication or interdict would not be a problem—that would be the prerogative of the Bishop (or higher authority) but the canon more or less implies a consensus that “everyone knows” who would be manifestoque infames. A look at the canon proscribing Christian burial for public sinners isn’t any more clear as to who is the decider of those to be denied public funeral rites. In the good ol’ pre-Vatican II days the practice was that the Diocese—the Bishop or his Vicar General—made that call. Some chancery rat with purple piping on his cassock would call the local pastor and tell him that a funeral for Pasquale Corleone was to be refused. It mostly was used to bar funerals for Mafiosi and, in the days of Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, the occasional actress. Pastors usually didn’t take the initiative for fear that the “boys downtown” would overrule them in return for a generous donation to the bishop’s “Cross, Ring, and Crozier Fund” so it really wasn’t a problem most of the time.
While canon 855 does not mention who gets to decide who is—and who is not—a “public sinner” it only mentions the individual minister of the Sacrament as having the authority to refuse the Eucharist in terms of those who are occultos peccatores. There was no authority given the individual minister—be it pastor, priest, or deacon—to refuse someone for public notoriety. And remember in the days when canon 855 was in force, there were no extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.
So where does that leave us today. Can the individual minister, ordinary (bishop, priest, deacon, acolyte) or extraordinary (lay) take it upon himself to deny Holy Communion to an individual whom he or she deems unworthy to receive the Eucharist? Well, the current canon does not cover occultos peccatores—that is the ordinary person known, or thought, by the minister to be in serious sin. As I pointed out, Ms. Johnson—should she fall into any category of sin, would be, or would have been, in this category. While an individual in serious sin is warned in canon 916 not to receive the Eucharist, there is not authority given the minister in canon 916 to refuse the Sacrament. The minister is not the enforcer of the canon but the individual’s own conscience. There simply is no authority given to deny a person communion because they are, in the opinion or even knowledge, of the minister to be in grave sin. As for those who are excommunicate or under interdict—it is clear that they are to be refused, but excommunication or interdict is not in the power of the minister to impose, only to follow through and refuse communion to the excommunicated or interdicted individual. As for those persisting in manifest grave sin, it seems that is in the prerogative of the Ordinary and unless he has specifically banned someone, I don’t see how the minister can justify refusing communion to that person any more than if the Ordinary had banned someone that the minister could, on his own judgment, administer the Sacrament to the outlawed individual.
This is long and convoluted—I realize that—and it has taken me not only over my self-imposed ban about theology but way beyond my expertise (of which I have as much as the typical priest or deacon but no more) in Canon Law, but the Canon Lawyers I have consulted agree. Then again, I am sure that there are those who wouldn’t. Well, Hillel and Shammai had the same problems back in the old day. I’m glad that Hillel and his school won out; I am equally glad that Father Guarnizo and his enthusiasts haven’t managed to capture the day and I hope we can move on and away from the black eye this priest has given the Church.