Friday, March 2, 2012

Attempts to Justify--More on Saga of the Priest Who Refused Communion

Cardinal Donald Wuerl,
Archbishop of Washington
The saga of Marcel Guarnizo, the priest who last Saturday, February 25, refused communion to a woman at her mother’s funeral because the woman is living in a same-sex relationship continues to unfold.  It began to appear on the internet on Monday and in the newspapers on Tuesday.  The Archdiocese was quick in damage control and hung the priest out to dry, claiming that he acted contrary to diocesan policy.  (He did—that was very clear, as Cardinal Wuerl has made a point that people are not to be refused communion during Mass for any foreseeable reason.)   By Wednesday the story was circulating that the woman’s partner had encountered the priest in the Church before the Mass as she was preparing a reading and the priest asked who she was.  She supposedly identified herself as the partner of Barbara Johnson, the daughter of the deceased.  That is what gave Guarnizo a heads-up that Johnson was in a relationship that is outside the bounds of Catholic morality.  Following on this information, Guarnizo then refused Johnson communion at the Mass saying “I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman and that is a sin according to the Church.”  By Wednesday evening the story had evolved that Johnson had confronted the priest in the sacristy before Mass, introducing the other woman as her “Lover.”  Well what was a priest to do when challenged like this?  One account has it that he then “warned” Johnson that she should not come up for communion due to this sinful relationship, but she confronted him by appearing first in line for Holy Communion.  In another version Johnson stormed out of the sacristy before the priest could warn her that she should not receive.  Whichever version—if either—being true, Guarnizo felt that under the circumstances he was justified in his decision as Johnson had been duly warned that her living situation removed her from active participation in the Sacraments.  He was only doing his duty.  
I would have more confidence in the story if the versions put out by the priest’s supporters were consistent but details seem to be added with each round to bolster his case.  And I am not saying that the account isn’t true, but frankly it doesn’t wash.  Priest friends of mine say that Guarnizo’s version of the story “sounds fishy.” The usual protocol at a funeral is that the family arrives at the Church accompanying the body just in time for the funeral Mass.  One priest said: “I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, but in thirty-five years of priesthood  I don’t ever recall a family member being in the sacristy before the funeral.  I invariably meet them at the door of the Church when the undertaker brings in the casket.”   Others who know Ms. Johnson say that she is frank about her relationship but not “in your face” and couldn’t imagine her using the term “Lover” in those circumstances.  Her family and guests at the funeral supports her version of the story that the refusal of Holy Communion was unprovoked.
       Another priest friend of mine said that he could not imagine this happening as it was recounted to him.  He said that in his parish he always visits with the family at least once before the funeral to ascertain their needs and then he attends the wake or vigil service before the funeral to meet the family again and see how they are handling the death.  He said that he would know if there was some “irregularity” in the family situation long before the funeral Mass.  A third priest I spoke with said that the local funeral director always tips him off about family situations when the details are being arranged with the Church.  Both priests thought that if Guarnizo didn’t know the situation before the funeral he should have.  Then a parishioner from the parish said: “Father may seem soft-spoken and quiet, but he is a scrappy little fellow, quick to fight over what he thinks is right.”  But does all this address the issue of his “right” to refuse the woman communion? 
     If the (Arch)bishop has a policy regarding Holy Communion—or any other question about public worship and administration of the sacraments, is an individual minister of the Eucharist, priest or lay, free to take the decision into his own hands?  One canon lawyer said: “Absolutely not!  Look at it from the other side: can you imagine if a priest in Saint Louis had given communion to Senator Kerry after (then Archbishop) Cardinal Burke had said he was not to be given the Eucharist?   The bishop sets the policy, not any Tom, Dick, or Harry who happens to be giving out Holy Communion.”  Another said: “This is not the situation for which canon 915 applies. That canon is for manifest public sinners and the decision about how it is to be implemented rests with the Ordinary (the Bishop).  This woman’s sin—and it is a sinful situation—this woman’s sin is considered in the private realm and not public even though friends and family would be aware of her relationship.  Public sin would refer to something like criminal behavior—heading up a Mafia family, being a racketeer, publicly known to be operating a house of prostitution or an illegal gambling establishment.  It could be applied to the owner of an abortion mill or its physicians if they were publicly identified with it.  Moreover it not only has to be a matter of public knowledge—as distinguished from common knowledge—but the person has to obdurately persevere in the sinful activity.  That is they need to be publicly admonished and remain in the sinful situation after and in spite of the public admonishment.  The case of Ms. Johnson clearly falls under private and not public sin.  Even a first year canon-law student would know this.”  
       But the crazies still clamor for blood—and not Marcel Guarnizo’s.  Local bloggers Restore DC Catholicism and An Archdiocese of Washington DC Catholic have been joined by Les Femmes—a one woman band from the hills of the Shenandoah—and her ties to the Catholic Media Coalition will spread it through the Catholic neo-con network in an attempt to bring down Cardinal Wuerl and his policy of not refusing people Holy Communion.  She has long been critical of Wuerl, his predecessors, Cardinals McCarrick and Hickey, and her own bishop, Paul Loverde of Arlington.  I suspect the publicity will run out of fuel before it achieves its goals of having Cardinal Wuerl or Bishop Loverde “corrected” by Rome, but it is a fascinating picture of the struggle over who determines Church policy.  This—the struggle for controlling Church authority—is an increasingly interesting issue as it puts the religious right into the role of rebellious and unfaithful Catholics, a role with which they are usually most uncomfortable.  We have to do a posting on that topic.

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