You may or may not remember the story of Barbara Johnson, the lesbian art studio school owner who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral by a locally well-known priest named Father Marcel Guarnizo. The priest later walked out of the Gaithersburg, Maryland church during Barbara’s eulogy and refused to attend the burial to administer her mother’s last blessings, claiming he’d suddenly fallen ill. (You can watch an interview with Barbara Johnson at CBS News.)
Yesterday news broke that Guarnizo has been placed on “administrative leave from his position as Parish Priest at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, pending an investigation,” according to a March 9 letter from the Archdiocese of Washington, written by Bishop Barry C. Knestout (chief-of-staff for the Archdiocese’s head, Cardinal Donald Wuerl) to all its priests.
However, the Archdiocese insists that the suspension has nothing to do with the Communion Incident. They attribute his removal to allegations of “intimidating behavior” against “others” “over the past week or two”:
“I write to inform you that effective today, Father Marcel Guarnizo’s assignment at St. John Neumann Parish is withdrawn and he has been placed on administrative leave with his priestly faculties removed until such time as an inquiry into his actions at the parish is completed.
This action was taken after I received credible allegations that Father Guarnizo has engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry,wp_postshe said in the letter. “Given the grave nature of these allegations, and in light of the confusion in the parish and the concerns expressed by parishioners, Father Guarnizo is prohibited from exercising any priestly ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington until all matters can be appropriately resolved, with the hope that he might return to priestly ministry.”
The fact that his removal does “pertain to actions over the past week or two” suggests (to me) that his response to the backlash could be to blame for his removal. It’s easy to imagine that such a resolutely outspoken and fiercely anti-gay priest wouldn’t react well to the idea that there are certain times and places, such as funerals, wherein acting like a jerk is not allowed.
Johnson herself had actually called for the priest’s removal, and last Tuesday she received an apology letter from Rev. Barry Knestout of the Archdiocese, which read in part:
“I am sorry that what should have been a celebration of your mother’s life, in light of her faith in Jesus Christ, was overshadowed by a lack of pastoral sensitivity. I hope that healing and reconciliation with the Church might be possible for you and any others who were affected by this experience. In the meantime, I will offer Mass for the happy repose of your mother’s soul. May God bring you and your family comfort in your grief and hope in the Resurrection.”
What’s interesting, however, is that regardless of the fact that it was a funeral, Guarnizo was not following policy when he denied Barbara communion. “Who can take communion” is apparently a heated debate that’s been raised many times in this particular district, and their present policy is the result of debates several years ago about whether or not pro-choice people deserve communion. Because this particular district’s district is “Washington DC,” one tends to be dealing with people whose views on abortion are fairly well known. Specifically, debate has arisen around the ethics of granting communion to Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry.
Thus, the Archdiocese’s official policy on the matter is that communion is “not the right time or place for a spiritual standoff.” It is up to the person asking for communion to determine whether or not they are in a “state of grace” worthy of it. This state requires “not being conscious of having committed a sin serious enough that it ruptures their relationship with God. As with any relationship, it is not just a one-sided judgment that determines what hurts the relationship with God.” If a priest feels someone got communion who shouldn’t have, they’re instructed to take that up with the person privately at a later time.
The Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington expressed these sentiments and others in a piece published in The Washington Post on March 1st.
It’s unfortunate that the focus of this incident has become the contentious communion aspect rather than the more straightforward misdeeds of him walking out during her eulogy and skipping out on the burial. The latest defense of Guarnizo comes from The Catholic News Agency, who insist that Barbara Johnson is a Buddhist and therefore shouldn’t take communion anyhow regardless of her sexual orientation. Other defenders claim Johnson’s story has been totally twisted (despite the fact that it actually wasn’t Johnson who broke the story to begin with, it was another attendee at the funeral) and this is all gay propaganda.
However, I think anyone with a heart could agree that no matter where you stand on gay people, “your mother’s funeral” is one of those special days where you can do whatever you want, whether that be to weep openly in public as if your lungs were volcanoes of tears, eat Edible Arrangements for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and listen to “The Rose” on repeat — or take communion even if you’re gay or Buddhist. It’s one of those days where we’re all asked to rise above out of respect for the deceased. I mean, nearly every funeral I’ve ever attended has asked me to participate in religious services that oppose my own faith (Jewish) and I’ve done so, and I’m sure you have too. It’s a funeral.
So, is Guarnizo’s removal a cause for celebration or a sign of progressive politics working their way into the Catholic Church?
No. I mean, I think it was only yesterday that the Archbishop of York and two Catholic archbishops warned their believers that were the UK to legalize gay marriage, very dangerous things could happen and presently the Guardian UK’s entire Catholicism section is occupied by gay marriage stories. In New York today, Cardinal Dolan is claiming that the Catholic Church was “burned” by Senate Republicans last year who assured their supporters that the same-sex marriage vote would never pass.
It’s also unlikely to the point of being impossible that any of Guarnizo’s colleagues oppose Guarnizo’s anti-gay attitudes or feel his views are out-of-step with church policies. This week’s church newsletter is chock-full of information on anti-choice events (the church is heavily involved in an effort to shut down a clinic in Germantown and elsewhere, and they participate in protests near-daily, such as today’s “March for Maryland” event catered by Chik-Fil-A) and a passive-aggressive “From the Pastor’s Desk” note regarding how important it is to save others from their evil behavior:
Christ himself commands us to admonish a brother who is committing a sin (cf. Mt 18:15). The verb used to express fraternal correction – elenchein – is the same used to indicate the prophetic mission of Christians to speak out against a generation indulging in evil.
The Church even offers workshops for Catholics looking to beef up their ability to win debates with same-sex-marriage-supporters. A few weeks back, Friar LaHood addressed same-sex marriage in his “From the Pastor’s Desk” column, which was fairly predictable and included gems such as:
Last week I said that same sex marriage and slavery are part of the same moral universe. One may object to this by saying that same sex marriage is consensual while slavery is not. The response is that one cannot change human nature by consent. The fundamental point is that both slavery and same sex marriage are contrary to human nature. In a same sex relationship there is not a corresponding complementarity between the persons. Even though their actions are consensual they do not correspond to the relationship ordered for such actions.
All of this despite the fact that The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 58% of Catholics believe “Homosexuality should be accepted by society,” making them the third-most-accepting faith surveyed by the Pew Forum (the only religions more accepting of homosexuality than Catholics are Jews and Buddhists).
So what can we take away from this, considering that the Church refuses to connect his administrative leave to his actions at Barbara Johnson’s mother’s funeral? Well, in some ways it’s even better if it’s totally unconnected because that means Guarnizo must have been a jerk to a lot of straight people, too, in order to get suspended, which we can add to our pile of evidence that people who are jerks to gays are often jerks/hypocrites in general. Although I imagine the Catholic Church has been dealing with that particular issue for some time now.