Priest Who Ruined Lesbian’s Mother’s Funeral Placed On “Administrative Leave”

barbara johnson

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“I write to inform you that effective today, Father Marcel Guarnizo’s assignment at St. John Neumann Parish is withdrawn and he has been placed on administrative leave with his priestly faculties removed until such time as an inquiry into his actions at the parish is completed.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,” he 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.

father guarnizo tries out for the matrix

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.

Cardinal Dolan is unhappy

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.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2695 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. Great article, Riese. I think you make a good point about the ‘intimidating behaviour’ potentially being linked to his conduct at the funeral, despite the Church seeming to want to avoid talking about the issue. However, I’m also wondering if maybe more people have felt comfortable coming forward about this guy’s conduct after the funeral incident? As you say at the end of your article, seems like there’s a strong possibility that a person refuses communion to someone at their mother’s funeral and then ditches the burial blessings is unlikely to be a generally nice guy.

    That 58% statistic you quote from the Pew forum is interesting. I’ve met plenty of Catholics who are tolerant of same sex sexuality as well as reproductive choice. It’s a shame the institutional Church seems to want to stomp on the beliefs of many of its members.

  2. First of all, a resounding AMEN to this: “‘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 — take communion even if you’re gay or Buddhist.”

    Secondly, as a raised-Protestant-now-politely-non-religious type person who attended a Catholic college, I have learned over time that there is a vast chasm of difference between The Church (hierarchy) and Catholics (the laity, some nuns and priests).

    The nuns who founded and nominally ran/run my school are some of the most social justice oriented, rad feminists I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and learning from.

    I can only applaud the folks who deal with the insane bullshit coming from on high in order to work for positive change from within.

    • There are some seriously badass nuns out there. My sister went to a nun-run school where the nuns organised proper sex education, a talk by a South African woman who talked about ccess to contraception and HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, and regularly invited in members of different religions in to talk about their faith. Yay for lefty nuns.

      • Right?! We had some great comparative religion classes, I had the pleasure of taking an excellent Bible-as-historical-document class, the head of the religious studies department was a flamingly gay man, one of the nuns was famous for her work with women prisoners, and another took a group of students to protest the School of Americas every year.

        Nun power!

    • My high school experience would have been so different if it weren’t for the leftist nuns teaching us all about social justice and how to be badass? In a completely religious way, of course.

  3. There are some truly wonderful Catholics, who do great things for the poor, who help people with AIDS, love their fellow man, woman, and queer, and who truly believe in- and do- the teachings of Jesus.

    And then theres these guys.

  4. Ok, so I’m a man and I know that Autostraddle is a community focused on “girl-on-girl culture” so I’m sorry if I’m intruding – normally I just read, but as someone who’s queer and likes the Catholic Church, hierarchy and all, I really want to comment.

    Mostly, yes, this was offensive. But when we come across things like “‘your mother’s funeral’ is one of those special days where you can do whatever you want … or take communion even if you’re gay or Buddhist,” it seems like we’re not really understanding the situation. Now, one might say that it’s a waste of time to try to understand bigots, but this isn’t really an example of bigotry – at lest not bigotry simpliciter. Communion has been, from apostolic times, a marker of shared beliefs – to receive communion is a symbolic statement that the communicant agrees with and believes the doctrines the that Church. That’s why people still say that the Eastern Orthodox Churches are “in communion” with each other – they all hold the same dogmas.

    Now, some may say that this doesn’t matter – it is comforting to participate in the same ritual as the rest of the congregation (especially when it’s your own mother). Here, the priest is at fault – he should have reduced the importance of communion in this liturgy if he felt incapable of distributing it to her. But we should also say that we need to respect the meaning of communion to the churches, just as we want people to respect our self-identity. So many stories here are about struggling to get acknowledged as one identifies – the words we use to describe ourselves are important; “queer” “bi” “pansexual” are all meaningful and we want them to be recognized by society at large. In the same way, we ought to recognize the doctrinal and communal significance of communion to religious folk.

    • you’re overlooking the fact that Father Guarnizo went against the policy of his diocese when he decided to deny her communion, though. And that the diocese has subsequently apologised to Barbara Johnson. I also find it a stretch to suggest that his decision not to attend the deceased person’s grave for burial blessings has anything to do with the “doctrinal and communal significance of communion”.

      I appreciate that Father Guarnizo may find it unconscienable to offer communion to certain groups of people. Generally, I wouldn’t want to force a person to do something which is antithetical to their core belief system, even if I disagree with what they believe. But Father Guarnizo chose to work as a priest in a diocese where he knows that diocesan policy is to offer communion to people he may think are unfit to receive it. In doing so he accepted responsibility to offer communion in accordance with diocesan policy. If he really objects to offering lesbians communion, then his responsibility is to put himself in a position where he’s not going to be called on to do that. To behave this way at a funeral of all places is absolutely unacceptable, not to mention, un-Christian.

  5. Here again to throw down my 2 dollars.

    1. I’m happy to hear Ms. Johnson has received apologies from the Bishop & Archdioces. However, I’d be much happier if this unfortunate incident hadn’t happened at all.

    2.“‘your mother’s funeral’ is one of those special days where you can do whatever you want … or take communion even if you’re gay or Buddhist”. Sorry Riese, I have to disagree with you here & ultimately agree with John. There are guidelines as to who can or can not receive the communion. One of them is that you must believe in doctrine of transubstantiation (bread & wine IS trasformed into the body & blood of christ). If you do not believe this then you are not permitted to receive. Usually, in special masses such as a funeral or wedding the priest would make a small announcement to all non-catholics to please refrain from receiving communion. Also, catholics are asked to respect other religions when participating in their masses, prayers, ceremonies and adhere to their guidelines and ours.
    Bottom line: the issue wasn’t her belief in the doctrine of transubstatiation, it was of her “living with a woman”. And that should have never been an issue when she walked up to receive communion.

    3. I watched Ms. Johnson’s interview with CBS. I didn’t know that while she said her eulogy Fr. Guarnizo walked out. This is not acceptable. And I sincerely hope…no…I sincerely pray that the Catholic church really does take some serious action here.

    4.I hope Teresa doesn’t show up to comment here (Anyone who read last article about Ms. Johnson knows who I’m talking about) I completely disagree with her opinions & thought process to all of this.

    5. There are many Catholics who are part of the LGBTQ community and there are many who accept, love, and welcome them. We all just have to continue to stand up against people like Fr. Guarnizo.

    • The thing is, though, it would’ve been up to her to refrain from taking communion at the funeral, not up to him to refuse it to her, based on the diocese’s policy. And maybe this belies my non-Catholic roots, but I do kind of strongly believe that when someone’s mother just died, compassion and pastoral care should override pretty much everything else. You can address potential issues later.

  6. Thanks for mentioning whats been happening in the UK! On Saturday/Sunday a super homophobic letter was read out in place of a sermon in all the Catholic churches in England and Wales – I knew about it before it made the news because my sister had to sit through it on Sat evening and texted me saying she was so angry she cried. The priest apparently apologised about having to read it out before he did so, which just goes to show how out of kilter the hierarchy is with their congregations.
    This new Church offensive into politics here is super disturbing and is alarming a lot of people because we have a pretty effective separation of church and state here and this kind of religious body involvement in politics just doesn’t happen! And of course the things the bishops are saying are just beyond reason and so homophobic its unbelievable!

    • that’s awful. I sometimes go with my parents to their Catholic church in Maryland, which is part of the DC archdiocese, and fortunately there haven’t been any letters read at the pulpit about same-sex marriage, which was just legalized here in MD. they did however read a letter from Cardinal Wuerhl ( head of the archdiocese,) in lieu of a homily a few weeks back, re: the Obama administration “infringing on their religious liberty” w/r/t birth control coverage being mandatory. my parents’ parish is really pretty progressive, and the priest has even lamented the out-of-touch hierarchy in a homily. that’s sad that the Catholic Church is getting more political in the UK, also…

  7. Why is everyone ignoring the reality that this woman is not Catholic. She is a self confessed Buddhist! She has no right to Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. She is misleading millions of people with her lies. She is hiding the truth that she in fact chose to use her mothers funeral as a political tool, not as an opportunity to lay her mother to rest. Here is the link if anyone is at all interested in the truth about Johnson: http://bit.ly/zoDvpy

  8. This is insane!!
    A-“Who can take communion”??? !!!
    Only people who Respect, Honor and have fear of God can take communion. Only baptized catholics who have confess their sins and denied evil ways like homosexuality, Prostitution, Drugs, Adultery, alcoholism, abortion,etc are MORALY allowed to Take Communion and receive the body of Jesus Christ!! Where is the confusion?
    B-Guarnizo was not following policy???!!!!!
    He is a priest. He has to stand for what is right. Giving communion to a homosexual,prostitute,killer goes againts our beliefs.
    It’s time to stand for what is right and star respecting and honoring GOD.
    This is sending a terrible message!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.