Those lesbians are at it again! Trouble at the communion rail

March 1, 2012

Here is a story that caught my attention because, in the first place, I am curious about all things pertaining to the Roman Catholic Church, and, secondly, this deals with one of the most difficult and misunderstood areas of church life, discipline. Where to begin?

The Washington Post carried the original story of a woman denied communion at her mother’s funeral in a Roman Catholic church.

Deep in grief, Barbara Johnson stood first in the line for Communion at her mother’s funeral Saturday morning. But the priest in front of her immediately made it clear that she would not receive the sacramental bread and wine.

Johnson, an art-studio owner from the District, had come to St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg with her lesbian partner. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had learned of their relationship just before the service.

“He put his hand over the body of Christ and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin,’ ” she recalled Tuesday.

She reacted with stunned silence. Her anger and outrage have now led her and members of her family to demand that Guarnizo be removed from his ministry.


Yeah, there’s more, including plenty of condemnation for Fr. Guarnizo. The Diocese of Washington, D. C. has apologized to the woman and the uproar is not a pretty sight. This kind of story has a number of uniquely Catholic nuances with which journalists typically lack the training and patience required for such explorations. Ruthless editors are always looking for ways to clear out a little more room in the so-called “news hole.” The reader just does not stand a chance.

To really dig into this nasty little wound, you would need a working knowledge of Canon 915. That is a section of Roman Catholic law dealing with those who are to be excluded from Holy Communion. Here’s what it says.

1983 CIC 915. Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion. (See also CCEO 712)

   Olim: 1917 CIC 855. § 1. All those publicly unworthy are to be barred from the Eucharist, such as excommunicates, those interdicted, and those manifestly infamous, unless their penitence and emendation are shown and they have satisfied beforehand the public scandal [they caused]. § 2. But occult sinners, if they ask secretly and the minister knows they are unrepentant, should be refused; but not, however, if they ask publicly and they cannot be passed over without scandal. (See also: Canon Law Digest I: 408-409.)

Edward N. Peters excellent blog on canon law has a couple of useful posts on this story. One is an essay on how to apply this statute. The second is a thought exercise. Very good reading, if you are into this type of thing. I cannot resist stating that I think there may be a little more mischief involved here than immediately meets the eye. The unfortunate priest made his ill-advised decision based entirely on a third-party conservation just before the funeral service. Translate that “tattle tale.” Somebody was deliberately making trouble in the household of God, if you were to ask my opinion.

But why am I bringing this up at all? One very important reason is that this kind of situation, even when proper protocol is not followed, gives us an insight into how people who have been at the business of shepherding God’s people for a very long time deal with things. While we may observe occasional weaknesses, Roman Catholic church government has been evolving for thousands of years.

The glaring weakness of many Evangelical congregations, and even some Anglican groups, is a deficient understanding of the Church. Who are we? What are we doing? Why do we do it? Is the church necessary? Are we supposed to build massive structures that somewhat resemble shopping malls or are we to gather around dining room tables? Most provocatively, what do we do with believers who stumble along the way?

If the church is a social service organization, then the people who pass through the doors are customers and no more. It would be intrusive and inappropriate to ask your clients to adhere to some sort of public standard of conduct, if that is all there is to the relationship. There are a few supposed churches that operate along these lines and who am I to condemn anybody?

If, on the other hand, the church is the living body of Christ in the world, then things will operate a little differently. There is thel matter of a proper sacramental theology. If preaching is your only “sacrament,” as is the case in many situations, dealing with the obstinate public wrongdoers can be a problem. There are probably fewer alternatives. The idea of public denunciation makes me a little uneasy. Could you be sued? One can remove an individual from the body, but happens after that? Isn’t restoration the ultimate goal of church discipline? This is only an opinion, but the application of church discipline can easily become an occasion of abuse.

A number of churches seem to have a problem with this. The Catholics have one thing right. The basic idea of dealing with public offenses publicly and private offenses behind closed doors is a good idea. People who have done wrong are suffering from the natural consequences of the misconduct and from the added weight of public shame. Of course, a public pattern of offensive behavior needs to be stopped, but the people involved need pastoral care and compassion. Churches with a sacramental theology (Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans) have an edge in this area. It is a firm statement when one is (even for a while) removed from Communion. Of course, this instance was poorly handled, but the general concept is good.

This approach calls for balance and humility.Everybody makes mistakes, including parish priests and megachurch pastors. Sooner of later, we all do wrong. Discipline is a kind of medicine for illness in the body. Give the right dose at proper intervals. Of course, all of this matters only if you think of the church as a divinely instituted organization with a divine mandate.

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