Righteous Anger: My Response to a Lesbian Being Denied Communion

by: Emma Rose

One of my least favorite questions to answer when I meet new people is, “What is your major?” I dread their reactions–the step back, the furrowed eyebrows, the slightly slack, dumbfounded mouth, the “Catholic Studies? What are you going to do with that, be a nun?”

I’ve considered hiring a by-the-hour escort major to be my arm candy at dance events, parties and literary readings. They won’t have to work very hard. I just need them to follow me around, contribute to small talk, and convince my new acquaintances that I’m a charming young woman who is capable of having intelligent conversations.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my Catholic Studies major. I am such a nerd that the dealbreaker on a date once was a disagreement about Vatican II. However, I understand that the rest of the world doesn’t share my fervor; and, in certain moments, I very clearly understand why.

In February, a woman named Barbara Johnson grieved the death of her mother. Johnson is a 51-year-old woman who owns an art gallery and lives with her lesbian partner on the East Coast. When Johnson approached the altar to receive the Eucharist at her mother’s funeral, the priest, Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, refused to administer the Sacrament. In a story for the Washington Post, Johnson recalled that “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.’”

Within days, Rev. Barry Knestout, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, sent Johnson a letter, in which he apologized for the “lack of pastoral sensitivity,” and offered to hold another Mass.

In March, the Archdiocese of Washington put Guarnizo on leave, but clarified that their decision was not based on the communion situation. Instead, it was because he had “engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is not compatible with proper priestly ministry.”

Shortly thereafter, Guarnizo made a public statement defending his actions. Here, he cited Canon law 915, which states, “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.”

According to the Church, in order for a person to partake in the Eucharist, they must be in a state of prepared belief. In other words,they must believe in and adhere to the communion of the Catholic Church. Also, the believer must have a soul that is reconciled from sin and prepared to receive Grace.

Guarnizo refused to administer the Eucharist to Johnson because of the latter reason: preparedness of the soul. In Guarnizo’s mind, and by the official stance of the Church, Johnson’s decision to engage in a homosexual relationship places her soul in a state of sin.

Let’s take a moment to look at this, shall we?

You’ve probably heard time after time that the Catholic Church does not consider identifying as homosexual to be a sin, only acting on it. But what does that even mean? Like most drama in humanity, it all comes down to sex.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sex is a marital act because it must be open to new life and an affectionate pursuit of unity for the couple involved. The ban on homosexual marriage stems from a same-sex couple’s inability to naturally conceive a child. A same-sex couple cannot be married because they cannot have a family; yet, they cannot adopt a family because they cannot get married. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle which gets into questions of gender roles and the definition of “life-giving.” This being said, the issue of marriage is a complex topic to be dialogued at a different time. Right now, we are looking specifically at Guarnizo’s reaction to Johnson’s actions and lifestyle.

If we take a moment to place ourselves in Guarnizo’s mindset, we will reach the conclusion that anyone who engages in premarital sex, cohabitation, artificial birth control, or masturbation is in the same unprepared state as Johnson was.  Yet, we didn’t see Guarnizo placing his hand over the ciborium as each person approached and saying, “Hey, have you touched yourself recently? Sorry, you can’t have any Jesus.”

If I may be quite frank, I was offended and appalled by this story. Some may say that because I oppose Guarnizo’s decision, I am a “bad Catholic.” However, I believe that my opposition is justified at the heart of the Church and the Eucharist.

The word catholic means “universal.” Today, we look at this and think worldwide; the people of the Church are connected in belief and practice all around the world.  Back in the day, though, it had a very radical meaning. The Church that Paul and the early apostles founded was unique in the sense that it was welcoming to all people. For the first time in the history of organized religion, everyone could come to the table: woman or man, gentile or Jew, rich or poor, free or slave. No matter who you were, there was a safe space for you in the feast of Christ.

This feast, the Eucharist, is a Catholic’s most sacred way to join in community with his/her brothers and sisters of the Church. By partaking in the same Body, we ourselves become a unified body: a family.

When Jesus sat down to eat dinner with his family and friends, he did not exclude those of whom the Jewish institution disapproved. On the contrary, he invited them by name; he gave them the respected seats at the table; he reminded them that they were blessed people.

No human being has the duty or the right to decide whether another human being is worthy of the communion of God. Such judgments are hypocritical and completely out of our hands. After all, wasn’t it written, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw the stone”? (John 8:7).

According to the Washington Post, Johnson has been Catholic all her life. She attended Catholic schools as a child, taught at a Catholic high school, and spent her last moments with her mother holding her in an ICU bed and praying the Our Father and Hail Mary. She did not enter the communion line with a spirit of spite or malice. Rather, she wanted to be present in her mother’s funeral by participating in a binding meal with the rest of her family and friends.

When Guarnizo denied Johnson communion, he did more than publicly address her lifestyle and identity. He ostracized her and made her unwelcome in a place which provided family and sanctuary for 51 years.

This is not the Church I know and love, the one that I call home, the one where all are welcome and loved. This story belongs in my mental filing cabinet which keeps record of all the reasons I should have a façade major at social events. I would like to send out my sincerest condolences to Barbara Johnson and her family, whom are in my prayers and thoughts during this difficult time of grief and recovery.

Also, I wish to apologize to anybody who has ever been hurt or discriminated against by the institution of the Catholic Church. Please know that there are believers in the world who love you and will welcome you with open arms.  You are blessed, you are special, you are beloved.

Emma Rose is a fourth-year student at DePaul University and is studying Catholic Studies, Creative Writing, and Spanish. She is passionate about blues dancing, service and justice work, baking, faith, laughter, and relationships. She hopes to pursue an MA in International Studies to research the systems that drive politically driven violence and material poverty in developing nations and the role that developed nations play in said systems.


8 responses to “Righteous Anger: My Response to a Lesbian Being Denied Communion

  1. look, here is the deal; beyond anything else, the Bible says we are to love, and not to judge. I do not care if you are a priest, a nun, or claim to be an effing prophet; what goes on between a man and a woman, women p, or men, is between them and God. They know what the Bible says about it. Denying them the body of Christ does not do any good – it only alienates them from the church! Who does that really freaking help?

    ummmm… this is why I do not usually search under the religion tag…

  2. This is a wonderful and well written piece. I respect your views on a subject that could be, and is, summarily dismissed by people on both the LGBTQI and Catholic sides of the issue. Your example of thoughtful integration of the church’s place in the world as a positive and considered guide is something I would desperately love to see more of. Despite the fact I am mostly an atheist I have never understood the complete dismissal of the positive effects of religion or the simplistic views that without dogma there would be no hate.

  3. The priest showed proper respect for the Real Presence, and pastoral care for the woman’s soul, by refusing to risk adding sacrilege to her open sexual sin. Confronting the consequences of her sin on this occasion, when she probably strongly wanted to receive, might have been enough to lead her to reassess her choices. But then, in steps the diocese to apologize, erasing any such inclination the woman might have felt.

    Because of the intimate connection of the Sacrament of Holy Communion to our life in Christ, we must be free of any grave or mortal sin before receiving it, as St. Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. Otherwise, as he warns, we receive the sacrament unworthily, and we “eateth and drinketh damnation” to ourselves. That’s some serious stuff.

    If we are aware of having committed a mortal sin, we must participate in the Sacrament of Confession first. The Church sees the two sacraments as connected, and urges us, when we can, to join frequent Confession with frequent Communion.

    You are right when you list the other sexual sins (premarital sex, cohabitation, artificial birth control, or masturbation) that too would place someone in an unfit state to receive communion and when we commit those sins we should deny ourselves communion. This situation is slightly different here because living with a homosexual partner is public and causes scandal to the Church and really undermines her authority.

    Since the archdiocese issued an apology it appears that the priest could have gone about informing the woman better beforehand explaining that she should not receive the Body of Christ. She clearly does not understand the Eucharist or sin or she herself would have never received communion. She put the priest in a very awkward position. He was put on the spot and was doing what he thought was best for her soul.

  4. I would like to respond to a story that I heard: A bunch of bishops were sitting around and talking about interesting experiences they have had during mass. One of the bishops shares a story about a mass he was giving at the Cathedral. From the beginning he noticed some cameras and press types in the back of the Church. He was unaware that a prominent Buddhist and Interfaith leader was sitting back there. Clearly trying to make a statement. While the Bishop was distributing communion, he saw the Buddhist monk get into line and slowly move toward him until he was standing right in front of him, waiting to receive the sacrament. The other Bishops were riveted, they asked him, “So, what did you do?” The Bishop Told them, “well, I just thought to myself. What would our Lord and Savior do?” The other Bishops responded, “No, you didn’t do that did you?”

  5. A priest should give communion to EVERYONE. If the priest doese not give Commoniun, the Preist himself should be DENIED COMMUNION himself.
    Also, Jesus Christ said “ALL of YOU, Eat my Body (The eucharist), and Drink My Bllod (The Communion)! !!!”.

    Jesus Christ is FOR ALL US. His Death and Ressurection Forgave EVERYBODY past, Present, and Future!!!!

    Everyone shuld get Commuinoon and eucharist.

  6. To say this isn’t a touchy subject would be foolish, but the fact remains that based on the laws of the Church, anyone in a state of mortal sin cannot receive Communion. If this woman was in a known state of mortal sin at the time she wanted to receive, then refusing her Communion is not wrong under the laws of the Church. The real question here is whether the priest was in a position to make that call.

    To say flat out that being a lesbian is a mortal sin isn’t exactly right either, as the definition of what constitutes a mortal sin is much more complicated than a simple bullet list. In most cases, that distinction is much more personal between the individual and God, but there are cases where public actions make it easier for external parties to make that call.

    By its very nature, sin separates us from God and the Church community. Based on the statements referenced in this article, it seems to me that the priest’s intentions in this case were not to alienate this woman. One could even argue that his actions were meant to prevent further alienation by preventing what he perceived as another sin. Personally, I don’t think the priest did anything inherently wrong in this situation.

    We could certainly avoid the alienating call-out by turning the Communion line into a revolving confessional and offering the sacrament of Reconciliation to everyone that comes to receive. Logistically, of course, this isn’t really the answer as that would require a significant amount of time (and a larger number of priests at each Mass as Extraordinary Ministers obviously cannot perform the sacrament).

    What really needs to happen is education. The laws of the Church are not always easy to understand, and even those that live their whole lives as Catholics may never truly grasp every aspect of Canon Law. We as a community need to educate people and make sure that those who come to receive Communion understand exactly what it is the Church teaches. The Eucharist is an integral part of our faith, and people need to understand the laws that surround it.

  7. Pingback: In Our Words In Review: Faith and Humanism « In Our Words·

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