Imagine, for just a moment, being in the midst of the shock and grief of losing your mother and turning to your church for the comfort of the familiar rituals and sacraments associated with death and burial. As you approach the priest for Communion, he unexpectedly withholds the Host and tells you, right there in the Communion line he will not give you the Sacrament because of who you love. Shaken, you return to your pew, and when you muster the strength to rise to deliver your mother’s eulogy, the priest walks off the altar, returning only when you have finished. Then, as the mourners head to the burial site, you are told the priest will not accompany your family to say the final prayers and conclude the rite. Instead of reassuring you in your time of mourning, your church shunned and rejected you, leaving you feeling even more alone.
This is exactly what happened recently to a woman by the name of Barbara Johnson and to her family when their mother’s funeral Mass was held at the Saint John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Father Marcel Guarnizo told Ms. Johnson he heard just before the funeral that she was romantically involved with another woman, and saw her relationship as grounds to deny her Communion, refuse to even be present during her grief-stricken eulogy, and leave the entire family scrambling for a way to conclude their mother’s funeral rites.
It is hard to imagine a more heart-wrenching failure on the part of our church.
The reality is that this could happen to almost any one of us, given the escalating conflicts between pastoral care and the demand for adherence to a handful of socially conservative aspects of doctrine being played out in Catholic churches across the country. Whether we Catholics use birth control, have remarried after a divorce, believe that women are qualified for official ministry, or support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, most of us hold several views that contradict official Roman Catholic teaching. Could any of us be the next Barbara Johnson?
Recently, U.S. bishops have claimed loudly that our church is under siege from public forces that would deny Catholics the ability to practice our faith as we believe we should. In reality, it is far more often church leaders who deny Catholics the opportunity to live out our faith. It is the bishops who instruct priests to read statements opposing access to sometimes life-saving contraception from the pulpit, or who insert prayers that denounce same-sex couples and those who love and support them into Mass. It is church leaders who ban politicians with contrary views from Communion or from addressing college students. There is no external force firing beloved church workers who dare to raise questions for discussion, or who expel the children of lesbian and gay children from Catholic schools.
National studies have shown that one-third of all adults who were raised Catholic have left the church. These people were not forced out by acts of Congress or the decisions of the courts. Most have left because they no longer find our church to be a place of spiritual nourishment or credible moral guidance. And this is tragic. With each departure, our church is diminished. We lose the gifts and talents, love and hopes, challenges and insights that person represents. We lose a little bit of divine light.
I love our church, and agree with our leaders that it is facing a potentially devastating crisis. However, it seems as if the threat is not that the church will succumb to any external attack, but rather that it will tear itself apart, by continuing to tell Catholics that we are not welcome.
In the Catholic faith, the Communion table represents the Great Feast left to us by Jesus Christ, and is the place where we pray for the unity of the church. The tragedy of Barbara Johnson’s exclusion from the table at a moment she most needed the community of faith provides a wake-up call to Catholics, laity and leadership alike. As a way of atoning for this sin of omission, let us find ways to come together. We may never all agree on some issues, but we share a faith and a commitment to the ongoing mission and ministry of Jesus. This should compel us to imagine and live into a church where all are truly welcome.
Marianne Duddy Burke is executive director of Dignity USA, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics .