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She the People
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Posted at 12:46 PM ET, 02/29/2012

The Politics of Communion: Why was Barbara Johnson turned away?

There Barbara Johnson stood, before Jesus and her family, first in line to receive the Eucharist at the funeral Mass for her mother, a woman so Catholic she’d come to after her heart attack and crossed
Barbara Johnson was denied communion and the priest walked out on her mother's funeral last Saturday after he found out Johnson is a lesbian. (Marvin Joseph - WASHINGTON POST)
herself.

If you’ve seen Wednesday’s Washington Post, you know what happened then: The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, of Gaithersburg’s John Neumann Catholic Church, “put his hand over the body of Christ,” Johnson said. He “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.’ ”

There are lots of sins on the books, of course, from eating too much to loving too little. But after the divisive ‘wafer wars’ of 2004, the American bishops published a handy guide outlining those offenses against God that might stand between a believer and the Eucharist.

This exercise was widely seen as a poke in the eye to one Catholic in particular – defeated Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, whose pro-choice votes in the Senate had led a handful of outspoken bishops to signal that serious Catholics had no choice but to vote for the other guy, George W. Bush.

But there were other sins on that cheat sheet. Second on the list, in fact, right after “murder, including abortion and euthanasia,” is a lapse referred to as “harboring deliberate hatred of others.”

The sort of aversion, perhaps, that might make a man flee the altar mid-eulogy? Or fail to honor a commitment to show up for the graveside service of a lifelong member of the community?

Though a Catholic in Colorado was reportedly denied Communion by a lay minister merely for wearing a pro-Kerry t-shirt in ’04, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of anyone turned away for hatred; have you?

Another sin that rates a spot on the list is “sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult, or physical or verbal abuse of others that causes grave physical or psychological harm.” Gosh, but who would do something so — oh, now I remember .Yet have you ever heard of an abusive priest being denied Communion?

Other “serious violations of the law of love of God and of neighbor” listed in the document include involvement with pornography. You know, like that priest in Kansas City who prosecutors say indicted Bishop Robert Finn was covering for.

After an incident like this one involving Barbara Johnson, it’s little consolation that Catholics are seldom turned away from the Communion rail -- and not only because that’s only a figure of speech these days, the rails having long since gone the way of lace chapel veils.

The bishops themselves caution against easy assumptions about the personal relationship between any individual Communicant and God.

And polling has shown that an overwhelming majority of Catholics do not want to see their priest standing before them like a convenience store clerk, running off those on the ‘bad check’ list.

Lent is a time for doing penance for our own shortcomings rather than for the kind of fault-finding I’m engaged in here. But as a Eucharistic minister who used to bring Communion to the homebound in our parish, I cannot imagine ever feeling it my place to decide, “None for you.”

The message that refusing a grieving woman sends is not so easily pulled back. And if we want non-Catholics to stop beating up on our faith, our clergy has got to communicate something more welcoming and representative than ‘No.’

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and ‘She the People’ anchor. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

By  |  12:46 PM ET, 02/29/2012

Tags:  Barbara Johnson, Marcel Guarnizo, Roman Catholic Church

 
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