The story about Barbara Johnson, the lesbian artist denied Communion at her mother’s funeral last weekend, has unsurprisingly drawn a huge number of readers raising a range of theological points.
Some people believe Catholic teaching either required the Gaithersburgh priest to deny the woman Communion – or at the least gave him the right to – while others believe the opposite. Both sides cite canon law and high-level teachings and Scripture.
There are so many phrases that need to be parsed and defined: What is a mortal sin? What does it mean to be alienated from God? What is the pastoral thing to do when a priest is confronted with someone apparently violating a church teaching? What is the right kind of respect a priest should have for a Catholic’s free will and conscience?
First, the nuts and bolts. Catholicism teaches that, during Communion, Catholics receive the literal body and blood of Christ in the form of wafers and wine; the church teaches that in this moment, Catholics become transformed so they can be more Christ-like.
People “in a state of grave sin” are not supposed to take Communion, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. “But how grave does a sin have to be to cut you completely off from God?,” Reese asked. “Some would say any sex (heterosexual or homosexual) outside of a valid marriage is a grave sin. Others would argue it is not so grave as to cut a sinner completely off from God.”
Who decides how a grave sin is defined? The U.S. bishops in 2006, as the country debated whether pro-choice politicians could receive Communion, approved a document that appeared to list situations that violate church teaching and make someone ineligible for Communion. They included everything from “sexual activity outside the bonds of a valid marriage” to harboring hatred of others, missing Mass on Sundays “without serious reason” and stealing.
People in such states shouldn’t present themselves for Communion, the document said, before becoming more broad. A footnote said the document was not intended to be a specific list, and instead was meant to encourage Catholics to set a high bar for their personal conduct.
Catholics, it said, who have “honest doubt and confusion” about some church teachings “are welcome to partake of holy Communion, as long as they are prayerfully and honestly striving to understand the truth of what the church professes and are taking appropriate steps to resolve their confusion and doubt.”
“There is a lot of talk about what is mortal sin. It means to be totally alienated from God. Many theologians say this is hard to do,” Reese said.
Some readers have noted that the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, in the Gaithersburg situation, was left with no choice because Barbara Johnson and her longtime partner were “in his face” by identifying themselves as partners. Indeed some clergy told me that priests typically follow a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy; they don’t ask what goes on in the bedrooms of their gay and lesbian congregants because official church teaching is that sex between two people of the same gender is considered sinful, but the orientation itself is not. Johnson and her brother, Larry Johnson, both told me that the subject came up inadvertently, when arrangements were being discussed before the service (or more accurately, debated, as Guarnizo told the family at the last minute that he would allow only one eulogy, not two, as had been planned between the Johnson family and other church staff who attended pre-funeral meetings) and the Johnson siblings had to attend to something briefly, leaving the priest with Barbara’s partner.
“He asked her if she was in charge, and she said, ‘no,’” Barbara told me. “He then asked: ‘Then who are you?’ and she replied, ‘I’m her partner.’”
Guarnizo and other church staff have not responded to my requests for clarification.
The Rev. Tom Richstatter, a liturgist at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, said the question of who takes Communion is “about your understanding of what God is, and what the Eucharist is,” he said, using the word that means both the Communion rite and the wafer and wine. “For some priests, law and rules are the way to safeguard that, and others feel compassion in Jesus is the ultimate deciding factor.”
The vast majority of American bishops oppose denying Communion. When voting on it in 2004, in the context of pro-choice politicians, three times as many bishops said they opposed it than those who favored it. That year they issued a public position, by a vote of 183-6, saying it should be up to the individual bishop to decide whether to give pro-choice politicians Communion.
The policy in the Archdiocese of Washington, as established by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, is not to withhold Communion and for priests to privately counsel Catholics who they believe to be wrestling with violations of church teaching.
Past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Cardinal Francis George has taken a similar position, as has recent Los Angeles archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony. He said during the so-called “wafer wars” that his “archdiocese will continue to follow church teaching which places the duty on each Catholic to examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive holy Communion .. That is not the role of the person distributing the body and blood of Christ.”
Some prominent bishops favor the withholding of communion, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, a high-ranking Vatican official, who said Communion must be guarded even more in secularized, individualistic America “lest the faithful .. be deceived concerning the supreme good of the Holy Eucharist.”
In reality, theologians and priests told me, gays and lesbians in relationships not only receive Communion regularly but also give it, as lay eucharistic ministers. That is because of different viewpoints at the highest levels of the church, they said.
The difference in views on giving or withholding Communion, I’m told, can often come down to complex questions, including whether a priest feels it is the clergy’s role to judge a Catholic’s relationship with God, and what they feel is the most pastoral way to handle congregants.
This is such a sensitive, controversial subject within the Catholic community that multiple clergy members – even experts – were wary about having their names used. The Archdiocese of Washington declined to even respond to my request for experts to interview or documents to cite (though late Wednesday they did provide the Post with a short piece explaining Communion); the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also said they couldn’t even provide documentation because they don’t comment on “local issues.”
In the statement Wednesday, the archdiocese said “that the prime obligation to determine one’s preparedness to receive Communion falls to the persons who are presenting themselves for Communion. In extreme cases where someone has been formally excommunicated or is trying to use the Eucharist to make a political statement it is appropriate to consider denying Communion.”