Barbara Johnson and the Quality of Mercy

Okay, here’s a list of the angles related to the Fr. Guarnizo controversy I’m not covering:

1. Whether or not Guarnizo was right to deny Communion to Barbara Johnson at her mother’s funeral Mass. (Canon law professor Ed Peters says no; at least half the people in Deacon Greg’s combox disagree with him.)

2. Whether the archdiocese has stated its real reasons for placing Guarnizo on administrative leave. (According to archdiocesan vicar-general Bishop Barry Knestout, it’s reacting to charges that Guarnizo behaved in an “intimidating” manner toward laypeople, including parish staff members, in the week following the funeral. Countless skeptics believe Cardinal Wuerl is serving up Guarnizo’s head as a peace offering to the LGBT community, or perhaps to the media in general.)

No, the only aspect of this dustup that compels my attention is the letter that Barbara Johnson sent Guarnizo after the Mass. It includes the lines: “I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families.”

Villifying Johnson is the last thing I want to do. In some ways, I can relate to her. Johnson’s adopted some Buddhist beliefs and practices — so has my mother. I also know firsthand how flexibility, or the lack of it, on a presiding clergyman’s part can make or break a parent’s funeral. In a sort of post-mortem reversion to Orthodox Judaism, my father was buried by a rabbi of the Chabad sect. Although, per mitzvah, the rabbi declined to shake hands with any of the women present, he was very patient in coaching me and my half-brothers through the Kaddish. If the rabbi was thinking, “G-d, what a bunch of loser apostates,” he hid it well.

With this kind of religious bricolage in my background, I can understand why Johnson presented herself for Communion, and why she felt injured at being denied it. What I don’t get is her vindictiveness. Why pledge to wreck a man’s career right out of the gate? Why not go for the kind of simple apology that the archdiocese ended up granting in fact? I understand that Johnson’s brother also felt affronted by Guarnizo’s behavior, but wasn’t it a little presumptuous of them to label Guarnizo a menace to families everywhere?

Even if Guarnizo did mis-handle the situation, I can’t believe that going for his jugular was the good Catholic thing to do, or even, for that matter, the good Buddhist thing. I’ve done enough time in retail and other forms of peonage to have heard “I’ll have your job for this.” Not once did it make me think, “Gee, that person must have a legitimate gripe.” What it made me think was, “Why can’t these no-class loudmouths stay in Jersey, where they belong?”

According to one interpretation, Johnson was looking for trouble from the start. A Deacon’s Bench reader, who claims to have been in the sacristy before the funeral Mass, says that Johnson introduced her partner to Guarnizo using the loaded term “lover.” Guarnizo tells more or less the same story, adding that Johnson’s partner blocked his exit from the sacristy. He also says that the archdiocese’s charges of intimidation refer to his attempts to gather affidavits from eyewitnesses.

Accurate or not, this will be the version most Catholics end up accepting. Priest done in by lesbian sting operation — it’s too juicy to let go. And Johnson will bear a big share of the responsibility. Written in undisguised anger and building up to an open threat, that letter of hers lends the story just enough substance to live on. Johnson wanted Guarnizo gone; now he is gone. Just goes to show you should be careful what you put in writing.

Certainly plenty of priests have done and said things to set my teeth on edge. One guy in particular has always impressed me as an overbearing, self-important clod, happy to suck all the oxygen out of every room he enters. To my ordained readers, let me say that the man, from what I’ve heard, used to work in sales. His type seems far more typical of my occupational caste than theirs.

One time I saw him lecturing a pair of homeless who’d showed up on the Church steps to beg. As I understand it, he was — to his credit — offering them to buy them sandwiches. Yet, from his body language and theirs, I could tell he was making them accept a side dish of humiliation into the bargain. I quit the scene before Father read them a chapter of Atlas Shrugged.

A few minutes later, I saw the two homeless in the parking lot. It was April, I believe — an unseasonably cold night. One of them was wearing a tank top, and I noticed that his arms were turning the color of strawberries. Remembering the obnoxious priest, I thought, “I’ll show this [dysphemism for "Father"] who the real Christian is.” With that, I pulled a half-length wool jacket out of my trunk and thrust it on the guy’s back. If you have to engage in macho one-upmanship, I figured, you might as well do it St. Francis-style. I still miss that coat, but the satisfaction of that moment has, at times, done its share to warm me up.

Johnson did, in fact, fight Guarnizo to a draw in the corporal works of mercy dozens. As she eulogized her mother, Guarnizo repaired to the rest room. He did not accompany the body to the gravesite. He has since explained that he was suffering from migraine, but Johnson can still claim to have been the last woman standing. Am I so off base for supposing that fact ought to have soothed her into a more generous frame of mind? Isn’t it better to be be remembered as Marc Antony than as Brutus?


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  • Laura

    Perhaps it’s because I’m the ex-wife of a homosexual who’s been exposed to too many gay politics to give a lesbian activist whose own blog is full of vitriol an ounce of credit. This whole thing feels to me like a set-up. Yeah, that’s a rotten thing to accuse someone of, exploiting her own mother’s funeral to make political points, but I’ve known “bereaved” who’ve skipped the funeral to take a moving van to the house and clean out while everyone else is between the church and cemetery.

    So long as Johnson insists that the culture, including the Church, has to roll over and play dead so she can get her own way, she’s got no sympathy from me.

  • Christine

    I have no sympathy for Ms. Johnson as I don’t know why a Buddhist would want to partake of Christ’s body and blood. However, I too have been denied communion because I am…..a Lutheran.
    I used to work for a Catholic mission and through it attended a retreat at a Catholic center (it was VERY good). Before the day’s Mass, a Sister I worked with turned to me and (it seemed like a sneer) sneered to me, “You can’t take communion.”
    Well……I certainly wasn’t GOING to, as my “brand” of conservative Lutheran feels just the same way about Catholic communion as the Sister did about Lutheran communion.
    However, that being said, it did rub me a bit rough and now four years later, it’s all I remember of the retreat (other than that it was good!)
    I did not wish her ill (out loud) nor write her a letter about it; nor did I write the priest I worked for who once cussed me out (literally) for not following his directions in a timely fashion.
    That being said, I have found overall it’s much more pleasant to work with absolute nonChristians and to take communion with …..Episcopalians.
    Funny world.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    Laura, while not contesting anything Max says about the anger of Barbara Johnson’s public response, I have to repeat (as I have done in other comboxes) that she wasn’t a lesbian activist; her name was initially confused with that of another Barbara Johnson in the DC area who is a lesbian activist. There is no evidence that the Barbara Johnson in question was involved in public activism before the incident, or that she has a blog at all, let alone one filled with vitriol. However, she’s certainly become an activist if she wasn’t one before, as she’s scheduled to address the New Ways Ministries conference tomorrow. I’m still not convinced that pastoral insensitivity didn’t push somebody, who might have been drawn closer to the Church at the time of her mother’s death, further away from the Church and into activism; it sure wouldn’t be the first time.

    Really, I think we need to apply the House, M.D. rule to this situation: “Everybody lies.” And everybody has something at stake in this. Fr Guarnizo is not just your average under-the-radar cleric; he’s got a very public agenda of his own.

  • Robster

    Don’t know what to believe. Of course, I distrust church management of controversy. I suspect the priest was a sacrificial lamb for bad publicity. I dont know what’s going on or what the truth is, but it’s this sort of thing that makes me distrust those in charge. Wish they would act more boldly proclaiming and enforcing orthodox church teaching, but seems they only care about expediency. Such is my suspicion. But who knows?

  • grouper

    “I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families.”

    This individual is neither Catholic nor Buddhist. Not Catholic for failure to grasp the essence of Catholic Communion. Not Buddhist for failure to grasp the concept of non-harming. What a thoroughly unpleasant family; the deceased mother is the lucky one out of it, may she rest in peace.

  • Bender

    I think we need to apply the House, M.D. rule to this situation: “Everybody lies.” And everybody has something at stake in this.

    OK, if you wish Joanne, we’ll take you at your word and just conclude that you are lying. After all, everyone lies, even Joanne.

    Of course, that would be presumptuous and wrong, but that is the standard by which you have said we should judge.

    As for the event at issue — none of us were there, not even Ed Peters. None of us are in a postition to judge, not even Ed Peters. To judge anything — or more to the point — to judge Fr. Guarnizo or otherwise presume that he is anything but a good and faithful priest, giving him the benefit of the doubt and presuming him innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever, would not only be contrary to fundamental justice (even when judged by the self-proclaimed expert on all things and self-promoter extraordinaire, Ed Peters), it would be contrary to the charity to which we are called to apply here.

    None of us were there. It is not our place to make judgments here.

    And that is not a lie, Joanne.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    You’re right. I do lie. But I didn’t judge. In this case, I simply made a clarification on one hand, and an observation on the other.

  • Tim

    I can’t say I advocate charity out of spite (you and the two homeless men), but that would have been preferred to Ms. Johnson’s letter, though I suspect her prayers for Father Guarnizo were out of spite.

    I’m ashamed to say that I too have used prayer to spite (“I’ll pray for you”), mainly to make the other person feel guilty. What’s worse, in those cases I usually don’t say any prayers… and now I feel guilty (what does the Church teach about Karma?).

    [I call that "praying for someone and the horse he rode in on." You're welcome to steal that, if you want to. A confessor proposed it as the lesser of two evils.]

  • Sam Schmitt


    Ed Peters does not judge Fr. Guarnizo. There’s no reason to doubt that he is as good and faithful a priest as you say, but he may still be in error about canon law. Peters says nothing about Fr. Guarnizo’s personal culpability.

    I have seen a lot of huffy indignation about what Ed Peters has written but nothing to contradict his interpretation of the law. Care to offer some arguments?

    [That's an excellent point. A good and faithful priest isn't necessarily a canon-law wonk. He can make a mistake just like anyone else.]

  • MarieLouise

    Joanne, I think that’s quite a cynical assumption to make, don’t you? Especially about a priest? It seem to me, from the evidence we have seen, that Barbara Johnson should not have presented herself for Communion and certainly should not be upset about beying denied it. It also seems that Father should not, canonically speaking, have denied it. That is all I can conclude with any certainty, although I have further suspicions. Given the two people involved, and the nature of the incident, though, I will say that I can see that a priest faced with a parishoner that they know know know without doubt ought not present themself for Communion (like a Lesbian Buddhist) would feel they should deny Communion. It seems canon law does not share that view, and so both Father and I must bow to it. But Canon 916 does have something to say about who may present themselves for Holy Communion. I do not understand, I’m afraid, why a lesbian Buddhist would want to approach for Communion. Even if she didn’t know that living in a homosexual relationship would make her ineligible for Communion, which I very much doubt, she must have known that leaving Catholicism for Buddhism would. It all seems a touch fishy, but I guess what I’m getting at is, as Catholics, shouldn’t we presume that everyone has told the truth until we know otherwise and doubly so if that person is a priest?

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Knowing that Catholics don’t allow non-Catholics to take communion, my Orthodox Christian family simply opted out of communion at my mother-in-law’s funeral, getting a blessing instead. We didn’t demand communion. We also didn’t make my mother-in-law’s funeral a starting point for debating the Great Schism again.

    And why the heck does a Lesbian Buddhist want to take communion anyway?

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    The real question here, is—do Catholics really believe Holy Communion is the body and blood of God Himself? Or is handing out the little wafer merely a hospitality gesture, like coffee and doughnuts for everybody after the service, whcih must, and should, be given to everyone who presents themelves for communion?

    Speaking of the Orthodox Church, they take communion very seriously. If the priest doesn’t recognize you—no communion. Stern, but it does help avoid problems like this.

  • bones

    Bender, that’s a deliberate attempt to misstate what Ed Peters had actually been discussing. His discussion has been limited to the Church’s published policies, and not (unlike many ‘conservative’ Catholic commentators) on whether the priest or the communicant has been telling the truth.

    Max, this is an interesting bit of analysis. Now that Ms. Johnson has used the nuclear option (Can you ever take back a ‘I’ll pray for you’?) and now, as Joanne says, started speaking publicly, she’s likely passed that canonical notoriety test Ed Peters mentioned.

    [I hadn't thought of it in those terms (mainly because I barely knew they existed). But it did strike me that, in this case with a thousand moving parts, the one part that remains perfectly still is Johnson's threat.]

  • Martin T

    Why would a lesbian buddhist want communion? In order to feel connected to her mother that she lived, to feel welcome in a threatening world, because underneath it all she still knows and believes. . .that’s a few reasons that come to mind.

    As for House MD, in was struck with the attitude the saints recommend -assume only the best. If Feather had a moment to think he might have devices that the woman was trying for an odd confession and given her communion. If she had been more charitable she would have assumed Feather was simply confused.

    For my part I will stop and pray for both.

  • Martin T

    :-* Someone please explain to my phone, the word is” Father” not Feather.

  • pbeat

    Thank you for another thought provoking article. I understand your Catholic response but I wonder if the world would be a better place without priests who are not so nice. I have had some amazing priests and lived in an area of Alabama in the 70′s where Catholics were treated like Jews or dare I say Muslims in some communitis today. Coming from a predominately Catholic area, Dubuque, Iowa, I didn’t even recognize any discrimination when I moved to Alabama. Once, a teacher, knowing I was Catholic, asked if we got drunk at funerals. She must have thought I was Irish Catholic. I feel very sorry by your first commentor, Laura, whose own personal anger issues, concocted some kind of conspiracy, where a daughter who is burying her mother wanted to be smacked down by a bully priest in the name of Catholicism. Oh, yeah, I can see Jesus acting like that and getting a migraine. Hell no, Jesus would have been consoling her spreading a message of love and healing. Get more of those guys and put the other ones out to pasture.

  • pbeat

    Oh yeah, and I would say that I would pray for Laura but I’m afraid it would sound condecending, but seriously Laura, find a good man or woman or whatever and let it go. This woman deserved a decent burial for her mother. You must know what it would be like to be treated poorly, especially while one is greiving in such a way. She wasn’t trying to get a moving van, she was in moarning. Come on, try to give her a break. And your gay ex husband. Hey, wish him the best if you can. Come on, you’re on the Wimpy Catholic blog.

    [That's just it: inclusiveness is the name of the game around here. If anyone's pissed off about anything, he or she is welcome to say so.]