Catholic Communion in the news, again

One of the terms that journalists hear during many continuing education sessions at the Poynter Institute down in Florida is “stakeholder.” Basically, a stakeholder is someone whose life will be directly affected by the accuracy and fairness of a story.

This stakeholder may be a source in a story. Then again, it could be someone who is part of an institution that is being covered in the news. The key — again — is that their lives will be directly affected by this story, positively or negatively.

This stakeholder concept is, in effect, a way of forcing journalists to broaden our thinking, to help us realize that while many stories do have two sides, many others have multiple stakeholders whose views must be taken seriously.

A key element of “stakeholder theory,” you see, is that journalists must listen carefully when stakeholders keep insisting that a newsroom’s coverage is flawed or slanted. It is especially important when they say that information is consistently inaccurate or that stories consistently contain crucial gaps.

With this gatekeeper concept in mind, let’s look at an A1 story in The Washington Post that is creating a lot of online heat and some light. It’s an emotional, gripping story — the kind that screams out for balanced, fair-minded coverage. Here’s the top of the report:

Deep in grief, Barbara Johnson stood first in the line for Communion at her mother’s funeral Saturday morning. But the priest in front of her immediately made it clear that she would not receive the sacramental bread and wine.

Johnson, an art-studio owner from the District, had come to St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg with her lesbian partner. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had learned of their relationship just before the service.

“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,’?” she recalled Tuesday.

She reacted with stunned silence. Her anger and outrage have now led her and members of her family to demand that Guarnizo be removed from his ministry.

It soon becomes clear that this is, to say the least, a story with multiple stakeholders.

First, there is Barbara Johnson, who is convinced that the priest’s action was rooted in “politics,” not in doctrine. The story makes it clear that the family is focusing its rage on the priest, not the Catholic Church in general. It also includes this information:

Johnson’s mother and late father were lifelong churchgoers who scraped to send their four children to Catholic schools, said Barbara and her brother, Larry Johnson, a forensic accountant who lives in Loudoun County. Barbara lives in Northwest Washington and for years taught art at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, her alma mater.

Second, there are the leaders of the local gay community, whose outrage is not as nuanced as Johnson.

Third, there is the Archdiocese of Washington and its leadership. The archdiocese quickly apologized for the priest’s “lack of pastoral sensitivity” and even added that his action violated a local policy. A quote from that statement made it into the report:

“When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person,” the statement said. “Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting.”

Finally, there is Guarnizo himself and those who believe that he was doing his best to follow church law in what was clearly a rushed, difficult setting. In other words, he did not have time to find out (a) if Johnson’s relationship with her “partner” was sexual, which would violate church teachings, or (b) if she was a regular communicant at another parish (perhaps a more liberal Catholic parish) in which she has some kind of confessional relationship with another priest. The bottom line: The priest was not sure that the daughter was still a practicing Catholic in a sacramental relationship with the church.

The priest declined to be interviewed, perhaps at the request of archdiocesan officials. The story does make it clear that pro-Vatican Catholics (sample here) are rising to defend the priest and to criticize the local church leadership. The story notes:

“Fr. Marcel Guarnizo has been thrown under the bus for following Canon Law 915!” wrote one Catholic blogger in the archdiocese. “The issue here is not the priest but Barbara Johnson.”

While this story contains a variety of voices representing various flocks of stakeholders, including the archdiocesan leadership, it does not contain any material that attempts to explain the viewpoint of the priest.

In other words, to use Poynter language, it appears that Father Guarnizo is not a stakeholder in a story that centers on his actions and beliefs. This is most strange.

For example, please note that passing reference to “Canon Law 915.” It would be logical for readers to ask, “What, pray tell, does Canon 915 say, since there are those who believe it is linked to this priest’s actions?”

Canon 915 will, of course, be familiar to anyone who closely follows debates about the sacramental status of Catholic politicians who publicly and consistently oppose the teachings of their own church. However, I would argue that Canon 915 should have been quoted in this story. It states:

Canon 915: “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.”

From the viewpoint of the priest and his defenders, the key words would be “… others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.”

Those words are relevant — if the priest is a stakeholder in this story, a person whose views need to be accurately and fairly reported. But he is a stakeholder, isn’t he? After all, his career is on the line.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Before clicking “comment,” ask yourself this question: “Am I commenting on the political and doctrinal issues linked to this controversial news story or on the journalistic question that is actually raised in this post?”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Will

    “Pro-Vatican Catholics”? Isn’t that the kind of language which has been so often criticized on this blog for assuming that the conflict is between equally defensible “Vatican positions” and “liberal positions”? Doesn’t that mean “Catholics who support the actual teachings of the church”, not the nebulous “TheVatican”?

  • tmatt

    Yes. Catholics who support the Vatican and its take on the issues involved in this case.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Again– this is a personal interest of mine— I would like to have seen some mention in the story (or in a sidebar) of how the Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches handle similar situations (since they have approximately the same attitude toward Communion as the Catholic Church).

  • tz

    The priest might have had good intentions but he jumped the gun.

    Canon 915 ought to be quoted in full, not just one line. From the above blog:

    “Specifically, a few minutes conversation (if that’s what happened), mostly with a third party (if that’s what happened), would not suffice, in the face of numerous canons protecting the right of the faithful to receive the sacraments, to verify either the notoriety of the (objectively) sinful situation, or to verify the obstinacy of the would-be recipient, both of which elements, among others in Canon 915, must be demonstrated before withholding holy Communion.”

    One of the things about the church is there is a procedure or process for everything with the aim to create justice – a just result. The priest in the situation was not supposed to act as judge right then and there. He could not know enough about the situation. I would laud his concern for both the eucharist and her soul, but he was under authority. There are many abuses because priests don’t know what ought to be done in many ordinary cases. Exceptional cases make things worse.

    But then where is the charity and peace-making now?

  • Bill P.

    I suppose the journalistic question I have is, how does a reporter work in a point of view if the person declines a formal interview — for whatever reason? The event is news, and the news is lacking because, in the case, Fr. Guarnizo isn’t represented. But is that the reporter’s fault?

  • tmatt

    Bill P:

    Read the post. The answer is already in it.

  • Allie

    I would’ve liked to see a greater discussion of the opposing views on this. Why are some priests (in particular, bishops) opposed to distributing communion? Under what conditions? I feel like the way they even spun the bit about John Kerry highlighted this as a political issue, rather than a doctrinal one.

  • tmatt

    Spiking, spiking, spiking.

    Stick to the journalism and take your anti-Catholic and/or political commentary elsewhere.

    Please read the Editor’s note at the end.

  • Fr. Savio

    I am a priest currently stationed in the Washington area, so I was introduced to this story by the Washington Post lying on the breakfast table. The most shocking thing to me, and something that I would consider not only bad reporting, but, frankly, libel, was the subtitle: Woman denied Communion because of her Orientation. Now, nowhere does the article say that Fr. Marcel refused her Communion because she was homosexual, but only because she was apparently living in an objectively unchaste situation.

    In truth, the Church is clear in her belief that, while homosexual desire is disordered (and really, all human sexual desire has tinges of disorder that need to be controled, just like every other desire – e.g., the desire to eat), nonetheless, it is not the orientation but rather the action that is sinful.

    Was this in the Post? No. It basically said, “Priest denies woman Communion because she is gay.”

    That is horrendously bad reporting, and manifestly untrue. We’re not dealing with deep subtlety here. This seems rather a false HEADLINE that should be retracted immediately. It seems to purposely – and without evidence in the article – portay Fr. Marcel as a bigot.


  • Dismas

    In my opinion the WaPo article is biased and journalistically unethical. A news story should present unbiased facts and include the eye witness of all involved parties.

    Although the ‘news story’ not so subtly leads us to a conclusion, I can’t determine all the facts or come to any conclusions without committing calumny. This is nothing more than an Opinion/Editorial piece. …

  • tmatt

    Father Savio makes an excellent point about that horrible, inaccurate headline.

    I was going to mention that, but the headline is different in the online version. I hoped that someone caught the error.

    We can watch for a correction on that. I would not, however, hold my breath.

  • Allie

    One other interesting point is what Deacon John mentioned in 3. I read in a comment on a post regarding this issue that the Eastern Orthodox churches sometimes choose to hold a service where there is no need to worry about the communion issue, then a Divine Liturgy for the repose of the departed later on. tmatt, I suppose you could answer this, but that was the first I had heard about it, and it certainly is an interesting view point. It seems like a similar logic would be applied to weddings too, although I could see where you would want the symbolism behind the Eucharist at a wedding.

  • Matt M

    Fr Savio seems focused on semantics. The article states “The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had learned of their relationship just before the service.” The story then leaves me wondering was Guarnizo thinking that just living with another woman i.e. room-mates, was a sin? If not, can’t one assume he refused the eucharist based on his assumption of homosexuality? How could the journalist clarify this when Guarnizo won’t talk?

  • Kristen

    Page A1, huh? I live in a little town in Montana, and the stuff that graces the front page of the paper here reveals the zeitgeist, often side-splittingly funny to us transplants.

    So, in DC, this was among the most important news of the day? Fascinating. Guess I forgot what a little town WDC can be. (Used to live there a long time ago…)

  • Dismas

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Gossip is idle talk or rumour about the personal or private affairs of others. It is one of the oldest and most common means of sharing facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and variations into the information transmitted. The term can also imply that the idle chat or rumour is of personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation.

    Gossip has been researched in terms of its evolutionary psychology origins.[1] This has found gossip to be an important means by which people can monitor cooperative reputations and so maintain widespread indirect reciprocity.[2] Indirect reciprocity is defined here as “I help you and somebody else helps me.” Gossip has also been identified by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary biologist, as aiding social bonding in large groups.[3] With the advent of the internet gossip is now widespread on an instant basis, from one place in the world to another what used to take a long time to filter through is now instant.

    The term is sometimes used to specifically refer to the spreading of dirt and misinformation, as (for example) through excited discussion of scandals. Some newspapers carry “gossip columns” which detail the social and personal lives of celebrities or of élite members of certain communities.

  • Mike

    What I don’t see on any of the blogs or news reports about this woman is that she, in fact, is a Lesbian activist. Simply google her and you will be surprised and shocked at what you find! She is also a well-known (apparently) Lesbian porn author and has written many books. She has been with her partner for decades. Bottom line – she has an agenda. Big surprise? If you don’t believe what the Christian church teaches, don’t receive holy communion. How simple is that?

  • Jerry

    I think the comments here are too narrowly focused on the giving communion. I’m not saying that is not critically important, but I think other aspects of the story help put what happened into a better context. The article you cited mentioned this but the inclusion below added an important element. Specifically,

    According to Barbara, things got even worse, because after first refusing to give her communion, and then walking off the altar when Barbara was giving her eulogy, Father Marcel refused to go with Barbara’s mother’s body to the cemetery in Aspen Hill. Barbara says she was told that Father Marcel had suddenly become ill.

    In other words there were a chain of events including what most would take as a deliberate lie in how Father Marcel treated Barbara Johnson. He could have stayed for the eulogy and accompanied her to the cemetery.

    I’m glad the CBS at least put that “sudden illness” excuse into their story.

  • tioedong

    it’s not just canon law: it’s in 1Corinthians 29…. if anyone wants to look it up.

  • Josephine

    I believe the license in some cases, and the leniency in most cases, offered up by the local heirarchy as “charity” in their reactions to these scandalous and often orchestrated events causes the laity much consternation and heartache. After several repeated stories of inept responses, naturally this disappointment begins eventually to stir the passions and explains the outrage with the heirarchy.

    Obviously there is much more to this story. The principal is not speaking, or has been shushed. The “victim” Johnson has her version of what happened and that is all that seems to be known, except apparently there are other witnesses to an entirely different scenario, and another version beyond beyond what is known here.

  • tmatt

    I just spiked about a dozen comments attacking the priest, or Barbara Johnson, the Catholic Church, etc., etc.

    Read the Editor’s Note, people.

  • michael

    My first thought was the same as Kristen’s above. This is front page news in the flagship newspaper in the Capital of the Free World?

    I’m not sure I know enough from the story to speak to the complexity and sadnees of the situation. But I find just the fact of the story itself interesting. Quite apart from the questionable quality of the headline and the story, this judgment alone speaks volumes about the social function of contemporary journalism.

  • Bill P.

    Tmatt, my question in #5 came after I did read the post and the WaPo story, as well as from a perspective of knowing as friends many Catholic priests who deal with these issues, and who deals with them myself when people I love present themselves for Communion at funerals even when they openly (and with hostility) reject association with the Church or her teachings. (I realize this latter issue may not the case in the WaPo story.)

    My question goes beyond the nuances of archdiocesan policies and Catholic canonical law (which, I agree, should have been referenced and explained), and even, per #18, scripture, to the fundamental question of just what combination of all that, and what other issues, past experiences, past practices, and God knows what else, made Fr. Guarnizo do what he did. I am sure he had good reason, but the real story (in my humble opinion) can only come from him. Sure, Canon law and comments from supporters can frame answers. But that’s not the same as reading “According to Fr. Guarnizo, ‘My reason . . .’”

    I am not saying the many problems with this story are rooted in this absence. With others, I agree that the story is framed in a grossly simplistic manner and that there are many other pastoral issues at play. I just wonder how a reporter can truly fill in the testimony of a key witness when the witness has never testified.

  • Maureen

    It seems that the basic problem is that the reporter didn’t report, but just jotted down what one side said.

    Now, granted, there’s a lot of “no comment” on one side. But a lot of people who attended the funeral, or who were otherwise involved, seem to have been posting their very different versions of events on the Internet. Why didn’t the reporter find any of them before writing the story? Obviously there’s no great reluctance to talk among the average parishioner or funeral attendee.

    I dunno, I thought reporting was about digging for facts and viewpoints….

  • Julia

    Tip for reporters’ Rolodex and computer bookmarks.

    tz posted an analysis of what that canon law statute really requires – at the blog of the very well-known and accessible canon lawyer Ed Peters. In addition to working the US, Ed is esteemed as an expert by the highest court in the Catholic Church in Vatican City.

    Just as with American statutory law, in order to understand a particular canon it is not enough to simply look it up. You need to see how the extensive case law has interpreted it, most particularly, how the highest court has interpreted it which has precedence.

    Ed Peters has a large archive that is easily accessed at his main website (called Canon Law Info) which is meant to be a resource center concerning Catholic canon law. This is where the reporter should/could have gone to get an explanation of the canon involved in this incident.

  • John Penta

    17: That too, Jerry…a bit odd.

    See, at a Catholic funeral (especially one conducted in the context of the Mass) – there are no eulogies. None. Some dioceses are more liberal, but that’s the rule in liturgical law.

    I’m not even very observant, and I know this from long experience. It was one of the first things my parents had to explain to me about non-Catholic funerals as a kid: “Catholics don’t do eulogies, others do. Catholios just have a priest give a homily.” And I’m in my 20s, so it isn’t like I was a kid pre-Vatican II, nor is anybody in my family very traditional.

    So what the heck, WaPo? Why are we trying to twist everything into making the priest look like an ogre?

  • JaneK

    Here is a very fair article on the subject, that raises interesting points about the low quality of the WaPo article.

  • Pete

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan,

    Yes, given the same situation and person estranged from the Church, who refuses to confess and reconcile with her fellow Christians and with God, an Orthodox priest would/should have denied the Eucharist.

  • Julia

    Another Washington Post reporter/blogger has since tried twice to get the priest to talk to him. It appears the priest has been ordered by the bishop not to speak with the press.

    The reporter did find a YouTube of the priest also taking “a hard-line stand” – this time against abortion at a regular Monday morning anti-abortion gathering outside a regional abortion clinic.

  • Julia

    Re: eulogies at a Catholic funeral Mass.

    Re: the problem with eulogies and Communion at Catholic funerals with which most reporters are unaware.

    In my diocese I have noticed that quite a few Catholic funerals are taking place at the funeral home with the priest


    , but without a Mass. I wondered why this was happening. Now I think it must be that a mix of probable mourners is expected, many of whom would not be in a state of grace for receiving Communion. Having this set-up would allow a eulogy at the service and not get into Communion difficulties. A Requiem Mass in memory of and for the departed’s soul can later be said with only serious Catholics interested in attending. Voi la – problems avoided.

    Most reporters probably do not know that at the time of the Reformation in England one of the huge issues held against the old faith was praying for the dead. I’m not aware of any Protestants who pray for the dead. However, that is what the Catholic Requiem Mass is all about – praying for the soul of the departed. Eulogies and telling stories about the deceased take place at the wake (which went on for several days when I was young) and at the lunch after the funeral. Or at least – that’s what is supposed to happen.

    Since I’m in a funeral choir – I see a lot of things. One practice that is becoming popular among Catholics is having the wake an hour or so before the Funeral Mass right in church. That allows for discussing the deceased and would be a good time for a eulogy, leaving the Mass itself as it is supposed to be. Of course that wouldn’t fix the Communion problem.

  • Suzanne

    re: eulogies at a Catholic funeral Mass

    I noted that her remarks took place after communion. I’ve actually seen that at a few Catholic funerals — no eulogies as such during the actual Mass, but people coming up to give “remarks” after Communion, when the Mass is all but finished.

    I’m thinking a reporter might not know the difference between that and an offical “eulogy.”

  • Matt M


    Do you really think this

    is an unbiased article? In my opinion it is one of the most biased things I’ve read regarding this whole affair. But that may be OK considering it’s a blog and may have no intention of being unbiased.

  • Jon White

    The WaPo increasingly is changing itself so as to avoid being called a purveor of journalism. The articles it publishes regularly lack a full explanation of the details of the issues and the topic. Curiously, this lack invariably leads the reader to a progressive/leftist understanding of the issues discussed. So, it seems that, unlike the physical world which is most-definitely prejudcied toward right-handedness, the WaPo is increasingly becoming more “left-handed.” How sad for those of us trying to honestly understand the particulars of the world so as to make an intelligent judgment of situations and form thoughts on how best to nudge the world, however infinitesmally, closer toward goodness.

  • Jerry

    I noted that her remarks took place after communion. I’ve actually seen that at a few Catholic funerals — no eulogies as such during the actual Mass, but people coming up to give “remarks” after Communion, when the Mass is all but finished.

    I’m thinking a reporter might not know the difference between that and an offical “eulogy.”

    Suzanne, I don’t understand what you mean by “official” eulogy. A eulogy is simply defined as A speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died.

    I suppose that if a priest or minister gave that speech it would be considered an “official” speech. And I do understand that in some churches this practice is not considered appropriate during a formal service.

    But I guess from what I’ve read that this is yet another issue contained in this story that should have been explored or at least should be explored in the religious media.

  • filiusdextris

    Julia, regarding Dr. Peters blog, I see subjectivism enter his opinion. He would have the canon provide grounds for denying communion only if the sin were public. He writes: “Unless a substantial majority of the community in question (I’m assuming them to be adults, reasonably aware of Catholic life around them, etc.) knows at the time why a given individual is being denied holy Communion, that’s a pretty good sign that Canon 915 has not been satisfied…” It would logically seem to follow that Pelosi can receive communion at a children’s mass or perhaps an immigrant mass, but not a regular mass, even if the priest is the same in all three. I think Dr. Peters is wrong here. Apparently Canon 915 doesn’t care if only two or three people are scandalized, including the priest (his interpretation). Nonsense.

  • Steve

    The idea, that a Church officiate, Catholic or Otherwise, should go against their conscience or the church teachings is abhorrent. The report is clearly designed to play into the next phase of the Homosexual agenda, last week the gay marriage bill goes through the state legislature, this week they set up the court battle to shut down church objections…

    I for one am not surprised

  • John

    A blog post at this website (which I believe to be reliable) claims that the woman in question, Barbara Johnson, introduced herself to the priest before the funeral and also introduced her lesbian partner to him as her “lover”.
    The post also alleges that Johnson’s actions are politically motivated, being timed to coincide with the vote in Maryland to legalise gay marriage.
    If substantiated these allegations will require a new round of reporting on the incident. They would also show that the Archdiocese of Washington’s response has been both cowardly and unfair on the priest involved.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Fr. Savio,
    Most coverage from the media of conservative religious positions on homosexual action ignores the distinction between homosexual action and homosexual desire.

    This is in part because many reporters fully believe it is unhealthy for adults to not regularly be involved in sex. They view calls for those with sexual desire for those of the same gender to not act out on it as imposing psychologically wrong views onto others.

    Thus to these reporters not accepting homosexual actions is the same as punishing people for having homosexual desires. They will even mock those who try to speak in nuanced terms like “same-gender attraction”.

    With some of the media coverage of Romney and his willingness to be an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before 1978, I am beginning to more and more realize that the media does not at all value religious freedom. The fact that courts have upheld the San Francisco City Council passing a resolution calling on the Catholic Church to change its policies is a key first step in this distrubing trend.

    The use of governmental institutions as a bully pulpit to try to destroy and change the views of religion is very disturbing. That is what is going on with the HHS mandate, and the media will not tell us the truth.

    Bill Kellerism is rampant in the MSM. It is acceptable to denounce any believer in the wrong of homosexual actions with as misleading language as possible, because in the view of the MSM the ends justify the means, as expressed in the name of one of the radical liberal groups operating here in Michigan “by any means neccesary.”

  • Agnikan

    One would have thought that the Archdiocese would have referred to canon law, if it thought that the priest was in the right.

  • Flamen

    Re: Eulogies at a funeral Mass. At Cardinal Bevilacqua’s Mass his longtime friend, a monsignor, gave a long eulogy celebrating the Cardinal’s life. So eulogies are given at the highest levels of the hierarchy despite Canon Law.

  • Clare Krishan

    Oh well I’ll try try and try again – ‘s-piked or not – this from In the Light of the Law backs me up, that the canons are there to vitiate against occasions of sin, esp. egoiste priests vulnerable to self-deception in the false ‘light’ of the lightbearer (lucifer in latin):

    Catholics care exactly SO very deeply because to not act in coherence with the pneumatology of the sacred, is to no longer act pneumatological sacred, ie we act Protestant!

    (clipped from my ‘piker’ comment, declined and reposted here:

  • Clare Krishan

    Error has no rights but human persons do. A great ethos for journalistic integrity. For a priest his ethos of vocational integrity rests in like fashion with his respect for the natural law, his place in the cosmic order. He is subordinate to his superior. He ought not go on record with a subsidiary opinion without checking to see if it contradicts a higher authority. He goofed up big time on the first infamous occasion by not knowing — or not caring to follow — his own diocese’s explicit guidance on interpreting Canon Law, the proper remit of his Bishop (no priest ever has the recondite training to be his own canonist). To answer a journalist’s fair use inquiry, he would have to repeat his ‘foul use” disobedience and go on record as ignoring the Bishop’s “fair use” authority published in the “fair use” apology letter.

    To answer the posed journalistic conundrum – is it ethical to collect facts to craft a narrative by asking the actors to repeat the offense that made the story newsworthy? I think not.