Canon law vs. anonymous voices? (updated)

Several things are becoming clearer here in Beltway-land, as coverage continues of the clash between Father Marcel Guarnizo and the Buddhist-Catholic-artist-gay-activist Barbara Johnson. Before addressing a few key themes, here’s the top of the recent Washington Post article that covered the latest development in the case.

A Gaithersburg Catholic priest who triggered national debate late last month when he denied Communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral Mass has been placed on administrative leave from ministry in the Washington archdiocese.

Details about why the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo was barred from ministry — a severe penalty — were not immediately available. The Washington Post learned of the action from a letter dated March 9 that was written to other archdiocesan priests. The letter from Bishop Barry Knestout, a top administrator in the archdiocese, which covers Washington and its Maryland suburbs, says the punishment was for “engaging in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.”

At this point, it’s clear that Guarnizo was — to some degree — a controversial figure in the region before the Johnson episode, serving as a leader for conservative pro-life Catholics, in particular. This would make him a controversial priest to the Catholic left, which is a powerful force — to say the least — in Catholic affairs in Maryland and D.C.

It would be speculation to say that this automatically means that he was targeted for elimination by Johnson or anyone else. It is not, however, speculation for journalists to see that there is public evidence of doctrinal clashes around him, clashes between his supporters and his enemies. It is not speculation to say that the Archdiocese of Washington does not welcome clashes of this kind and that its leaders are quick to make moves to make public conflicts go away.

I have found the comments of canon lawyer Edward Peters to be particularly helpful on several aspects of this case. For example:

Isn’t it just splitting hairs to describe Fr. Guarnizo as being on “administrative leave” when everyone knows he is suspended?

We are talking canon law, right? Well, canon law is an ancient legal system that, over many centuries, has developed numerous terms of art. Canon law is not secret, but neither is it simple. Those who want to discuss canon law intelligently must understand and observe canonical definitions, or risk talking nonsense. In any case, it is not incumbent on canon lawyers to run around explaining their terms to everyone under the sun who wants to express an opinion about this canonical issue or that. Instead, it is incumbent on those many others to find out (or at least to take some guidance on) how canon law uses certain words before pronouncing judgment.

The word “suspension” denotes a canonical penalty imposed only upon guilt for a canonical crime (c. 1333). In the not-too-distant past, some ecclesiastical officials, including bishops, misused the word “suspension” to describe what may be more accurately described as “administrative leave” …, but when they did so, canonists, publicly and privately, corrected that misuse of terms and, for some time now, the mistaken use of “suspension” seems to have faded out among ecclesiastical leadership. Deo gratias. Only to reappear now among some bloggers. Sigh.

But: if you are talking canon law, and you describe a cleric as “suspended”, you have described him as being guilty of a canonical crime. Therefore, those describing Fr. Guarnizo as “suspended” are canonically defaming him.

And, at the parish conflict level, there is this:

Little in Knestout’s letter suggests that this action is being taken in response to the lesbian/Communion controversy (though one may be sure that the pro-lesbian camp will claim victory, and the pro-Guarnizo camp will decry the ‘mistreatment’ of the priest).

The allegations of “intimidating behavior” by Guarnizo are not recited in Knestout’s letter, but three questions would occur to me: (a) is this just a pile-on by people looking to kick Guarnizo while he is down?, or (b) are there long-standing legitimate complaints against Guarnizo that the recent controversy made more likely to surface? , or (c) did Guarnizo’s post-controversy conduct in the parish render him intemperate with others, provoking what are really recent complaints? Such are the things that an investigation is designed to, well, investigate.

Peters also notes something strange about the phrase “a severe penalty” in the Post story referenced above. In an online version of the story, that phrase was connected — by a reference URL — to one of his blog posts. However, Peters is quick to note that the “very first point of my post … is that Guarnizo is NOT under a penalty (let alone, a severe one, a description of suspension that I never used).”

The key, once again, is that this conflict seems to be unfolding along the familiar lines of similar Catholic wars about church doctrines, especially on sexuality, and the attempts of conservative Catholics to advocate church teachings and to enforce them. In other words, the Post is now a key player in a battle between competing camps of local Catholics.

So, who are the key players? That’s where I see a major journalism problem developing. Consider this passage:

The interaction between Johnson and Guarnizo, who grew up in Northern Virginia and has spent much of his ministry in Russia and Eastern Europe, triggered intense and emotional debate among Catholics on the Web.

Some said being in a same-sex relationship makes someone automatically ineligible for Communion, a moment that Catholicism teaches creates the actual presence of Jesus Christ and is not for people outside of a “state of grace.” Others said the process of determining a person’s “state of grace” is complex and personal, something between a Catholic and God.

The key words? That would be “some said” and “others said.” I also think that was supposed to say, “something between a Catholic, his or her priest and God.” Otherwise, we’d be talking about Protestantism.

Oh, and by the way, note the use of highly specific journalistic attributions in this summary passage — not.

So who are the key players in this bitter debate, other than the folks who are writing press releases for the Johnson camp and the legal team at the archdiocese? Who is on what side, in terms of the parish conflict? Who is willing to go on the record — in the parish and inside the archdiocese — in support of Johnson and in opposition to this priest?

No clues so far. I guess the key players need to remain anonymous.

UPDATE: Here is another essay, coming from a conservative Catholic source, that does a fine job of running through the details of this case and stressing — time after time — that Catholics on both sides of the dispute simply do not know the facts at this point in time. The key, again, is that readers do not know what is happening in the parish at the heart of the conflict.

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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.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    tmatt, you said, “In other words, the Post is now a key player in a battle between competing camps of local Catholics.” That’s actually a role the Post has been playing for years. Cardinal James Stafford, former Archbishop of Denver and former Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary (no, he was not the big guy in the Vatican’s big house, but the head of one of the three main courts) wrote an incisive essay in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae. In it, he quoted from Cardinal Lawrence Shehan’s memoirs about what happened here in the U.S. the night it was promulgated in Rome. I quote it at some length:

    In his memoirs, Cardinal Shehan describes the immediate reaction of some priests in Washington to the encyclical. “[A]fter receiving the first news of the publication of the encyclical, the Rev. Charles E. Curran, instructor of moral theology of The Catholic University of America, flew back to Washington from the West where he had been staying. Late [on the afternoon of July 29], he and nine other professors of theology of the Catholic University met, by evident prearrangement, in Caldwell Hall to receive, again by prearrangement with the Washington Post, the encyclical, part by part, as it came from the press. The story further indicated that by nine o’clock that night, they had received the whole encyclical, had read it, had analyzed it, criticized it, and had composed their six-hundred word ‘Statement of Dissent.’ Then they began that long series of telephone calls to ‘theologians’ throughout the East, which went on, according to the Post, until 3:30 A.M., seeking authorization, to attach their names as endorsers (signers was the term used) of the statement, although those to whom they had telephoned could not have had an opportunity to see either the encyclical or their statement. Meanwhile, they had arranged through one of the local television stations to have the statement broadcast that night.”

    Talk about journalistic activism. There should be no doubt where the Post stands on Catholic issues and has stood for some time. The entire Stafford essay is well worth the read.

  • Howard Richards

    The fact that the Washington Post chooses not to print names does not mean that the “some” and “others” were themselves trying to hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

    In fact, the statement

    Jesus Christ is actually present in the Eucharist, which therefore is not for people outside of a “state of grace”

    and the statement

    Determining a person’s “state of grace” is complex and personal, something [primarily] between a Catholic and God

    are not contradictory, and not only nameable people, but official Catholic documents can easily be found to support both of these statements. (If you substitute exclusively for primarily in the square brackets, it will be harder to find official support.)

  • Julia

    Howard Richards – actually the passage was this:

    Communion, a moment that Catholicism teaches creates the actual presence of Jesus Christ

    Wrong, it is at the consecration that the elements become the body and blood of Christ. Reception of Communion comes later.

    Second point. As in our secular courts of law, terms of art are very important to understand what is going on. A knowledgeable US courtroom reporter is up on what all the legal terms of art really mean or checks out an unfamiliar term with somebody who understand them. Why the inability or failure of secular reporters to do the same concerning Catholic canon law?

    It reminds me of the clueless reporting sometimes seen concerning the Amanda Knox case. Clue: all legal systems and terminology are not just like the US system.

  • Howard Richards

    Yes, I did rewrite the first statement somewhat, because otherwise I would end up with an incoherent sentence fragment.

    Otherwise, it is not wrong. When the priest says, “The Body of Christ,” you say, “Amen,” not “Well, it actually it was the Body of Christ at the Consecration.” It still is.

    As for reporters understanding the topics they report on … I’m afraid that is rarely the case. I am a scientist, and reporters usually botch science stories to an embarrassing degree. I’m sure people with a military or law enforcement background see the same thing.

    Also, having grown up in Florida, we used to laugh at reporters who would stand on the beach 60 miles from the eye of a category 2 hurricane wearing a raincoat (a light mist would be falling) and leaning visibly into a 10 mph breeze. That’s more a matter of dishonesty (or showmanship) than of ignorance, but taking all these together, it’s a wonder I still pay any attention to the news at all.

  • Jerry

    As for reporters understanding the topics they report on … I’m afraid that is rarely the case. I am a scientist, and reporters usually botch science stories to an embarrassing degree. I’m sure people with a military or law enforcement background see the same thing.

    “Aye, there’s the rub.” I have sympathy for a reporter who’s assigned to cover a story out of his or her field of expertise. For any journalists reading my post, how do you try avoid making an utter mess due to ignorance? I assume a generous helping of humility is absolutely required. But are there specific hints and ideas that other reporters would find helpful?

  • Oscar Castaneda

    The Catholic left!? I’ve been under the impression that we are one body, that is to include Bishops.

  • Justin

    You wrote: “This would make him a controversial priest to the Catholic left”

    What’s the Catholic Left vs Right? There’s only ONE Catholic position.

  • tmatt

    Oscar and Justin:

    You are being ironic, right?

    No, any journalist knows that the Catholic left doesn’t just exist — it has tenure.

  • Cathy

    I find you editorializing just a bit about the Catholic left, its entrenchment, and the behavior of the Archdiocese of Washington. “It is not speculation….” but where is the evidence?

    I’m not crazy about the liberal/conservative labels, but here goes:

    I work with conservative priests whom people adore because they are wonderful people. And I’ve worked with conservative priests who are jerks and alienate people. The priest I’ve worked with who was the most abusive and abrasive was actually rather liberal.

    Isn’t it possible that this priest was a) ‘conservative’ b) very abrasive with other staff; c) in grave error walking away from a funeral and not going to the cemetery; d) an extern who was causing a lot of trouble for the Archdiocese, so it was easy to pull him out of the parish; e) all of the above?

    I don’t know for sure about a or b, but c and d are documented and might be enough in this instance, regardless of politics and personalities.

  • tmatt


    Here is what I wrote:

    It is not, however, speculation for journalists to see that there is public evidence of doctrinal clashes around him, clashes between his supporters and his enemies.

    It’s not speculation BECAUSE there is evidence everywhere in print and in the voices of the people debating this.

    Is there evidence that this extends inside the archdiocesan offices?

    That’s where I noted that the anonymous voices make it hard to know what is actually happening here.

    Oh, and on this line:

    It is not speculation to say that the Archdiocese of Washington does not welcome clashes of this kind and that its leaders are quick to make moves to make public conflicts go away.

    That’s not a left vs. right thing. That’s just the history of this archdiocese. DC is a tense place. The church here does not, DOES NOT, like conflict out in the open.

  • Martha

    The story is getting even more interesting, because Fr. Marcel Guarnizo has issued his response to the whole matter (link courtesy of “What Does the Prayer Really Say?”).

    According to him:

    (1) “I wish to clarify that Ms. Barbara Johnson (the woman who has since complained to the press), has never been a parishioner of mine. In fact I had never met her or her family until that morning.”

    (2) “A few minutes before the Mass began, Ms. Johnson came into the sacristy with another woman whom she announced as her “lover”. Her revelation was completely unsolicited.” (So she didn’t just say “partner”, she said “lover”? Pretty blatant and confrontational, if true!)

    (3) “Under these circumstances, I quietly withheld communion, so quietly that even the Eucharistic Minister standing four feet from me was not aware I had done so. (In fact Ms. Johnson promptly chose to go to the Eucharistic minister to receive communion and did so.) There was no scandal, no “public reprimand” and no small lecture as some have reported.” (So she wasn’t refused communion altogether, just by this priest?)

    (4) “During the two eulogies (nearly 25 minutes long), I quietly slipped for some minutes into the sacristy lavatory to recover from the migraine that was coming on. I never walked out on Mrs. Loetta Johnson’s funeral and the liturgy was carried out with the same reverence and care that I celebrate every Mass. I finished the Mass and accompanied the body of the deceased in formal procession to the hearse, which was headed to the cemetery. I am subject to occasional severe migraines, and because the pain at that point was becoming disabling, I communicated to our funeral director that I was incapacitated and he arranged one of my brother priests to be present at the cemetery to preside over the rite of burial. Furthermore as the testimony of the priest that was at the cemetery conveys, he was present when the Johnson family arrived, and in fact mentioned that being called to cover the burial rite is quite normal, as many priests for reasons much less significant than mine (rush hour traffic for example) do not make the voyage to the cemetery. He
    routinely covers for them. This change in plans, was also invisible to the rest of the entourage. Regrets and information about my incapacitating migraine were duly conveyed to the Johnson family.”

    (Even in Ms. Johnson’s account, she did say he left because he said he was sick, not because “I refuse to bury the mother of a lesbian!” Everyone seemed to assume he just walked out, but I did wonder if he was genuinely taken ill).

    (5) “I wish to state that in conversation with Bishop Barry Knestout on the morning of March 13, he made it very clear that the whole of the case regarding the allegations of “intimidation” are circumscribed to two conversations; one with the funeral director and the other with a parish staff member present at the funeral. These conversations took place on March 7th and 8th, one day before the archdiocese’s latest decision to withdraw faculties (not suspend, since Cardinal Wuerl is not my bishop) on the 9th of March. I am fully aware of both meetings. And indeed contrary to the statement read on Sunday March 11th during all Masses at St. John Neumann, both instances have everything to do with the Eucharistic incident. There is no hidden other sin or “intimidation” allegations that they are working on, outside of these two meetings. The meetings in question, occurred in our effort to document from people at the funeral Mass in written form a few facts about the nature of the incident. We have collected more than a few testimonies and affidavits, testifying to what really took place during the funeral liturgy.”

    (Oh, boy. A row with the bishop looks to be looming here).

  • trad_cat

    Statement from the Father:

    Folks the Church is under attack from within and without.

  • Peggy R

    I suspect that the Arlington Diocese would gladly welcome him back to their side of the Potomac.

    Fr.’s statement was honest and respectful. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

  • L A H

    Why do all of these blogs invite comments and then say no one but a certified Canon lawyer has any business having an opinion. How does Canon law come into being or ever get changed. Do changes in Catholic opinions ever shape it or influence it over time or is Canon Law only the result of divine intervention?

  • Curtis

    There’s a new post on pewsitter by a priest and canon lawyer…

    “As a priest and canon lawyer, I’d like in canonical terms, to revisit the controversial events surrounding the denial of Holy Communion to Barbara Johnson by Father Marcel Guarnizo. First of all, while I agree with many of the points by the very well-respected canonist Dr. Ed Peters, I believe that even with the rather limited information currently available, Father Guarnizo very possibly and correctly satisfied the conditions of canon 915 in denying Holy Communion to Barbara Johnson. Secondly, I would like to comment on Father Guarnizo’s unjust “administrative leave” in light of the Code of Canon Law.” Read the rest of the article here.