Got news? Communion for a Buddhist?

While the late Pope John Paul II — soon to be called St. John Paul the Great — was known as a strong supporter of interfaith dialogues that attempted to build trust, while declining to erase any true boundaries.

However, in his famous and highly personal book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” he penned one passage about salvation that infuriated many liberal Catholic veterans of dialogues with the Far East. This is the heart of that section of the book:

The “enlightenment” experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality — ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world.

Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the “enlightenment” conveyed by Buddha. Buddhism is in large measure an “atheistic” system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called Nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process.

Suffice it to say, on this point the pope drew a bright line between himself and many other Catholics who, essentially, argue that Vatican II completely embraced the “all religious roads lead to the top of the same holy mountain” approach to faith.

So, can one be a practicing Buddhist and a faithful, sacramental Catholic? You will find few traditional Catholics who would answer in the affirmative.

This leads to another question: Should a priest serve Holy Communion to a person who used to be a Catholic and now openly — in print, in public media — identifies herself as a Buddhist?

I raise this question, not to start a battle over this theological issue in the comments pages, but to ask if the following information in any way complicates the framing of that now famous Washington Post story about the decision by a conservative priest named Father Marcel Guarnizo not to serve Communion to an art teacher named Barbara Johnson moments after he was introduced to her longtime lesbian partner.

This emotional scene, readers may recall, took place at the funeral of Johnson’s mother. The Archdiocese of Washington immediately issued a letter of apology and said the priest failed to follow proper procedures, in his attempt to follow Canon Law 915.

Anyone who knows anything about the tense and bitterly divided world of American Catholicism knew that this would not be the end of the story.

Now blogger Thomas “American Papist” Peters has, with a few clicks of his mouse, unearthed some other interesting online information about Johnson and this event (whether the priest knew anything about this additional information or not).

At the very mainstream website, Johnson published an essay — “Out or in … Which is it? Coming Out in the Heteronormative and Homophobic World of Education” — about her views on sex, faith and how candid to be while applying for teaching work at a Catholic school. It includes this observation:

So in the interview with the principal we talked openly about my being a lesbian and a Buddhist.

On her own Art Works website, Johnson simply claims that she is a student of “Buddhist philosophy.” This short biographical essay does not mention being a practicing, sacramental Catholic.

Now, is this relevant information? I would imagine that, when she talked to the Post, this information was not discussed. I am not sure that readers could have expected the Post team to find this information, although it was on a mainstream website.

I do, however, think Pope John Paul II would find the information relevant and worth mentioning.

Is it acceptable to give Holy Communion to a woman who has publicly declared herself an apostate?

IMAGE: From the Fine Art website.

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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.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    The answer to the last question is of course No. Put another way — Is it permissible to deny Holy Communion to a public apostate? — may be Yes, in fact, it is mandatory.

    The Buddhism of Johnson does beg the question: Just why on earth did she present herself for Communion? Could it have been to be denied and then make a big stink about it from the lesbian angle? Was she just ignorant of Catholic teaching? Another angle to this story missing in the mainstream media is the notion that this priest may have been targeted, to make an example, and to move a particular agenda. There’s a larger back story in Maryland concerning same-sex marriage and the activities of the Catholic Church in regard to it.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Would it be possible in the far distant future to be specific with such statements as “The Archdiocese … did … said …”. In a diocese [or archdiocese] it is the bishop who has authority, and especially in a matter such as that of denying Communion. Another priest, a public Relations Person, a secretary in the Chancery, the janitor of the church has no authority. Has the [arch]bishop spoken?

    It is curious that we hear from a “Chancery official” in this matter. Did the same Chancery officials speak out at the onset of the sex scandals? Or is the bishop hiding out from his responsibility in this as in that matter?

  • Allie

    Well, I wouldn’t expect the Post to have found this information online, but I would have expected some of it to come up in discussion. Given the context of the entire thing (practicing lesbian seeks communion), the reporter should’ve asked for Johnson’s views on Catholicism, since they’re obviously contradictory. Then, either Johnson could’ve lied or said she’s more in line with Buddhism. I’m baffled that this wouldn’t have come up.

  • tmatt


    The stories are quite specific about that and we provided links.

  • Martha

    Did nobody reporting in the media think to ask why she went up to the priest, who did not know her personally, literally minutes before the start of the funeral Mass and make a point of introducing herself as a lesbian with her partner?

    Nobody thought this was odd? Or possibly a set-up for the activism? I have sympathy for the woman on the death of her mother, and I understand going up to introduce yourself to a priest who’s a stranger to tell him “By the way, I’m Mrs. So-and-So’s daughter”, but I really don’t see why she introduced herself as “I’m Mrs. So-and-So’s daughter, the LESBIAN, and this is my PARTNER, the woman I am LIVING WITH, just so you know, Father”.

    Well, there are a lot of emotions stirred up at times of bereavement and people act rather than think, but I am guessing we won’t see any newspaper stories about “Oh, so she’s not a Catholic anymore, she’s switched to being a Buddhist – hmm, that might be a different take on who can and who cannot receive Communion.”

    Then again, Sally Quinn really couldn’t understand what was so wrong about presenting herself to receive the Eucharist at Tim Russert’s funeral, and she is a religion reporter (well, a faith or spirituality or something along those lines blogger, at least?)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is hard to tell who was more victimized –the reporter or the priest— by an apparent “set up” …
    On the other hand one wonders why reporters and journalists don’t automatically take a few minutes to do some internet research—for their lack of such research frequently comes through in media stories and many readers notice it in this internet savvy era.

  • Richard Mounts

    This episode points to an underlying, long term problem (my term) in MSM reporting: a failure by reportrs, editors, ANYBODY to do basic research on the principals in the story before it’s approved to go to the presses (or put on the air).

    I used to hear excuses about no time, no money, the 24 hour news cycle … no one even seems to bother with excuses now. It’s just a given that one doen’t have to bother with facts or tryin to find something of a fuller approximaton of truth. After all, the rationalizaton goes, the public doesn’t care or even know enough to know to care.

    Obviously, I have a sad opinion about MSM. They can’t report their way out of a wet paper bag (to twist an old retort).

  • Jeff

    “I would imagine that, when she talked to the Post, this information was not discussed.”

    Why do you imagine that? Maybe it was discussed and the reporters simply chose not to share what was said. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but it could have happened. This is, after all, the MSM.

    “I am not sure that readers could have expected the Post team to find this information, although it was on a mainstream website.”

    Why couldn’t they have expected that? Couldn’t they — shouldn’t they — have expected alarm bells to go off in the reporters’ minds and for them to wonder if this woman wasn’t some kind of activist with some kind of record of commitments to causes and/or systems of belief that meant she shouldn’t have expected to receive communion in The Roman Catholic Church?

  • Jason

    But the fact that she is Buddhist and an apostate Catholic had nothing to do with her being denied Communion. All of the reporting on this is a mess, but it doesn’t appear that Father was at all aware of her Buddhist practice.

    Yes, that’s grounds for denying communion, but if the fact wasn’t known until a week later after some web searches, that doesn’t help Father’s position.

  • tmatt


    The post said that. So what is your point?

  • tioedong

    you know, most of us, if denied communion, wouldn’t know a reporter from the Washington Post to voice a complaint, and most reporters, seeing a minor disagreement over the reception of a sacrament, wouldn’t bother to write it up.

  • Jeff


    Most of us aren’t anti-Catholic-liberal-activist lesbian Buddhists and anti-Catholic-liberal-activist members of the MSM.

  • Barbara O’Brien

    First, being a “student of Buddhist philosophy” and a person who practices Buddhism as his or her religion is not the same thing. If Ms. Johnson is merely studying Buddhism as a philosophy but has not taken the refuges or is not engaged in the Eightfold Path, arguably she is not “a Buddhist.” Whether she is a faithful, sacramental Catholic I do not know, but *up to a point* Buddhist philosophy is not incompatible with Christianity.

    Second, Pope John Paul II’s characterization of Buddhism as a belief that “the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man” is grossly inaccurate. He may have been Great, but in this he was Wrong.

  • Jon in the Nati

    being a “student of Buddhist philosophy” and a person who practices Buddhism as his or her religion is not the same thing. [...] Whether she is a faithful, sacramental Catholic I do not know, but *up to a point* Buddhist philosophy is not incompatible with Christianity.

    You’re not wrong about this; I am a student of various religious philosophies, although I am a serious, practicing Catholic. But this woman has plainly held herself out to actually be a Buddhist, and not just someone who likes Buddhism, most notably in the bit quoted in the article above:

    So in the interview with the principal we talked openly about my being a lesbian and a Buddhist.

    If she merely has a certain affinity for Buddhism, and is not herself a Buddhist, then what exactly was she talking to the principal about? Whatever else she is, she is clearly not a Catholic, by her own statements.

  • tmatt

    Her self proclamation in an academic paper was the key for me — in a Catholic context no less.

  • MikeL

    There seems to be an interesting parallel between what was not reported about Johnson’s background and was not reported about Sandra Fluke’s background.

    And in both cases, it didn’t take much effort by a few bloggers to quickly fill in the missing pieces.

  • Jeff

    Mike L,

    The MSM are shocked … shocked … to learn that butter *will* melt in the mouths of Barbara Johnson and Sandra Fluke.

  • Frank Lockwood

    Yes, the Catholic church is entitled to serve Communion to anyone it desires and to withhold it from anyone it deems unworthy.

    But it’s hard to determine whether someone is worthy to receive Communion — and conduct a funeral Mass — at the same time.

  • Stan

    You probably will not allow this post since while you allow people to defame Barbara Johnson and question her motives, any response to them is considered “off-topic.” I will not bother to respond to those people, but you might find it journalistically noteworthy to learn that the priest who refused communion to her has been placed on administrative leave, not because he denied communion to her, but because of other misdemeanors, including intimidating parish staff and others. Here is an url to the story:

  • Frank Lockwood

    Are you unhappy with the papers for writing about this priest’s misconduct or are you unhappy with the Catholic diocese for denouncing the priest’s misconduct?

    Is the position of the diocese unreasonable?

    “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. 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.”

  • tmatt


    Who is the “you” in “Are you unhappy”?

  • Frank Lockwood

    Tioedong calls this “a minor disagreement over the reception of a sacrament”, and says most papers “wouldn’t bother to write it up.” Most GetRelgion readers agree with this analysis. (Tioedong’s comment has received at least 21 likes). I’m in the minority, but I think this is a fascinating story and I think the Post did a decent job of writing it up.

    And I think the fact that the Washington diocese considers the priest’s conduct inappropriate and has denounced it is further evidence that the reporter correctly spotted a good story.

  • Julie

    Wow! I like this site – respectful and real dialogue, as well as real stories. Regarding this so-called Catholic woman who presented herself for Holy Communion, I would say that there is a definite and clear agenda among homosexual activists to infiltrate and bring down the Catholic Church. One way that they can do this is to weaken and demonize the Church in the eyes of the public. How better to do this than through the media, the darling of the homosexual activists? I find it interesting that when there are real stories about real goodness (e.g., The March for Life, 40 Days for Life, Abby Johnson’s whistleblowing on Planned Parenthood, testimony by Carol Evert, former abortion clinic owner and worker, testimony by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, former abortionist, Norma McCorvey, also known as “Roe” of Roe V. Wade) – these stories are covered up and not told by the lamestream media. All we get are weak and infrequent sound bites and often nothing at all. Santorum can get smeared by Google, Bill Maher, and the lamestream media, and nothing happens. Then you have Sandra Fluke and this Barbara Johnson woman, and they merit blushing apologies from the president, and the media fawning all over them. Why is that? Is that because they have an agenda that precisely matches the lamestream media’s and the president’s? I see some very carefully orchestrated events happening around the country, with some really neat timing, and they center around demonizing the Catholic Church, eliminating religious liberty and conscience clauses, and destroying the sanctity of marriage. It is all of one piece. I would like to know why this diocese is censuring this priest for doing the right thing. We have an excellent bishop in our diocese (now), but there are some out there who are not faithful to the Magesterium (the Pope). More and more, they are being slowly pruned out by Pope Benedict, to the benefit of all the faithful. The Catholic Healthcare Northwest that shook Obama’s hand on the HHS mandate is run by a nun who is an example of someone disloyal to the Magesterium. These folks are like naughty children, and need to be brought back in line. I think there was less of a problem when nuns wore habits. Look at the religious communities that are very strict – these are the ones that are the most faithful. This priest obviously fell into this category and was faithful to the Magesterium. He did what Pope John Paul II would have wanted him to do. Good for him.

  • Jim C.

    This is a great post, insightful, thought provoking and well mannered. My thoughts are that the press is trying to tear down the walls of the Catholic Church and it is very obvious that the Archdiocese of Washington DC is caving to the popular secular view rather than adhere to the tenants and credos of our church. Unlike protestant or other Christian denominations communion is not a wafer and a representation or commemoration of the last supper. It is a sacrament instituted by Christ that allows believers to share in God’s grace. It is the body of Christ and full deserving of protection and reverence. To true believers, it is indeed the Body of Christ after the consecration. So if the priest knew that this was not a lapsed Catholic and indeed a Buddhist he was right to deny her in receiving Holy Communion. Her life is an open testament of non belief, and opposition to our beliefs. It does not matter that the occasion was her mother’s funeral or not. I now have more issues with the Church hierarchy if they cannot support practicing the faith. As Catholics we were raised on stories of Saints that died rather then give up their faith…it seems the Bishops are not in that same class and not worthy themselves of being called Catholics. It is they who should resign. They are not worthy of sheparding a flock – they are clueless and not servants of Christ. They are no better than politicians talking out of both sides of their mouth wishing to appease all for political expediency. My thoughts and prayers go out to the suspended priest that probably had to make the choice of conscience after considerable thought, reflection and prayer. He followed his conscience with inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    Acts 20:28 “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”