One-sided battle of the Catholic canons

So, as I see things, it appears that the principalities and powers at The Washington Post have reached an interesting legal conclusion in connection with the ongoing drama that is the clash between Father Marcel Guarnizo and the Buddhist-Catholic-artist-gay-activist Barbara Johnson.

It seems that the Post team has decided that Roman Catholic canon law is carved in stone and bulletproof when it comes time to throw the book at a priest who — as the evidence seems to show — erred on the side of rigor in his attempt to defend the sacraments of the church.

However, it seems that the canons are meaningless — not even worth mentioning — when it comes to the actions of a former, or inactive, or openly rebellious Catholic who makes the decision to present herself for Holy Communion after telling that priest about her rebellion against a key church doctrine.

Before looking at this past weekend’s Post feature on this case, let’s return again to the weblog of canon lawyer Edward Peters, who has staked out an intellectual position on this case that is tweaking activists on both sides. Read the following carefully:

There is not, and never has been, the slightest doubt but that a Catholic woman living a lesbian lifestyle should not approach for holy Communion, per Canon 916.

The language in question:

1983 CIC 916. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

Back to Peters:

One so approaching risks receiving the Eucharist to her own condemnation. 1 Corinthians XI: 27. But, once any Catholic approaches for the public reception of holy Communion, a different norm controls the situation, namely, Canon 915.

The only question in this case is, and has always been, whether the centuries-old criteria for withholding holy Communion from a member of the faithful were satisfied at the time this woman approached this minister. Unless all of those criteria were satisfied at that time, then, no matter what moral offense the woman might have committed by approaching for the Sacrament in her state (for which action she would be accountable before God), the minister of holy Communion acted illicitly. Period. End of paragraph.

Now, if the minister of the Church acted illicitly in this case (and the information available to me indicates that he did), he needs to be corrected (not punished, corrected). That said, his evident love for Our Lord in the Eucharist, and the conditions under which this decision seem to have been suddenly thrust upon him, suggest that there is no deep disrespect for certain members of the faithful at work in him, and the demands for him to be severely disciplined seem aimed more at exploiting the incident than at resolving it.

So, for the Catholic left, the key to this legal and doctrinal puzzle is this question: Was Johnson, as a self-proclaimed Buddhist lesbian living in a committed same-sex relationship, “conscious of grave sin” as she approach the altar at her mother’s funeral?

The answer, saith the Post, is clear: No. She was not conscious of sin because she does not believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church on the relevant issues.

But if she does not believe the teachings of the Catholic Church, why does she want to take part in its central sacrament, a sacrament reserved for those who are living in Communion with the church and its teachings?

Thus saith the Post, in a passage that is clearly coming straight from Johnson and her kin:

… Johnson was back home in Washington, wrestling with her own Catholicism, which had waxed and waned through her life as she confronted truths about her own sexuality. In the past decade, Johnson had returned to her alma mater, Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, to teach art, a move she said was part of a process of coming back to Catholicism on her own terms.

The question, of course, is whether one returns to the Catholic church on one’s own terms or on the church’s terms. According to the church, the answer is that the Catholic church and its leaders are in charge of defining those doctrinal terms. According to Johnson, that decision is up to her — a stance that Catholic leaders will describe with one simple word, which is “Protestant.”

Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence, as there should be, that the ever-cautious and very mainstream Archdiocese Of Washington has had just cause to question the actions of Guarnizo at that moment. The Post has, properly, made that clear.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Post team realizes that Johnson was violating the laws of her church on that day, as well.

This was, in effect, a violent crash between two cars that were veering out of their lanes.

There is much to discuss in this news feature, including a classic example of why the word “cult” or “cultish” should never, ever, be used in news copy without (a) an adjective to describe how this word is being used (“personality cult,” perhaps, or “a doctrinal cult”) and (b) without strict and clear attribution to show who is hurling this epithet at the group in question. The article also ends with a rather blatant slap that is sure to anger some readers and please others (try to guess which side gets slapped).

But the key is that the story offers readers one half of the Canon law complexities in this case.

Readers need both halves of that equation. Readers need to see the evidence on both sides of this fight, if the goal is journalism.

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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.

  • Crude

    Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence, as there should be, that the ever-cautious and very mainstream Archdiocese Of Washington has had just cause to question the actions of Guarnizo at that moment.

    There’s also plenty of evidence that the Archdiocese of Washington is looking for some reason, any reason, to punish Guarnizo for his actions in a balancing act way: how do they punish this priest for doing what he should have done, while making it look as if they’re doing so for a good, “Catholic” reason.

  • Richard Mounts

    As much as I’d like to rant about my opinion regarding the actors in this matter, I’ll hold my (f)ire for another blog.

    I believe that you’re right on the mark in your journalism review of WaPo’s lack of fully covering the cannonical issues. But what can readers do to convince them to improve their journalism?

    I think that there should also be a discussion of what “grave sin” is, according to the Church’s teachng–not what Ms. Johnson’s opinion of it is. In fact I think the paper should acknowledge that what it and Ms. Johnson advocate is often called “cafeteria Catholocism.” The Church, of course, rejects such an approach to the faith as invalid (unvalid ?).

  • Martha

    “Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, standing before her, placed his hand over the offering bowl, denying her the sacrament.”

    Three sentences in, and I’m already head-desking.

    “Offering bowl”? Offering bowl???

    Given that Fr. Guarnizo was so strict on enforcing the canons, I’m fairly sure he would also be strict about the rubrics, which means I’m fairly sure he did not distribute the Eucharist from an “offering bowl” (whatever that may be when it’s at home) but from a ciborium.

    I would even have forgiven the use of “chalice” here, but where did they get their facts? “I guess the priest must have had the wafers in some kind of container – maybe a bowl, or something? Better call it an offering bowl, so as not to offend any of the crazy fundies who write in to the editor to complain about religion coverage.”

  • tmatt


    What does your comment have to do with the journalism issues in this post?

  • Crude

    What does your comment have to do with the journalism issues in this post?

    How about the fact that the Church’s (well, relevant Church authorities’) decision to discipline this priest is being taken uncritically as “well, the claim is that he was in violation of canon law, let’s see now if canon law really says what it does” without spending much time at all speculating about the motivating factors? Motivating factors which, I can practically guarantee you, would be speculated about if this situation were different.

    The canon law aspect is interesting, even relevant, but it’s not the whole story.

  • Martha

    Okay, tmatt, are you trying to kill me by inducing apoplexy or what? The “Washington Post” – it’s a paper of some repute, yes? It’s not your small-town, comes out once a week, is filled with ads for silage and hay bales and tractors, publication?

    Because I would have imagined that they might possibly quote from one at least of the canons applicable to the case. Or gotten a quote on the technicalities from a canon lawyer (why, hello there, Dr. Peters!) – though I do note they managed to include – yes, you’ve guessed it (all together now): “the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Washington Jesuit and former editor of liberal Catholic magazine America”.

    I gritted my teeth at this line: “And there they stood one morning in February, facing each other in the holiest of moments, inside a church with parishioners so devout that they hold prayer vigils there 24 hours a day” because a prayer vigil is a horse of a different colour to perpetual adoration, and that’s what I found when I clicked on their interal link (one of the few good parts in the story, because it linked to a video of one of the volunteers who does the 2-3 a.m. Holy Hour and since they allowed him to speak in his own words with no editorialising, it didn’t raise my blood pressure).

    The other good part of the story? It explained that the Johnsons (deceased parents) were newcomers to the parish, only joining it in 2007 and, because of age and infirmity, not able to attend Mass in the church often or be active in the parish, so they weren’t much known. Their children seem to be strangers as well: “Johnson and her three siblings, spread around the region, didn’t know the parish, its culture or its members. Nor did they know its pastor, the Rev. Thomas LaHood, who last month compared gay marriage to slavery in a church bulletin.”

    That is a vital point in the application of Canon 915, as Dr. Peters points out; it’s not sufficient that Ms. Johnson, ten or twenty minutes before Mass, told Fr. Guarnizo in the sacristry about her lover – if the people of the parish (as seems evident) did not know her, did not know her circumstances, and were unaware of her personal life, then it was not a public scandal and it was not “manifest sin” in the sense that is required. Fr. Guarnizo seems to be basing his defence on pastoral need not to endanger a soul in grave sin, which is a different matter.

    I would have thought that, since the article was able to have a reporter in Moscow help them trace the Sinister Right-Wing Conspiracy activities of Fr. Guarnizo, they might have been able to cut’n'paste the relevant canon from the Vatican website since this point supports their argument in favour of Ms. Johnson, but then again, I’m not a professional journalist working for a big city newspaper.

  • MJBubba

    TMatt, I suppose you meant “epithet,” not “epitaph”?

  • tmatt


    DUH. Fixed. Thank you.


    I said that there were many things worthy of comment (or coffee spewing) in this report. You were warned.

  • Martha

    Let’s throw some more fuel on the fire, shall we? That “offering bowl” in the story? The one that Fr. Guarnizo put his hand over? If that’s what it was, then there’s an even bigger scandal brewing in the parish then we’ve been told about so far; quick Google of the term and definitions plucked from the top results:

    “Offering bowls are bowls or plates that are used to hold offerings that Wiccans and Neo Pagans wish to offer to their god or goddess that they worship.”

    “The seven water bowl offerings are traditionally presented on a Buddhist altar each morning. These seven bowls represent the ‘seven limbed practice’ for purifying negative tendencies and accumulating merit.”

    (1) What an offering bowl may look like.

    (2) What a ciborium may look like.

    (3) Benefit of the doubt because of grounds for confusion confusion.

    Betting that if the parish and the priest are so traditional, it’s more likely to have been item no. 2 than item no.3 (but very definitely not item no.1) – no odds quoted :-)

  • Jeff

    “In the past decade, Johnson [had been in] [the] process of coming back to Catholicism on her own terms.”

    Serve somebody / You’re going to have to serve somebody / It may be The Devil or it may be The Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

  • L

    If the Washington Post could track down Archbishop Kondrusiewicz (currently in the archdiocese of Minsk, Belarus), why oh why could they not contact some canon law experts on this side of the ocean?

    I’m also perplexed on the Post’s linking the Archdiocese of Moscow (the entire archdiocese!) with a Maryland movement the Post calls a cult, with no other apparent basis for this assertion other than, well, the name of the movement and the name of the Moscow cathedral are similar. This is journalism?!? I guess it’s possible that there are ties between the group in Maryland and groups in Russia, but absolutely zero proof of such is presented.

  • Martha

    But L – they quoted Fr. Thomas Reese, the only priest in the entire United States with a telephone so that reporters can ring him up for a quote!

    Isn’t that good enough for you? ;-)

  • Martha

    I’ll be warned in future, tmatt, and I’ll know better the next time:

    Story from “Washington Post” – not worth even wrapping fish in it.

    Story from “Smallville Provincial Vindicator (incorporating the Shelbyton Gazette) – new edition every Thursday except for the third week of each month when the monthly cattle mart is held, when issue appears Friday instead” – properly researched, in-depth, investigative reporting.