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.
Part 1 – Canon 915 and Father Guarnizo
The first rule of interpretation in canon law is to read the canon.
Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” As Ed Peters clearly points out, canon 915 lays an obligation on the minister distributing Holy Communion to deny Holy Communion to certain parties. Who are these parties? The first two parties are those who have been excommunicated or interdicted by imposition or declaration. The third party to be denied Holy Communion are those who fulfill all of the following three conditions, i.e., those who 1. Obstinately persist 2. in manifest 3. grave sin.
How is this canon to be interpreted? Ed Peters rightly mentions a general norm:
Can. 18 – “Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.”
as well as canon 912:
Can. 912 – “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion.”
On the other hand, Father William Byrne, Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns, in the Archdiocese of Washington’s press release, states, “We should receive Jesus with the intention of becoming more like Him. No one is entitled to the Eucharist. It is a free gift and should be received with humility and reverence.” Ed Peters is again correct to say that the burden lies upon Father Guarnizo to prove he satisfied the requirements of canon 915. On the other hand, canon 915 lays a grave obligation on the minister of Holy Communion to protect the Eucharist from sacrilege and to prevent scandal. It goes without saying that the minister who violates canon 915 should be justly punished.
Ed Peters summarily explains why Father Guarnizo does not fufill the conditions of canon 915:
“Guarnizo did not know, and could not have verified, whether Johnson’s sin (speaking objectively), which could be grave (a conclusion I think a Catholic could reach based on the words used here) was also manifest, as well as obstinate and perseverating (sic). “
This statement raises a question. Given the extremely limited information we currently have from a variety of sources, how exactly does Ed Peters judge that Father “Guarnizo did not know, and could not have verified” Barbara Johnson was not a manifest, grave sinner? It is safe to assume that Ed Peters was not present at the chapel for the funeral, nor was he in the sacristy, nor does he have knowledge of who or how many persons witnessed the conversation that took place between Father Guarnizo and Barbara Johnson. Ed Peters goes on to quote a number of very reputable and traditional Catholic moralists and manualists who express in various terms the
meaning of canon 915. Let’s look carefully at canon 915. Here’s the canon again. Canon 915 – “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” What is the purpose of canon 915? Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura (the highest tribunal in the Church) answers this question in a paper regarding the liciety of admitting pro-abortion politicians to Holy Communion in light of canon 915. (For those who haven’t read the paper, the quick answer is “no”.) Cardinal Burke states that Canon 915 exists primarily to prevent sacrilege while at the same time preventing our Greatest Good from being violated. His Eminence also remarked in the Jesuit periodical America Magazine that, “Canon 915 deals with the state of someone who persists in an open, serious moral violation and so has gravely sinned. This means you can’t receive Communion, but it is not saying you are excommunicated. It’s just saying you have broken, in a very serious way, your communion with God and with the Church and therefore are not able to receive Holy Communion.” The same point is implied in St. Paul’s scolding of the Corinthian Christians during Mass: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” The minister who applies canon 915 actually does the sinner a great service in charity by preventing him from committing another grave sin.
The secondary purpose of canon 915 is the prevention of scandal. What is scandal? Cardinal Burke says: The first and properly theological meaning of scandal is to do or omit something which leads others into error or sin. The second meaning is to do or omit something which causes wonderment (admiratio) in others. Denying Holy Communion publicly to the occult sinner involves scandal in the second sense. Giving Holy Communion to the obstinately serious and public sinner involves scandal in the first sense.” In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas says that although there is a need for the minister distributing Holy Communion to protect the good name of the hidden sinner, there is also an obligation to protect the Eucharist from sacrilege by a public sinner.
Since Barbara Johnson doesn’t fall into the first two categories of canon 915, let’s see she if she fulfills the following three conditions for the last category of persons, i.e., those who
1. Obstinately persist 2. in manifest 3. grave sin.
1. Obstinately persist What does it mean to “obstinately persist”? The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (PCLT), the department of the Vatican whose job it is to interpret authentically both universal and particular laws in the Church, states that this phrase “obstinate persistence” is “the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of “the situation in the Church.”
“Obstinate persistence” denotes an objective (not subjective) state. Although commonly misunderstood, it is not necessary that warnings be issued in order to judge “obstinate persistence”. Before the funeral Mass, Barbara Johnson declared her homosexual status by introducing her lesbian lover to Father Guarnizo. What was the purpose of this action? We now know, from media reports, that Barbara has been with her partner for 20 years.
We also know that Barbara Johnson walked out of the sacristy while her lover blocked the doorway. 2. “Manifest” What does “manifest” mean? Among the leading canon lawyers currently living in North America is Professor John Huels at St. Paul’s University. In his 1985 commentary on canon 915, Professor Huels writes that “a manifest sin is one which is publicly known, even if only by a few.” Although it is very tempting to do so, it is not possible completely to equate the term “manifest” with the term “public”, since, in the 1917 Code these two adjectives are used to describe those who are not allowed a Catholic funeral. (1917 Code of Canon Law, c. 1240. Alii peccatores publici et manifesti [Other public and manifest sinners]) If “manifest” were exactly the same as“public”, why would the legislator have used both terms? “Manifest” can also refer to the fact that certain moral actions by their very essence are always immoral and are objectively wrong. For example, we say that it is“manifest” or clear, i.e., there is no doubt, that a certain moral action is definitely wrong. The term “manifest”would certainly in its definition, a politician who is actively attempting to pass legislation to facilitate direct abortions. Understandably there is overlapping in meaning but the the term “public” can mean “that which is provable in the external forum.” The Jesuit theologian Father Davis, in his classic Moral and Pastoral Theology published in 1938, declared that “He is, relatively speaking, a public sinner, if he is known to be such by those who observe that he asks for the Sacraments. He is said to ask for them publicly, if he does so, in the presence of any others, many or few, who would recognize him as a public sinner.” The ancient Rituale Romanum stated: “All the faithful are to be admitted to Holy Communion, except those who are prohibited for a just reason. The publicly unworthy, which are the excommunicated, those under interdict, and the manifestly infamous, such as prostitutes, those cohabiting, usurers, sorcerers, fortune-tellers, blasphemers and other sinners of the public kind, are, however, to be prevented, unless their penitence and amendment has been established and they will have repaired the public scandal.” Furthermore, as Cardinal Burke mentions in his commentary on canon 915, “Regarding the denial of Holy Communion, the [1720 Ruthenian] Synod made its own the perennial discipline of the Church: Heretics, schismatics, the excommunicated, the interdicted, public criminals, the openly infamous, as also prostitutes, the publicly cohabiting, major usurers, fortune-tellers, and other evil-doing men of the same kind, however, are not to be admitted to the reception of this Sacrament, according to the precept of Christ: ‘Do not give the Holy to dogs’. ” A notorious act here means an act that cannot be concealed. The well-respected Father William Woestman adds that, “the public reception of Communion by a public sinner implies that the Church and her ministers somehow condone the public serious sin.”
An author that Ed Peters is familiar with and recommends is the Dominican Father Halligan. Father Halligan, in Administration of the Sacraments, states that a crime “is public, if it is already divulged or is so situated that it may and must be concluded that it will easily become commonly known.” Who else was present in the sacristy on the day of Barbara Johnson’s mother’s funeral? Who else could have heard the conversation that took place between Father Guarnizo and Barbara Johnson? Usually before a liturgical ceremony such as a funeral, a number persons can be present in the sacristy (e.g., altar servers, schola members, members of the recently deceased, the parish secretary, etc.). In addition, reasonableness is assumed in law. Is it not reasonable that the community, largely made up of Barbara Johnson’s family, knew of her lesbian relationship before the funeral if not at least at the funeral? At family gatherings like funerals or weddings, people “catch up” and learn how everyone and everything has been going since the last funeral or wedding. People find out family news. Even strangers discover a little bit about who’s related to whom and so on. Is it not very reasonable that more than a few people present in that church building knew about the lesbian relationship between Barbara Johnson and her lover? Every human being lives in a community. What about the community of which Barbara Johnson is a member and amongst whom she lives? Are they supposed to assume that Barbara Johnson received Holy Communion just like everybody else? Doesn’t this create scandal in Cardinal Burke’s first sense where the faithful are led into error about who is worthy to receive Holy Communion?
A trustworthy witness who wishes to remain anonymous but was present at the funeral mentioned that most of the congregation was mysteriously not made up of those around the age of the recently deceased mother but were more around the age of Barbara Johnson. An unusually small percentage of people came up to receive Holy Communion. If these were friends of Barbara Johnson, what about the possible scandal that could have taken place if Father Gaurnizo had given her Holy Communion? This witness is confident that the vast majority of the persons present for the funeral knew about the lesbian “lifestyle” of Barbara Johnson.
3. Grave sin. Regarding “Grave Sin”, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts declares that this is “understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability.”
Now that we’ve walked through a working description of the phrase in canon 915 asserting that those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” what is a concrete example of people who fall into this category? The answer is given to us by Blessed Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Catechism and again, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
Blessed John Paul II in Familaris Consortio in 1982:
The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted hereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict the union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is a another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1991: “As far as the internal forum solution is concerned as a means of resolving the question of the validity of a prior marriage, the magisterium has not sanctioned its use for a number of reasons, among which is the inherent contradiction of resolving something in the internal forum which by its nature also pertains to and has such important consequences for the external forum.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 1650-1651: “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists. ” Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts in 2000: “In effect, the reception of the Body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion. In the concrete case of the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried, the scandal, understood as an action that prompts others towards wrongdoing, affects at the same time both the sacrament of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. That scandal exists even if such behavior, unfortunately, no longer arouses surprise: in fact it is precisely with respect to the deformation of the conscience that it becomes more necessary for Pastors to act, with as much patience as firmness, as a protection to the sanctity of the Sacraments and a defense of Christian morality, and for the correct formation of the faithful.” The noted 1917 Code commentar Fr. Lincoln Bouscaren, SJ, in Canon Law Digest (vol. 1, 408-409) also relates the case of “a woman that was living in open concubinage with a relative, went to confession to a missionary, and was admitted by him to Holy Communion. The pastor of the church questioned the propriety of this course of action on the part of the missionary, and referred the matter to the Ordinary of the place. The latter forbade the admission of the woman to Holy Communion until she should have separated from the man with whom she was living. From this decree, the missionary had recourse tot he Sacred Congregation of the Council. Question: Whether the decree of the Ordinary is to be obeyed. Reply: In the affirmative.” Father William Woestman logically states that “the same principles apply to everyone whose habitual lifestyle is manifestly gravely sinful, e.g., the unmarried “living together,” homosexuals or lesbians in a public relationship, those actively participating in the performance of abortions, drug traffickers, gang members.” We can see that Ed Peters clearly contradicts the point reinterated by Father Woestmann: “For reasons I can develop elsewhere, I think that withholding Holy Communion from those divorced and remarried outside the Church is an application of Canon 915 (see, e.g., Kelly, in GB&I COMM  503), but I need not prove that point to show that withholding the Eucharist from divorced-and-remarrieds, that is, those who status is de iure public, is appropriate under, among other things, the 1994 CDF Letter on Communion for Divorced and Remarried Catholics, n. 6. Of course, as Johnson is apparently not divorced and remarried outside the Church, and because Guarnizo did not suspect her of being so, his implicit appeal to the CDF letter and/or c. 915, fails in law and in fact.” Objectively, homosexuality is graver than adultery. I don’t understand why Dr. Peters says that it is licit to use canon 915 to deny Holy Communion to those who are divorced and have remarried but it is not licit to use canon 915 for a lesbian in a homosexual relationship. Up to this point, we’ve applied our attention to law relevant to the particular situation of Baabara Johnson. Now we ask, what should be done practically in a concrete situation? The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts again provides the answer. “Naturally, pastoral prudence would strongly suggest the avoidance of instances of public denial of Holy Communion. Pastors must strive to explain to the concerned faithful the true ecclesial sense of the norm, in such a way that they would be able to understand it or at least respect it. In those situations, however, in which these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy. They are to do this with extreme charity, and are to look for the opportune moment to explain the reasons that required the refusal. They must, however, do this with firmness, conscious of the value that such signs of strength have for the good of the Church and of souls.”
“The discernment of cases in which the faithful who find themselves in the described condition are to be excluded from Eucharistic Communion is the responsibility of the Priest who is responsible for the community.” We know that Father Guarnizo did not make the funeral arrangments for Barbara Johnson’s mother. We also know that after hearing confessions from 930-1020am, Father Guarnizo wanted to speak with Barbara before the 1030am funeral Mass but was blocked by Barbara Johnson’s lover. We also know that Father Guarnizo’s action to deny Holy Communion to Barbara Johnson was extremely discreet.
Part 2 – “Administrative Leave” and Father Guarnizo Regarding the “administrative leave” and the loss of his priestly faculties in the diocese of Washington, DC, Father Guarnizo says “I would only add for the record, that the letter removing me from pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Washington, was already signed and sealed and on the table when I met with Bishop Knestout on March 9, even before he asked me the first question about the alleged clash.” The major question in this matter is where is the necessary element of due process? John Beal, a well-known canonist at Catholic University, argues that “administrative leave” can only take place after a formal judicial penal process has been initiated, and not during the information-collecting preliminary investigation. This assumes that the prelimary investagtion of canon 1720 was actually carried out. Thus, the Ordinary should have decreed that the acts of the investigation be handed over to the Promoter of Justice who then presents the libellus (petition of accusation) to the judge. Canons 1720, 1721 and 1722 need to be applied.
Can. 1720 “If the ordinary thinks that the matter must proceed by way of extrajudicial decree: 1º he is to inform the accused of the accusation and the proofs, giving an opportunity for self-defense, unless the accused neglected to appear after being properly summoned; 2º he is to weigh carefully all the proofs and arguments with two assessors; 3º if the delict is certainly established and a criminal action is not extinguished, he is to issue a decree according to the norm of cann. 1342–1350, setting forth the reasons in law and in fact at least briefly.”
Can. 1721 “§1. If the ordinary has decreed that a judicial penal process must be initiated, he is to hand over the acts of the investigation to the promoter of justice who is to present a libellus of accusation to the judge according to the norm of cann. 1502 and 1504. §2. The promoter of justice appointed to the higher tribunal acts as the petitioner before that tribunal.”
Can. 1722 “To prevent scandals, to protect the freedom of witnesses, and to guard the course of justice, the ordinary, after having heard the promoter of justice and cited the accused, at any stage of the process can exclude the accused from the sacred ministry or from some office and ecclesiastical function, can impose or forbid residence in some place or territory, or even can prohibit public participation in the Most Holy Eucharist. Once the cause ceases, all these measures must be revoked; they also end by the law itself when the penal process ceases.” According to Father Guarnizo’s report, the legal measures demanded by canons 1721 and 1722 were simply not applied:
“The letter removing me from pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Washington, was already signed and sealed and on the table when I met with Bishop Knestout on March 9, even before he asked me the first question about the alleged clash.” Where is the right of defense for Father Gaurnizo? Did the Ordinary initiate an administrative process or a judicial penal process with a decree of judicial weight? What about the libellus, the formal petition of accusation? Where is the promotor of justice to ensure that the proper juridical motions are taken at each step of the trial? Where is due process?
In short, I respectfully but substantially disagree with Ed Peters’ view of Father Guarnizo’s alleged violation canon 915 based on the arguments offered above. In addition, the misfortune of the the loss of faculties that Father Guarnizo has suffered has seemingly come about without due canonical process. Furthermore, why did the diocese not mention canon 916, which reminds the faithful of the obligation to receive the Eucharist worthily in their letter of apology to Barbara Johnson? Although any information whatsoever about the entire situation is at a premium, it seems like the Diocese of Washington, DC is more willing, at least externally, to place its trust in somebody who (although canonically is not Buddhist as Ed Peters rightly points out) professes to be a Buddhist, has illegally attempted marriage with her lesbian partner, and was a speaker on March 17th at a national conference for gays and lesbians. Finally, is Father Guarnizo guilty until proven innocent? I’m making these points in order to highlight the priest’s obligation to safeguard the Holy Eucharist and to highlight that a priest accused of wrongdoing receive a right of defense in a just trial.