The denial of communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral has touched a raw nerve among LGBT Catholics, prompting a variety of responses and concerns.
But first, the facts of the incident are perhaps best described in the words of the woman, Barbara Johnson, 51, who explained to local metropolitan media in Washington, D. C., what the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo said to her, “I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church that is a sin.”
His denial stunned Johnson, a lifelong Catholic and former Catholic schoolteacher, who lives with a partner of 20 years.
“I just stood there, in shock. I was grieving, crying. My mother’s body was behind me, and all I wanted to do was provide for her, and the final thing was to make a beautiful funeral, and here I was letting her down because there was a scene,” she told the Washington Post.
The setting, for what Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, called a “grievous error of one priest,” was a funeral Mass on Saturday, Feb. 25, at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md.
Not only did Guarnizo put his hand over the communion platter, but also he walked away during Johnson’s eulogy. And he refused to go to the cemetery with the family for her mother’s burial.
“For Barbara Johnson, this is an utterly unbelievable and painful experience,” said DeBernardo of New Ways, a gay-positive ministry of reconciliation, healing, and justice for LGBT Catholics, based in Mt. Rainier, Md.
“The fact that it has resonated so strongly within the Catholic community shows that people are very concerned. Gay Catholics are upset,” he added.
“What it tells me is there has to be a lot better pastoral training of priests, particularly on gay and lesbian issues,” said DeBernardo.
Lesbian feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., offered her assessment. “The Eucharist is a sacrament, not a political football,” she said.
“This terrible abuse of one family at a time of great pastoral need is but a snapshot of anti-LGBTQ theology in action. It is outdated, outmoded, and outrageous,” said Hunt, co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, or WATER.
Based in Silver Spring, Md., WATER is a feminist educational center and social justice network.
The incident in Maryland resonated locally.
“It is hard to imagine a more heart-wrenching failure on the part of our church,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Medford, Mass.-based Dignity USA, an advocacy organization.
“The reality is that this could happen to almost anyone of us, given escalating conflicts between pastoral care and the demand for adherence” to “a handful of socially conservative aspects of doctrine,” she said.
“Whether we Catholics use birth control, have remarried after a divorce, believe women are qualified for official ministry, or support LGBT equality, most of us hold several views that contradict official Roman Catholic teaching. Could any of us be the next Barbara Jordan?” asked Duddy-Burke.
“Communion was never intended to be a political litmus test of judgment, but rather a reflection of the relationship the individual has with God. The pain that Barbara Johnson and her partner of 20 years experienced in being denied communion was not theirs alone, but for every gay person who has experienced the personal rejection by the church,” said Charles Martel, a Boston psychotherapist in private practice, who is co-founder of Catholics for Marriage Equality, an advocacy organization.
“The bishop sets the tone of what happens in a diocese, and so the refusal of communion to Barbara Johnson because she was attending the funeral of her mother with her partner of 20 years, provides the opportunity for Cardinal [Donald] Weurl to examine why this happened in his archdiocese. It’s a ‘teachable moment’ but will it become that or not?” Martel said.
For its part, the Washington archdiocese acknowledged in a statement, that Guarnizo had acted inappropriately, saying, “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.”
The Washington archdiocesan policy of not withholding communion and for priests to counsel Catholics privately is similar to the approach in the Boston archdiocese under leadership of Cardinal Sean O’Malley and his predecessor Cardinal Bernard Law.
Johnson also received an apology through correspondence from an auxiliary bishop.
“I am sorry that what should have been a celebration of your mother’s life, in light of her faith in Jesus Christ, was overshadowed by a lack of pastoral sensitivity,” Bishop Barry Knestout wrote.
Johnson told local media that she was satisfied with the archdiocesan apology, adding, although the damage done to her family and mother’s memory cannot be repaired.
Still, she does not want Catholics to walk away from a faith her mother dearly loved. “So many people have said to me that now they will never go back. That would break my mother’s heart,” Johnson told the National Catholic Reporter (NCR).
However, the Johnson family wants disciplinary action taken against Guarnizo. In a letter to him, she wrote, “You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the Day of Judgment for judging me. I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families.”
The Johnson family’s mission is “not to divide the church,” Barbara told NCR. “Our mission is to receive an apology from Fr. Marcel.”