Maryland Priest Under Fire For Denying Communion To Lesbian Daughter At Mother’s Funeral

The Washington Post has a story that has left many deeply disturbed. Barbara Johnson was attending her mother’s funeral at the St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland when she went up to receive communion. Upon seeing her, Rev. Marcel Guarnizo refused to give her the host, saying that he was aware that she was a lesbian living with another woman and therefore a sinner. Later, when Johnson was giving the eulogy, Gaurnizo abruptly left the service — leaving no priest at the remainder of the service or attending the burial.

Rev. Guarnizo was informed of Johnson’s status before the ceremony by someone in the church. She said “He put his hand over the body of Christ and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin.’”

The confrontation has led to angry letters demanding the removal of Guarnizo. In response, Rev. Barry Knestout, one of the archdiocese’s highest-ranking administrators, wrote an apology for the act of unkindness that “is a cause of great concern and personal regret to me.” He added: “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.” Hoping that “healing and reconciliation with the Church might be possible for you and any others who were affected by this experience,” Rev. Knestout offered to conduct a “Mass for the happy repose of your mother’s soul. May God bring you and your family comfort in your grief and hope in the Resurrection.”

There is now however a push back from other parishioners who cite Canon Law 915. This canon reads: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

Yet, the Archdiocese has stated that “it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person” and that “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.”

This still leaves the issue of communion. If Rev. Guarnizo had raised it privately before the service, would the Archdiocese agree with him that Canon 915 bars the receipt of communion? Of course, there remains the sudden departure of the priest.

The issue of discrimination by religious organizations remains a difficult one. I have previously written against the application of discrimination laws in some circumstances to religious groups as a denial of the free exercise of religion. I think we can all agree that this priest’s conduct was inexcusable in how he handled the matter and he should be disciplined. However, what about the more general question of denying communion to Ms. Johnson. Which should control Canon 915 or non-discrimination laws? I have to ultimately (and reluctantly) support the Church’s right to exclusion. What do you think?

Source: Washington Post

62 thoughts on “Maryland Priest Under Fire For Denying Communion To Lesbian Daughter At Mother’s Funeral”

  1. I write to inform you that effective today, Father Marcel Guarnizo’s assignment at St. John Neumann Parish is withdrawn and he has been placed on administrative leave with his priestly faculties removed until such time as an inquiry into his actions at the parish is completed.
    This action was taken after I received credible allegations that Father Guarnizo has engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.

    Given the grave nature of these allegations, and in light of the confusion in the parish and the concerns expressed by parishioners, Father Guarnizo is prohibited from exercising any priestly ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington until all matters can be appropriately resolved, with the hope that he might return to priestly ministry.

    Sincerely in Christ

    Most Reverend Barry C. Knestout

    Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia”

    1. Gene, thanks for the update — as I noted before, while the priest may have had theological justification for refusing to give communion in this instance, there was a gross failure of pastoral care and compassion. I hope he is being sent to a spiritual retreat for some pastoral retraining.

  2. JohnMichael wrote: The priest’s actions at that funeral violate the commandment of Jesus that ‘you love one another as I have loved you.’
    The Catholic Church seems to forget this injunction way too often.
    (And the latest the priest, in Pa or NJ – missed that part of story, who when the Archdiocese thght he had been arrested for DUI had nothing to say but once it was realized his arrest was for soliciting prostitution the Church spoke out, “it is deeply troubling” – so I guess it is okay if you are only putting people’s lives in jeopardy by driving drunk but sex is a whole ‘nother matter (unless it is pedophilia)

  3. If I remember correctly the church teaches that whatever is in scripture is subject to scriptural law and therefore not open to individual conscience. Whatever is not in scripture is subject to natural law, which is arbitrated by natural reason, and thus subject to individual conscience; meaning different people can come to different conclusions and still be moral and in the good graces of god. Among the various things I do not find mentioned in scripture are contraceptives and homosexuals receiving communion. The church can frown upon them all it wants and teach and advise against them, that’s its right to do so, but its own teachings say that it cannot deny communion over these issues because it cannot finally hold that those who favor what it frowns upon are outside the grace of god. As a Catholic who long ago gave up on the institutional structures of the church, I truly believe most Catholics, including priests, do not know what their own church teaches.

    1. Tom Wood,
      Very good analysis that adds an as yet undiscussed point.

      1. To, W, I think you are spot on. Whether it is ignorance, restricted teaching, or willful misunderstanding is the open question.

  4. My issue here is that the underlying problem is that church regards the Eucharist as its property. The Eucharist does not belong to the church it belongs to the people of god, if it belongs to anyone. The priest’s actions at that funeral violate the commandment of Jesus that ‘you love one another as I have loved you.’ A loving person in the persona of that wayward priest would not have made his decision based on a hateful hearsay declaration by an anonymous person.

  5. So evidently Catholic politicians are obliged to impose Catholic doctrine over civil law. So “Maria law” is here at last…..

  6. Catholic Church Canon Law on Catholic Politicians Who Support Gay ‘Marriage’
    Wed Mar 09, 2005

    OTTAWA, March 9, 2005 ( – With the same-sex ‘marriage’ issue coming to the fore in Canada and the United States, the issue of Catholic politicians receiving communion while supporting such measures is increasingly being seen as a scandal that needs to be addressed by church leaders. To clarify the issue, spoke with Ottawa-based canon lawyer Pete Vere, JCL. LSN: What is a priest to do in a parish where one of his parishioners is a politician who supports gay ‘marriage’? Vere: The parish priest has an obligation to correct Catholic politicians who support so-called same-sex marriage. The first paragraph of canon 528 stipulates: “The parish priest has the obligation of ensuring that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish. He is therefore to […] make every effort to bring the gospel message to those also who have given up religious practice or who do not profess the true faith.” LSN: So Catholic politicians, if they wish to remain Catholic must abide by Church teaching on protecting marriage? Vere: Especially when it comes to an issue like marriage, this obligation towards the true faith binds the Catholic politician in his or her public life as well as private life. Read the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”. This document clearly expresses where Catholic politicians ought to stand with regards to this issue. With regards to the Church’s true teaching, Cardinal Ratzinger states: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts ‘close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved’.” LSN: What about a Catholic politician who says they are personally opposed to gay ‘marriage’ but will support such legislation since he doesn’t want to force his religion on others? Vere: That same document obliges every Catholic politician to withstand any legislation that would corrupt the natural definition of marriage. “When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly,” the CDF document states, “the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.” LSN: So then is a Catholic priest able to deny communion to a Catholic politician based on support for same-sex ‘marriage’? Vere: A politician who supports same-sex marriage acts in a manner that is scandalous to the faithful, harmful to society, and gravely immoral. In keeping with canon 223, “Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ’s faithful.” This includes the right to Holy Communion. For as canon 915 states: “Those […] who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

    1. Reading Elaine’s posts makes me hasten to add a point to mine of a short while ago — priests (and others) who are quick to deny communion to people for certain acts or positions should make sure that they do so consistently. So if you are a Catholic who supports the death penalty, for instance…

  7. Vatican Canon Law Adviser: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo Should Be Denied Communion
    By Michael W. Chapman
    February 21, 2011

    ( – In receiving communion at a Mass offered by the Roman Catholic bishop of Albany, NY, that state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who supports abortion, gay marriage, and lives with his girlfriend, committed an “objectively sacrilegious” act that “produces grave scandal,” according to Dr. Edward Peters, a top expert in Catholic Church law and a consultant to the highest court at the Vatican.

    Peters specifically cited Cuomo’s cohabiting with Food Network hostess Sandra Lee as “publicly acting in violation of a fundamental moral expectation of the Church,” and that “as long as he persists in such conduct, he should refrain from taking Holy Communion” and “if he approaches for Holy Communion, he should be denied the august sacrament in accord with Canon 915.”

    Canon 915, from the Church’s Code of Canon Law, says that persons “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

    In addition, based on the news reports of the Mass and the sermon given by Bp. Howard Hubbard, the bishop’s remarks constituted “a failure in pastoral care,” said Peters, largely for what the prelate “did not say, than for what he did say.”

    “Bp. Hubbard, faced with a prominent Catholic leader of whom, it may be fairly said, there are ‘great expectations,’ did not challenge the governor to begin his reform of the state with a reform of his person,” said Peters. spoke by e-mail with Dr. Peters, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI last year as a referendarius (consultant) to the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest administrative tribunal, itself subject only to the Pope and under the direction of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the archbishop emeritus of St. Louis, Mo.

    Peters’ comments concerning Gov. Cuomo, a Catholic and a Democrat, were made in reference to Canon Law, the administrative and moral law of the Church, and the Catechism, the teaching of the Church.

    Back on Jan. 2, the Times Union of Albany and the New York Daily News reported on Cuomo’s attendance at the Mass that day, which took place at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

    As reported and photographed in the Daily News, Governor Cuomo went to the Mass with his three daughters (from his first marriage) and his “live-in girlfriend,” Sandra Lee, author and host of the Food Network program Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee. They sat in the front pew of the church.

    Gov. Cuomo’s relationship with Lee – he lives in her house in Westchester County, NY – has been widely reported on by The New York Times, New York Post, USA Today, New York Daily News, NBC News, and many other media.

    Bp. Hubbard, who oversees the diocese of Albany, offered the Mass and gave the homily (sermon), in which he praised Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who also attended the Mass with his wife.

    After the homily, the main ritual of the Mass – sacrificial prayers and distribution of holy communion – was performed, Cuomo, as the Daily News reported, “the divorced son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was once chastised by Catholic leaders for his support of abortion rights, calmly received Holy Communion. Lee walked in line for Communion with him.”

  8. Mespo and Milord got it right here. I do not agree with many of the Catholic Church hierarchy’s position on certain issues, but the doctrine is that if you are not in a state of grace, you should not take communion. Folks might not like it — but that is how the Church has decided one of its sacraments should be administered. People often go on about how we should respect other religions — for instance, you would not hear of women forcing themselves into the men-only area of a mosque, or a Buddhist temple, or covering themselves appropriately out of respect for those religions, but the Catholic Church is supposed to throw its strictures in a sacramental matter aside whenever someone complains.

    I think both parties were wrong — the priest certainly needs his superior to take him aside and give him a long lecture on compassion (I would make him read Matthew’s gospel). To me his greater error was walking out on the eulogy — no excuse for that. He also should have spoken to the daughter and explained to her before the ceremony that he would not be able to give her communion. Or else he should have done what I have seen many a priest do at an mass like this that draws a mixed crowd — he should have explained before administering the sacrament that communion can only be given to those who are considered in a state of grace with the Church, but he would be happy to give a blessing to anyone who came forward. A teaching opportunity loss, and a chance to exhibit grace lost.

    But the daughter surely knew better. I would imagine her mother wanted a funeral mass. And I cannot imagine her mother would have wanted her daughter to provoke this kind of scene.

    And in response to those who criticize the Church for administering sacraments to Newt — 1) we do not know whether he does in fact receive the sacraments (remember all of those who talked about how much Bush went to church, when it turned out Kerry was the more faithful attendee?); 2) if you convert to Catholicism as an adult, you go through a process that washes away your prior sins; 3) if Newt confessed his adultery in an honest manner, and continues to attend the sacrament of confession, thus maintaining his state of grace in the eyes of the Church, then he can receive communion. I might not like the man’s politics, or his rhetoric, but I will not put myself in the place of judging the state of his soul as it relates to his God or the Church.

    And as I was once a medievalist, I thought that I would shine some light on the comments regarding the Church and the sanctity of those who administer the sacraments. This has been a settled theological question for a thousand years or so, though it naturally keeps popping up. The sanctity of the sacrament rests apart from the sanctity of the person who administers it. You can look at that as a theological opinion, or a practical one (imagine the havoc it would wreak if marriages performed by a sinful priest were suddenly invalid — particularly in the days when bastardy meant something, and that something was not good) — as is normally the case, the “truth” has elements of both the sacred and the profane.

    I fully agree with those who said that the last thing the Church needs is another round of a priest acting without compassion, understanding, or mercy. This incident seems to have been handled in a ham-fisted manner. But let us not bee too quick to judge, or take sides.

  9. RE: mespo727272
    1, March 1, 2012 at 8:29 am
    By it’s very nature religion admits some and excludes others and does so based its own interpretation of the divine. That is its greatest flaw.


    For some folks of the “process philosophy/process theology” persuasion, in which religion is a name for human brain activity about what is not understood and science is a name for human brain activity about what is understood, dogmas and doctrines are plausibly forms of superstitious ignorance.

    By its very nature, authoritarian, dogmatic, doctrine-laden established religions may have as its greatest flaw, denying the nature of life and the nature of actual, observable existence.

    Not all religion is authoritarian or dogmatic or doctrine-laden.

    Within a given religious sect, one local church may be dogmatic, judgmental, or even cruel to a minority; whereas another local church in the same religious sect may be accepting, welcoming, and very decently kind to the same minority. At least, that has been my experience.

    For myself, I find that my ignorance is effectively infinite, while my knowledge and understanding are very small in comparison with my ignorance. I can change the amount of what I know and understand with reasonable effort; the amount of my ignorance seems to never diminish; the more I learn and the more I know, the more I know there is to be learned and the more I know, as a secure thought, that I do not know what I have not yet been able to learn.

    I live in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Constitution, Article I, Section 18, states, in part, “The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed…”

    Okay, per the Wisconsin Constitution, I necessarily have dictates of conscience? Okay. Found all two of them. 1. My conscience has two dictates, of which this is the first. 2. My conscience has no other dictates.

    Being necessarily religious because I keep encountering life experiences not identically experienced before, and, therefore accepting as fact that I have ignorance, and, given that all religions have dogma and doctrine, I find it wisely useful to know and understand my religious dogma and doctrine.

    Found them. My dogma is that there shall be no other dogma. My doctrine is that there shall be no other doctrine.

    Therefore, by its very nature, my religion admits everyone and excludes no one. That is its greatest benefit.

  10. I wonder what the exact nature of the “sin” is in this case? Is it for two women to be living together in the same house? Is it for two women to be in the same bedroom? Or is it only when two women have lesbian sex? In that case, how would this priest know what sex this woman was or was not having? It doesn’t seem like he asked her. I suppose he could have grilled her in public, right at the communion rail.

    I know of a number of middle aged and older women who find same-sex partners basically for companionship.

    I think this priest was acting only on his presumptions and his prejudices.

  11. So the [prst knew beforehad, from a gossiping congregant. Let’s see maybe he could have taken her aside befre the service and explained his concerns and t wal outduing her eulogy is not only ant ‘christian’ it is nti decency, anti empathy, and anticom[assion.
    (and this is not just the catholic church. I was emotionally and verbally abused at my UCC church. Asked for help to all lvels of hierarchy, including the guy who wrote the “making our churches safe for all policy” Not one person responded. They did not are about eiher member or minister in trouble.
    Faith is one thing. It is organized religion that seems to be the problem.

  12. Woosty:

    I’m with you on the hypocrisy exhibited, but I wouldn’t seek to make an ecclesiastical scene at anyone’s funeral. Too much emotion and it wasn’t the approproate time. That goes for both celebrant and mourner.

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