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The betrayal of Father Guarnizo

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2012

In an earlier column on all the things we don’t know about the case of Father Marcel Guarnizo, I failed—as many critical readers pointed out—to take account of the apology issued by the Washington archdiocese soon after the fateful incident in which Father Guarnizo refused to administer Communion to the lesbian activist Barbara Johnson.

At the time there were many important things we did not know—we know much more now, since Father Guarnizo has issued a statement in his own defense—but that first public statement from the archdiocese gave readers good reason to fear that the archdiocese was ready to sacrifice the reputation of a priest (and, not just by the way, the integrity of the Eucharist) in order to deflect political criticism. I am sorry that I did not make this point in my original piece on the matter; let me undo the damage at least partially by elaborating on the point now.

After Barbara Johnson angrily protested the denial of Communion, Bishop Barry Knestout, the vicar general of the Washington archdiocese, issued a public apology. Apparently without having consulted the priest involved, to learn details about the incident, he wrote to Johnson: “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 Knestout’s letter was entirely sympathetic to Johnson, entirely unsympathetic to Father Guarnizo. There was no hint that under some circumstances the priest might have been right to refuse Communion, and no hint that Johnson had been wrong to provoke the refusal. The message was a betrayal in two ways:

First, it is not clear whether Father Guarnizo was right to deny Barbara Johnson the Eucharist. But it is quite clear, and has been from the outset, that Barbara Johnson was wrong to present herself for Communion. She is an avowed lesbian, actively involved in a relationship that flouts the laws of God and of his Church. She has distanced herself from the Church by her public advocacy for an immoral way of life, and in her angry public reaction to the incident she showed her intent to use this controversy as a way to broaden public acceptance of homosexual conduct. Since she was evidently raised in a devout Catholic household, it is very difficult to believe that she was honestly unaware of her status vis-à-vis the Church. But insofar as there was some slim chance that she honestly did not know that she should not receive Communion—and for the benefit of many others in similar circumstances—the archdiocese should surely have made that point. This ugly incident had given rise to a genuine teaching opportunity: a chance to remind wayward Catholics that one who receives the Eucharist unworthily risks damnation. The archdiocesan statement missed that opportunity. An editorial that appeared later in the archdiocesan newspaper hesitatingly made the necessary point (although that editorial created some confusion on other points), but the initial statement from Bishop Knestout did not.

Second, the vicar general’s public statement did something very similar to what it accused Father Guarnizo of doing. Let me explain: The Code of Canon Law presumes that priests should administer the Eucharist to those who come forward, except in certain carefully defined circumstances, because the faithful have the right to the sacraments and because priests should not substitute their own personal judgments for those of the Church. (Thus Father Guarnizo does himself no favors in his own public statement, when he says that he based his decision not on Canon 915 or any other particular law but on his own common-sense judgment.) A priest cannot lightly refuse Communion to someone he deems a sinner, because—among other things—by doing so he creates a scandal, exposing that “sinner” to public humiliation. Yet the archdiocese exposed Father Guarnizo to public humiliation.

And why did the archdiocese leave this poor priest dangling? Because he violated a policy of the archdiocese—a policy that may be in conflict with the law of the universal Church? At worst Father Guarnizo was guilty of a minor infraction against a local policy, not a serious transgression against God’s law. The archdiocesan policy weighed against refusing the Eucharist even when that action was justified (in fact obligatory), and the first statement from Bishop Knestout spoke only of the archdiocesan policy without making reference to the more serious questions about God’s law. So the faithful had every reason to worry that a good priest might be wrongly disciplined. And the subsequent statement from Bishop Knestout, claiming that Father Guarnizo had been removed from ministry for reasons unrelated to the Eucharistic incident, strained the credulity of the most loyal Catholics. We still do not have all the facts. But faithful Catholics cannot be blamed for harboring strong suspicions.

When she launched her campaign for vindication, Barbara Johnson warned Father Guarnizo, “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.” Now the lesbian activist has had her way; the priest who rebuked her is sidelined. Even if every charge against him is completely accurate—even if he is imprudent and intemperate and intimidating—Father Guarnizo could have been reassigned quietly, without ceding such a thorough propaganda victory for the homosexual cause.

The betrayal of Father Guarnizo sends a chilling message to every priest in Washington: that if he is zealous in defending the Eucharist, he cannot count on support from the archdiocese. Since other radical activists will no doubt follow Barbara Johnson’s example, we can expect another test case soon. Let’s hope and pray that the next time, the archdiocese will show at least as much solicitude for the Eucharist (not to mention the accused priest) as for the critics of the Church.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Mar. 25, 2012 2:20 AM ET USA

    I believe when Fr. Guarnizo stated he used common sense, he was referring to the incident when the women introduced him to her 'lover'.He wasn't judging her,he was going by what she herself admitted to him, in all good conscience he could not have given her The Precious Eucharist.It would have been a "teaching moment" for many if the Bishop didn't put misplaced compassion first. Sadly par for the course with some American Bishops & Cardinals. Do they no longer believe God's word? Matthew 18:5-6

  • Posted by: impossible - Mar. 19, 2012 2:55 PM ET USA

    Oh! Looks like he just did use it as a PC tool/weapon.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Mar. 19, 2012 2:07 PM ET USA

    While there is plenty justification to pile on against Cardinal Weurl and the bishop, I believe that their kind, represents a withering branch of the vine. I also believe that new healthier growths are budding.

  • Posted by: dave3404 - Mar. 18, 2012 3:41 PM ET USA

    When Cardinal Weurl was in bishop of Pgh, he said he would not use the Sacraments (referring specifically to denying Holy Communion to Pro-Abortion politicians) as a "political tool" whatever that means. Now I think I see what that means:(

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Mar. 16, 2012 10:25 PM ET USA

    All this discussion about Cannon Law is well and good, but what about protecting the Body and Blood of Jesus from desecration? If the priest and the server are the only people who notice a communicant desecrating the Eucharist, should they do nothing because most of the people did not see it? Should they call a cannon lawyer Monday morning for advice? A lot of good that would do. The priests have to be given some leeway to act at the time of the event based on the facts available to them.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 16, 2012 7:56 PM ET USA

    Apparently the archdiocesan policy of Card. Wuerl is either not to apply Canon 915 or to amend it (on his own) out of existence, "pastorally." But the language of that canon is mandatory, not precatory ("ne admittantur").

  • Posted by: michaelwilmes - Mar. 15, 2012 10:58 PM ET USA

    .....and why would anyone be shocked? This type of behavior was typical of Cardinal McCarrick, and Wuerl hasn't shown much spine either. It all reminds me of when I was little boy. When I'd get myself in trouble, my mom would often tell me "you made your bed, now lay in it". Profound words which apply quite aptly to the United States Episcopacy. Even to this day, as much as I like Cardinal Dolan, I have heard very little about Humanae Vitae. Its not enough to preach it. Please TEACH it!

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Mar. 15, 2012 10:38 PM ET USA

    This sent a clear message to all the enemies of the Church that they can continue to push their agenda because by and large the bishops will not stand up for Catholic orthodoxy when push comes to shove. Obama knows he can win this on this HHS mandate. The American bishops are--to coin a phrase used by a good FSSP priest awhile back--"all hat and no cattle."

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 15, 2012 9:54 PM ET USA

    You have no "damage to undo." It is not you who is at fault here. As has so often been the case in these many post-conciliar years, there is always collateral damage in these cases. The Church is a fountain of love- the love of the Eternal Word. The irony of this era is exemplified anew by this example. The "kinder, gentler" pastoral approach is once again proven a facade. The Vatican is working on water rights. Water we doing?!! There is work to be done. The fundamental work of True Love.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 15, 2012 9:37 PM ET USA

    Hope springs eternal.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 15, 2012 10:40 AM ET USA

    So much has been betrayed, besides Fr. Guarnizo. Bishop Knestout has betrayed the Eucharist, betrayed Church teaching, and even betrayed Barbara Johnson in that he effectively confirmed her in her sins (which are very public now).