Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The removal of Father Guarnizo—what we still don't know

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 13, 2012

Catholic Culture readers are understandably concerned about the status of Father Marcel Guarnizo, the priest who has been placed on administrative leave by the Washington archdiocese after he denied Communion to a lesbian woman. While I fully share that concern, I submit that it’s important—before we begin making judgments—to recognize a very important consideration: We don’t have all the facts. Here’s what we do know:

  • Barbara Johnson reports that she was refused Communion at her mother’s funeral.
  • Johnson should not have presented herself for Communion, because she is an avowed lesbian.
  • Bishop Barry Knestout, the vicar general of the Washington archdiocese, announced that Father Guarnizo has been placed on leave, explaining that he took the step because he had “received credible allegations that Father Guarnizo has engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.”

Now here’s what we don’t know:

  • Whether Father Guarnizo acted properly, under the terms of the Code of Canon Law, in denying the Eucharist to Barbara Johnson.
  • Whether Barbara Johnson deliberately provoked the incident.
  • Whether Johnson’s self-identification as a lesbian was known to everyone in the congregation at the funeral.
  • Whether Father Guarnizo spoke privately with Johnson, admonishing her not to receive Communion, before refusing to administer the Blessed Sacrament.
  • Whether the archdiocese had adequate reason to place Father Guarnizo on leave and suspend his priestly faculties.
  • Whether the archdiocese took action against Father Guarnizo because of the media uproar.

Unless we have clear answers to all these questions—and frankly, we are unlikely to get them—we cannot pass judgment about this troubling case. Sometimes when the facts are uncertain, it’s best to remain silent. God knows the truth; He can make the judgment.

Walk through the case with me, and notice how many important points are uncertain:

That Father Guarnizo refused to administer the Eucharist to Barbara Johnson is undisputed. Some eyewitnesses say that the priest was quiet and discreet in doing so; others say he was abrupt and rude. We don’t have the facts.

Johnson reportedly told Father Guarnizo, just before the funeral, that she was a lesbian. She may have made the statement provocatively, hoping to goad a priest who is known for his orthodoxy. Or she may have made the disclosure in a matter-of-fact way, not recognizing that it would constitute a problem. (Her understanding of the Catholic faith appears very confused, as we shall soon see.) We don’t have the facts.

Johnson should not have presented herself to receive the Eucharist, since she is living in a scandalous situation and her public advocacy of grave immorality puts her seriously at odds with the Church. She probably knew that; but can we be sure? Johnson has described herself as not only a lesbian but also a Buddhist. Yet she claims, implausibly, that she is still a Catholic. It seems preposterous that someone could, in good faith, believe herself to be a lesbian Buddhist Catholic. But is it completely impossible? Unfortunately there are professors at Catholic universities who would defend her if she made that profession.

The Code of Canon Law (#915) stipulates that the Eucharist should not be administered to those who have been excommunicated “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” No bishop has announced that Johnson is excommunicated. So it would be proper to deny her the Eucharist only if she has obstinately persisted in manifest grave sin. Notice the two key modifiers in that phrase: “obstinately” and “manifest.” Her involvement in a lesbian relationship could qualify as grave sin. But has she been obstinate—that is, has she continued the relationship despite having been previously warned against this sin? And was her sexual relationship “manifest”—that is, was it well known to the public, so that it would constitute a scandal if she received Communion? Canon lawyer Edward Peters, who has written a great deal of sensible commentary on this matter, offers a rule of thumb for the interpretation of Canon 915:

Unless a substantial majority of the community in question (I’m assuming them to be adults, reasonably aware of Catholic life around them, etc.) knows at the time why a given individual is being denied holy Communion, that’s a pretty good sign that Canon 915 has not been satisfied, and that Canon 912 (and some others norms) has been violated.

So in this case, did Father Guarnizo have good reason to believe that the worshippers at this funeral were all well aware of Johnson’s ongoing lesbian relationship? We don’t have the facts.

Many Catholic activists—including myself—have pleaded with the American bishops to enforce the provisions of Canon 915, and refuse to administer the Eucharist to public figures who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” by supporting legal abortion and other gravely immoral causes. It is important to recognize, however, that the case of Barbara Johnson is quite different from that of, say, Nancy Pelosi. Whereas only a small circle of acquaintances knew of Johnson’s lesbian relationship, the whole world knows of Pelosi’s support for abortion. And whereas we do not know whether any Church official has ever privately admonished Johnson to amend her life, we do know that the American bishops have repeatedly warned Pelosi that her public posture places her outside the communion of the Catholic Church.

When Nancy Pelosi receives the Eucharist it is a public scandal, and eminent canon lawyers— including no less an authority than Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the Apostolic Signatura—have argued that bishops and priests have not only the right but the duty to refuse the Eucharist to politicians who support legal abortion. Still in the Washington archdiocese, where this incident took place, Cardinal Donald Wuerl is on record as saying that he will not withhold the Eucharist from pro-abortion politicians. Cardinal Wuerl’s public stance complicates the Guarnizo-Johnson matter immensely. Many Catholics (again, I include myself), frustrated by the cardinal’s apparent unwillingness to enforce the provisions of canon law, are ready to applaud a brave priest who takes the necessary step. But even if Cardinal Wuerl should withhold the Eucharist under one set of circumstances, that does not mean that Father Guarnizo should withhold the Eucharist under different circumstances. We don’t have the facts.

And now Father Guarnizo has been removed from active ministry. Certainly the timing of that move is remarkable, and the priest’s supporters have every reason to be suspicious. But in announcing that Father Guarnizo had been placed on administrative leave, Bishop Knestout made a point of saying that the action was not a consequence of his encounter with Barbara Johnson. According to the vicar general, Father Guarnizo had “engaged in intimidating behavior.” Is this a convenient excuse or a real problem? We don’t have the facts.

Maybe Father Guarnizo is entirely innocent, and the archdiocese dug out a few complaints as an excuse for removing him, to appease the angry pundits. (Such a betrayal by the archdiocese would be appalling.) Or maybe Father Guarnizo had some personality problems, which the archdiocese had neglected to address until the poor priest was in the media spotlight. (That would be only a bit less appalling.) Or maybe the sudden immersion in a media firestorm—and the conspicuous absence of support from the archdiocese—drove Father Guarnizo beyond his breaking point. Any one of those explanations is entirely plausible. Which one is closest to the truth? We don’t have the facts.

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. 15, 2012 11:22 AM ET USA

    @cloudchaser64 - Mar. 13, 2012 10:29 PM ET Ms. Johnson introduced her partner to Fr. Guarnizo as her "lover." I don't know what you think that means other than something physical. It wasn't that she was gay that she was denied, it's that she wasn't chaste. For that we have her own words as evidence. CCC 2357: "...homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life..."

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 14, 2012 11:08 PM ET USA

    Fr. Guarnizo has begged to differ with the bishop's explanation. If he is truthful and accurate (not necessarily synonymous terms, particularly in this case) it might possibly involve something like a betrayal. And "such a betrayal by the archdiocese would be..." And yet "we don't have the facts." But it might be a tad bit more interesting in an unfortunate, unpleasant kind of way. St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, pray for us. St. John Vianney, patron of priests, pray for us.

  • Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 - Mar. 14, 2012 8:27 PM ET USA

    Re: comment by Cloudchaser64. I think what Phil Lawler meant by "avowed lesbian" is that Ms. Johnson openly proclaimed that she was in a live in sexual relationship with another woman-a grave or mortal sin according to Catholic teaching-and that she at least semi-publicly had made it clear that she had no desire or intention to end that situation.

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 14, 2012 6:09 PM ET USA

    Can a priest submit a writ of habeus corpus? This would allow the accused to force the prosecutor (the bishop or his representative) to produce their evidence against him.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 14, 2012 3:01 PM ET USA

    I remember “another Cardinal” who lived about 600 yrs or so ago (the name escapes me.The unfortunate cleric happened to preside in England. He too, was involved with “disciplinary action”something about a French maiden apparently involved in“witchcraft”)He too,made a “quick” judgment... and approved of the maiden’s being “burned...” (literally!) The Cardinal died excommunicated, alienated from the Church... and the name of the maiden... that many of us remember, the “Lily of France. Joan of Arc!

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Mar. 14, 2012 5:31 AM ET USA

    Canon law can be as confusing as civil and criminal law. I know that we sometimes wish that it was more black and white instead of so many shades of gray. On the surface I would applaude Father Guarnizo but only God knows why and how he made his decision to withhold Communion.

  • Posted by: Defender - Mar. 14, 2012 2:12 AM ET USA

    One or two facts we do know (according to Ms. Johnson's website), she was once an art teacher at a Catholic school where she told the principal she was Buddhist and a lesbian. Because of the "diversity" of the staff at the school, it was okay to expose the students to her, after all the principal asked if she would take the kids to Mass every once in a while! And you ask what's wrong with Catholic education when you have people like this running things!

  • Posted by: filioque - Mar. 14, 2012 1:26 AM ET USA

    Phil, you are entirely correct. But let's note a few things we do know. 1. The Archdiocese issued a statement immediately after the Washington Post article that gave only Barbara Johnson's story. The statement said that Fr. Guarnizo had violated policy and that the matter would be looked into. The statement contained not a single word in support of Fr. Guarnizo. 2. Bishop Knestout immediately issued a letter of unqualified apology to Ms. Johnson, saying that Fr. Guarnizo "lacked pastoral sensitivity." How did he know that if the matter still had to be looked into? 3. Fr. Guarnizo has been a vocal and public defender of the rights of the unborn. Maryland has just legalized same-sex marriage and is starting a referendum battle in which Fr. Guarnizo could be expected to be an active and effective defender of the family. He is now out of the game.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 14, 2012 12:13 AM ET USA

    If all of the facts are not in yet, then why the rush by the Washington archdiocese to immediately issue an apology for Fr. Guarnizo’s action? And then why the quick follow up action to suspend Fr. Guarnizo? Doesn’t this sound like a hasty overreaction and very suspicious? Shouldn’t the archdiocese have waited if they wanted to be fair and evenhanded? And certainly didn’t the archdiocese know that their actions would be interpreted as a de facto endorsement of allowing Holy Communion to be administered to a known lesbian living in an openly lesbian relationship? Seems that the archdiocese has a watered down understanding of Church canon law (Canon 915) and also the definition of what constitutes a mortal sin. The prime issue here is can a person in the state of mortal sin (a public lesbian living in an openly lesbian relationship) receive Holy Communion? This is what the Washington archdiocese should be addressing, and by not doing so, they are clearly shirking their primary responsibility as Church leaders and protectors of the flock.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Mar. 13, 2012 11:12 PM ET USA

    It's not implausible that she's still a Catholic. 2 or 3 years ago it became (again) impossible under canon law to defect from the Catholic Church. Ergo she is Catholic under canon law, even if non-practicing or even if she identifies as some other religion. This fact that she's still Catholic becomes very pertinent, for instance, if she decides to marry a man (I know...); as a Catholic she can only marry VALIDLY if it's in the Church; a purely civil marriage of a Catholic is always invalid.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Mar. 13, 2012 10:37 PM ET USA

    This process is very typical of the homosexual agenda here in Wash DC. Cardinal Wuerl should be ashamed but continues to do a diservice to the faith and the Church by his examples of capitulation to the liberal anti church members. A quiet investigation if needed should be done first and not suspend the poor priest who is doing it right. Remember this parish is in Maryland a state pushing for same sex marriage and is very pro-abortion. We have lots of facts but typical no answers.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 13, 2012 10:29 PM ET USA

    I guess I am wearing rose-tinted glasses here, but why would someone be denied communion for having identified themselves as lesbian? My CCC doesn't identify BEING gay or lesbian as a grave sin. Again, we don't know all the answers, but anyway, that's my question in this.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 13, 2012 7:04 PM ET USA

    Apalling is an exceedingly strong word. It is used above to indicate a shocking disregard for justice and loyalty...And this is new in what way??? That this apalling track record of apalling actions and/or inactions at the apalling diocesan and archdiocesan levels with regard to various apalling scandals is in itself apalling. We do not have the facts. But it's nonetheless apalling that one has any reason to come to the apalling conclusion that this particular fiasco just might be...apalling.