.- Amid controversy over reports that a Maryland women was denied Communion because of her lesbian relationship, a priest who writes on faith and culture emphasized the need to balance respect for the Eucharist with pastoral sensitivity.
“These are delicate matters,” said Msgr. Charles Pope, who blogs about culture and current events for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
He explained to CNA on March 2 that it “requires some judgment on the part of the priest” to apply Church teaching on when to deny Communion to an individual.
On Feb. 28, the Washington Post reported that Barbara Johnson was denied Communion at her mother’s funeral after introducing her lesbian partner to the priest before Mass.
The incident took place on Feb. 25 at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md., which falls within the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Johnson said that Fr. Marcel Guarnizo covered the host and told her that by living in a lesbian relationship, she was sinning in the eyes of the Church.
Canon 915 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law instructs that those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin should not be admitted to Holy Communion.
Msgr. Pope explained that this means the priest must know that the person’s sin is grave, that it is manifest – or well-known – and that the individual in question is obstinate in his or her sin before denying the sacrament.
That generally means that the priest “would need to meet with them privately,” he said.
Conflicting reports make it unclear whether Fr. Guarnizo had warned Johnson upon meeting her partner before Mass that she should not present herself for Communion.
Msgr. Pope said that in his experience, most people do refrain from coming forward for Communion when the circumstances are explained to them.
However, sometimes they do not, he said, and such situations require “prudential judgment” by the priest “in that moment.”
He explained that a priest may have to make an instantaneous judgment when he sees the individual come forward for Communion. Even if the person has already been warned, perhaps he or she did not hear properly or did not understand.
“Right there at the altar may not be the time or the place” to offer a better explanation, he said.
Ultimately, he explained, there is a “great deal of discretion” required by the priest as he seeks to apply the principles laid out in Canon 915.
Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout, vicar general of the archdiocese, wrote a letter to Johnson apologizing for the “lack of pastoral sensitivity” shown to her.
However, Johnson said that she will “not be satisfied” until Fr. Guarnizo is removed from his ministry. She wrote a letter telling the priest that he would “pay dearly” for “judging” her.
“I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life,” she said.
Gay advocates have been fighting fiercely in Maryland, which recently became the eighth state to pass legislation legalizing “gay marriage.”
Fr. William Byrne, secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, responded to the incident with a statement, which was published in the Washington Post on March 1.
He explained that priests have “an obligation to make sure that the sacraments are respected.”
In the case that a person is in a state of mortal sin, he or she should not receive Holy Communion, Fr. Byrne said.
Although the communicant is primarily responsible for determining his or her own worthiness to receive the Eucharist, there are some “extreme cases” in which “it is appropriate to consider denying Communion,” he explained.
Priests should ideally handle such situations by discussing them privately with the person before denying them Communion, he added.
“No one is entitled to the Eucharist,” Fr. Byrne said, noting that the ability to receive the Body and Blood of Christ is “a blessing and a grace.”
Msgr. Pope emphasized that the goal of Canon 915 is not to keep sinners away from the sacraments but to “restore them to communion” with the Church.
Trying to spare people from receiving unworthily is “part of the pastoral practice of the Church,” he said.
He added that it is not just homosexual activity that is condemned by the Church as a grave sin, but many other activities as well, including an unmarried heterosexual couple cohabiting or an individual in an invalid marriage.
The Catholic Church is “not trying to single out” homosexuals, he said. “To receive the Eucharist worthily is essential.”